Found in Translation

Translation is important. Most, I think, would agree. It gives us a way to learn about other cultures, and to share our own. Without translation, we would be restricted to our small, monolingual part of the world.

But I think most also believe that translated works, while useful, are only echoes of the originals. Authors create specific worlds, with specific voices, in specific languages. It makes sense to imagine the translator as an intermediary, responsible for copying the original voice as well as s/he can. Following this logic, translation is just a game of minimizing losses: we can lose meaning along the path from the original work to its translation, but never gain any.

In addition to creating an impossible goal—since translation work will invariably alter a work—this definition is a little sad. From the standpoint of a translator, or even as a reader, it’s not pleasant to think that the second (or third, etc.) version of the text is at best a shadow of the first.

We know that translation will inevitably change a work. There isn’t a one-to-one vocabulary mapping between any two languages; in French, for instance, solitude means both “solitude” and “loneliness.” All this shows, though, is that it doesn’t help to think of the process in a strictly literal sense. What if instead of lamenting the gaps between languages—the places where they don’t line up perfectly—we tried to find meaning in them?

One instance of a common French-English gap is the title of a short story by Simone de Beauvoir. De Beauvoir is largely known for her feminism, and her works generally center around interesting female protagonists. So the title of the story— “La Femme rompue in French; The Woman Destroyed in English—carries a great deal of weight.

As with many other languages, French adjectives often follow the noun, while in English they almost always precede it. It would be tempting, then, to translate La Femme rompue (femme = woman, rompue = broken) as The Destroyed Woman. That would certainly sound more natural. But in reading the actual title—The Woman Destroyed—we’re compelled to think about it a little more deeply, if only because it sounds odd. The reader may think: why doesn’t the adjective precede the noun? What was the translator thinking? Perhaps the clearest reasoning is that putting “woman” before “destroyed” emphasizes the fact that the character is a woman who becomes destroyed, rather than a woman who is plainly and simply beaten down from the beginning. She is a primarily a woman, secondarily a destroyed thing. While this revelation is hidden in the French title, which is just paying attention to grammatical rules, it’s brought to light in the English title. Thus we can see that this seemingly-problematic gap between the two languages actually allows for some intriguing insight.

Another aspect of a text brought out by translation is the relationship between the original text and its readers. That is, was the text written in the same dialect as the readers, or did it seem archaic to them, or even futuristic? For this reason, something like Shakespearean translation brings up a whole new set of questions. Should the translator attempt to reproduce the effect the text had on its original public—making the language more modern in order to reach current readers—or should s/he try to capture the distance that current English readers feel between themselves and the text?

We can see this phenomenon clearly when we look at multiple translations of an older work. Pierre Ronsard’s famous Sonnets for Hélène, for example, have been translated many times and in a wide variety of ways. One revealing comparison between two translations is found in the respective lines, “Hear me, love! Wait not to-morrow live” (Page, 1903) and “So live, believe me: don’t wait for another day” (Kline, 2004). Clearly, Page, translating in 1903, sought to convey the distance between current readers the text, while Kline tried to narrow the gap—to make readers closer to the poem. It’s impossible, of course, to say one is more correct. But in either case, we’re made more aware of an important quality we often take for granted: the way our place in time colors our interpretation of everything we read.

So yes, translation is incapable of directly conveying meaning, but its strength does not lie in its ability to imitate. Translation is not a rewriting, not the shadow of a more colorful world, but a different lens through which to view the world—a way to imagine different borders, tinted hues. Translation opens new paths in the mind that the original text cannot. Better yet, it bears mentioning that translation isn’t just the process that takes place when we switch from one language to another: it happens when the author puts ideas into words, when the reader puts words into ideas. And each time a text is reshaped, converted or reimagined, its world becomes bigger and more complex than it could ever be on its own.


Illustrations by Allie McClintock.

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