Friday, May 6, 2011

Lost in Translation

Language is one of the things we take most for granted in our daily lives. It is entirely essential to every social interaction we have. It is the medium by which we communicate, by which we are entertained, and often, by which we express ourselves creatively. It is also the verbal expression of the culture to which it belongs. For example, no word exists in Latin to describe the female friend of a man. Where "amicus" would describe the male friend of a man, the female form of that word ("amica") describes a mistress. In Spanish, the words for "to wait," "to hope," and "to expect," all go by the same name (esperar). While language and culture are not totally inseparable, they are intrinsically linked on a very basic level.

Given this sort of culture-specific nuance, I often wonder as I read a translated text, just what am I missing here? As I pour over the words, their literal meaning seems to bely an implication which I feel is lingering just beyond the boundaries of my understanding. This feeling is enhanced enormously by the fact that I have, on occasion, read the same text both in its original, and a translation--in these instances I can clearly perceive exactly when the meaning of a phrase or conversation has been altered in its new rendition, or even when the subtext of a given locution has been lost entirely. What a shame that these painstakingly crafted subtleties which might provide otherwise overlooked insight into a character or setting would be so unceremoniously cast off; orphaned by the neat little box into which all of the linguistic contrivances of a single culture fit.

Happily, though, many books are great enough that they are entirely worth reading despite the occasional inkling that some bit of the intended meaning has gone missing, and when a book is well-translated, you might circumvent such an event entirely--or at the very least, mostly.

These are some of my favorites;

Don Quixote (Miguel De Cervantes)

Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel García Márquez)

English Spanish

Like Water for Chocolate (Laura Esquivel)

English Spanish


Lynne said...

Great post! It's true that language carries cultural nuances that often do not translate well. I think that is most often true when it comes to humor. Most of my husband's Colombian witticisms escape my understanding entirely. And Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English is MUCH funnier than its Modern English translation. But good translations can make reading them worthwhile. I'd certainly miss Gabriel Garcia Marquez' work.

Laura A. said...

Excellent and thought-provoking post!

I always wonder if I'm missing something, too, when I read a book in translation. But I'm really enjoying my current book, which is translated from the Korean, in spite of its mawkish title. It's called Please Look After Mom, and the author is Kyŏng-suk Sin. It's about a long-suffering wife and mother who goes missing, and her family members are left to reflect on their relationships with and neglect of her.

Maybe the real title got lost in Translation?

Angy said...

I think that it is not unlike the difference between a book and its movie version. The movie is often very good but cannot capture all the subleties of the written text. How often have we heard people say "the book was better". I think it is the same with language. Nothing can quite capture the original. My favorite work of literature written in a foreign language is The Brothers Karamazov. I found it very powerful, but knew even as I was reading it that I would have understood it much better if I had more of an understanding of russian culture.

Linda K. said...

I also enjoy reading books that have been translated from the original language, although most of my choices tend to be mysteries. Some of my favorites lately have been translated from Japanese and Swedish. While I can never hope to know if the translation is pure, I'm usually just happy to be able to read the works and trust the translator.

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