Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Attempting the Impossible

In the last post, I discussed Gregory Rabassa’s book If This Be Treason. In the summary of the book, I left out an interesting issue, because I felt it deserved a whole post – a whole series of posts even – of its own.

Is translation possible?

Sure, people translate every day and the translations are generally functional and sometimes beautiful. But translation isn’t just about making the same information available in another language; it’s about capturing all the feelings, images, ideas, and considerations behind each word and phrase, and the culture and history underlying the text. Frankly, it seems impossible to do this, for a number of reasons.

For one thing, all readers read a different book. Our individual backgrounds, experiences, interests, and beliefs lead us to interpret and understand each text in a slightly different way than all other readers. For example, imagine a dog right now. What are you seeing in your head? How big is the dog? Is it a mutt or a specific breed? What color is the dog’s fur? How old is it? How large is its tail? We all understand that the word “dog” refers to a furry, four-legged canine of some sort, but in reality, it doesn’t mean the exact same thing to any two people. Take this concept writ large and it is easy to see how each text produces different reactions and feelings and images in each reader. Five readers who read a book could be said to be reading five different books and five translators would translate a book in five different ways. If you consider a translator to be first and foremost a reader (a translator, after all, has to thoroughly read and understand the text in order to be able to translate it), then all translations are dependent on how the translator reads the original document and then on how the readers of the translation understand the translator’s re-creation of the text. So we’re already distanced quite a bit from what the author said in the source language.

The next problem is that languages (and cultures) don’t work in the same way. As with the dog example, there are words and phrases that represent one thing for people who come from a certain culture or speak a particular language, but would imply something else altogether for other groups. How many times have people discussed the fact that the Swedish word “lagom” is very difficult to translate? We can write “just right” or “enough” or something along those lines, but those insufficient English translations miss the whole culture behind the word. To be dramatic, one might even say that to not understand “lagom” is to not understand Sweden. Beyond vocabulary, it’s important to remember that grammar, word order, pronunciation, rhythm, sounds, and many other factors also influence meaning.

So if words don’t have a universal meaning even for people who speak the same language and if various languages emphasize different aspects or have different rules, translation becomes a very difficult task. We simply can’t say the same things in the same ways in all languages; instead, we often have to rephrase or change the meaning slightly.

For many non-fiction translations, it can be enough to just get close. A menu offers chicken and dumplings and salmon with a dill sauce or two parties agree in a contract to work together on a specific project or an instruction manual says to connect this piece to that one. Such translations are often more about the information being transferred than about the language itself and the feelings and images it suggests. But for literary work, the standards are higher and the challenges multiply.

There can never be a perfect translator or a perfect translation. However, as Mr. Rabassa writes, translation “may be impossible but it can at least be essayed.”


Översättarhelena said...

Hej, vilken intressant blogg. Hit kommer jag att återvända!

Brett Jocelyn Epstein said...

Hej, Helena! Tack så mycket!

Anne Slater (near Philadelphia) said...

I am delighted that you started this, Brett. I have spoken French fluently for years, have been reading French novels for fun (as opposed to for a grads) for almost as long, but just began translating for pay before Christmas. (Although I often find myself translating whole paragraphs of, say, an Inspector Maigret roman policier into English, and was vvery conscious, upon reading a translation of one of the Maigret mysteries, of reading a translation done by an Briton.)
I've been translating recipes AND the commentary that goes with them, and an fascinated by the way whoever wrote the commentaries writes: disjointed thought sequence, Jerry-Lewis-culture-grade French.

It's really hard to create a reasonable translation when one has little respect for the text one is being paid to translate. But ...

I look forward to reading further.
And praying for more translating jobs. Any suggestions?

Anne '64

Brett Jocelyn Epstein said...

Hi Anne,
Thank you for your comments. It's great to hear from other translators! And it's great to hear from Bryn Mawr alumnae!
Reading as a translator is fascinating. What do you notice as you read a work that you know was translated?
About finding translation jobs -- what areas do you want to work in (fiction, websites, legal texts, etc.)? Have you signed up with any translation agencies? Or joined any translation associations? I hope that finding translation work will be a topic of discussion on the blog in the near future!
Best wishes,

Anne Slater (near Philadelphia) said...

What do I notice as I read a work that was translated? Well, if William Weaver does it, I don't notice anything beyond a wholeness of the work. OR, look at Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Strange Pilgrims: whoever translated that is a divine being: I found the preface, for example (and this was 20 years ago) a nearly mystical experience. So I suppose what I notice is whether or not there seems to be some kind of alien tonality imposed on the text. As in reading an Inspector Maigret mystery with Britishisms (ouch! they rang false!)

I have only translated recipes and accompanying brief essays about them and their origins. This was fairly recently, for an impending multi-cultural cookbook. I really enjoyed it (it was like doing a good Crossword puzzle). So my experience is really very limited. And the prose of those essays was very second rate, in my not so humble opinion.
What I would like to translate... children's books? Short essays on things not too esoteric? Something that would give me a different kind of starting point than recipes...

Brett Jocelyn Epstein said...

Hi Anne,
I wonder who translated "Strange Pilgrims." That would be interesting to know. I don't think it was Gregory Rabassa.
I think William Weaver is good translator (I would love to read Italo Calvino in the original and be able to compare to the English versions) whose work is "transparent." Some people say that to say a translation is "transparent" is the highest compliment you can pay a translator! I also like Mr. Rabassa's work. The Paul Auster interview I mention in a recent post includes him saying that he thinks there are some "sublimely talented translators in America today" (although he said that 20 years ago) and he mentions Mr. Rabassa, Wilbur (I assume he means Richard Wilbur, who just today won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize), Manheim (probably Ralph Manheim), and Mandelbaum (probably Allen Mandelbaum).

Brett Jocelyn Epstein said...

To continue responding to your comment:
It's always a special challenge to translate something that was poorly written or that you don't agree with, so I sympathize with your situation. Some customers seem to expect that the translator will not only translate but also improve the text and that is not the translator's job!
I would also love to translate children's books, especially because there are some truly wonderful ones here (beyond Astrid Lindgren!), but I understand that there is little interest in translated children's lit at this point, unfortunately.
I think that since you're starting out and looking for experience, you should sign up with agencies and join translation lists that have job announcements (such as http://finance.groups.yahoo.com/group/jobs-translators/). Those might be good places to start!