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.”