Translation and culture

Translation is impossible.

Traduttore, traditore. That’s the lovely word pairing in Italian — roughly “a translator is a traitor”, where there’s only a small vowel change and a doubled consonant distinguishing the two words.

A recent article by Matthew Reynolds explored this notion in the context of translations of Jane Eyre into 57 languages — one for each variety of Heinz, apparently, or is it for the current century in the Hebrew calendar? But wait! How can there be 57 translations if we’re also claiming that translation is impossible? “Anyway,” you say, “we’ve all learned how to translate one or another language into English in our high-school and college foreign language classes, so obviously translation is not impossible.”

The key to resolving this apparent paradox lies in one paragraph of the cited article:

People often think that translations are meant to reproduce their source texts, like a photocopier. But this is a long way wide of the mark, because of course every language is different. In fact, the process is much more complicated – and interesting. Because you can never say exactly the same thing in another language, translators use their imaginations to write the book again, only with different materials, for readers with different expectations. It is more like making a sculpture than taking a photo.

One example of an obvious difficulty with translation is the second-person pronoun. In languages that distinguish polite and familiar forms — like Spanish, French, and German — how does the translator capture the nuance of which pronoun a character uses, especially if they switch from one to the other?

A less obvious difficulty that Reynolds discusses is that the semantic range of a word can differ from the semantic range of the corresponding word in another language. Semantic range is inextricably Intertwingled with culture. Read the article to see some good examples.

And the best illustration of the impossibility of translation is in Reynolds’s concluding paragraph:

The most famous sentence in the novel: “Reader, I married him”, is also one of the most provocative, as translations can help us see. In Slovenian – as researcher Jernej Habjan tells me – it becomes the equivalent of “Reader, we got married”. Meanwhile, all the Persian translations we have seen so far have squashed Jane’s self-assertion – they give the equivalent of: “Reader, he married me”. Even today, Jane Eyre has a radical power. It will generate ever more translations.

The best solution may be the one adopted by the Loeb Classical Library, where each page of the original Greek or Latin is on the left (even-numbered) side and the corresponding translation is on the right (odd-numbered) side. This system, of course, lets you check the original at any point, since translation is impossible without the original text. Unfortunately you have to know the original language in order to take full advantage of this opportunity.


Categories: Linguistics