What is Not Lost in Translation

One of the old Star Trek episodes that intrigued me had a simple plot with a complex Idea. Captain Kirk and his landing party were forced to land on a planet only to discovered that their universal language translators didn’t work. They heard the inhabitants words translated into English but the phrases didn’t make sense. Finally, Spock discovered that the people spoke a language based heavily on allusions and imagery. It was an advanced literary language for such a simple-appearing society. Imagine calling a beautiful woman Aphrodite, or referring to a task requiring strength as Herculean, or one with no end as Sisyphean. A few people do this. However, the person needs a comprehension of mythical Greek literature to understand such conversations. Allusions make translating a challenge in any world.

What if we ignored descriptions referring to legendary characters. Consider those that we use based on ordinary animals. Does it make sense to refer to an attractive woman as a female fox, or vixen, and an irritable one as a female dog, or bitch. The behavior of the two species is very similar, so why does this difference exist?  Explain why calling a person a dog means that they are physically ugly or undeserving while referring to someone as a fox indicates cunning? Face it, universal translators wouldn’t even work on Earth.

Such problems cause some people to reject reading any work in translation. How are they going to understand the content of any book that differs so much from what they are used to reading? Translators need to be skillful in both the original language and the one into which they are translating. Matching the meaning precisely is not always possible. Therefore, I don’t mind translation notes attached to the text. Learning why the same word in English carries a completely different connotation from the original is enlightening. Sometimes the reader of a translation will not get the full meaning that a native speaker would. However, refusing to read based on that limitation restricts us to reading only about our own culture. Closing ourselves off and associating with similar people is not the right path to understanding other societies.  

Therefore, I strongly recommend reading works in translation.The difficulty of translating a book creates an advantage for the reader. People do not go to this trouble for ordinary or trite written work. The translated works are often the most notable ones. I did not think about this when choosing novels such as War with the Newts (Válka s Mloky), One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Odin den’ Ivana Denisovicha) and The True Deceiver (Den ärliga bedragaren). These stories fascinated me with visions of other places. 

Another bonus to reading works in translation is that they are most often translated into the modern version of English, which does not require as much reading skill. Through the hard work of a translator I could read the 17th century French novel La Princesse de Cleves and comprehend it better than if I were reading one of Shakespeare’s plays written in his original words.

We now have the benefit of artificial intelligence (AI) translators, and I try to contribute to the machine learning of AI by adding clearer alternative translations to phrases in articles when there is one that doesn’t make sense. However, I hope we never turn over the invaluable task of translating literature to a machine. AI does not take into account our ignorance about Aphrodite, Heracles and Sisyphus, or my lack of understanding why comparison to a dog is an unfavorable one but comparison to a fox is not.

This entry was posted in allusions, languages, Literary devices, mythology, Translations, Writing trends and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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