Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Gained In Translation

Computer based language translation is always good for a few laughs, but I've never been the subject of the original text before, so I thought I'd share what happens when Germans and Italians write about me.

What have I learned from this? I have learned that I am The Macher who writes yellow and pumps benzine. I'm sure this makes a lot more sense in the original languages, but I'm still planning on taking my new-found powers on board. Except maybe the bit about writing yellow. Unless I can find some snow.

This frippery leads me nicely onto the subject of translation of fiction. I'm working my way through the first issue of Murdaland and the stories translated from Spanish to English both exhibit a similar quirkiness that I've seen before.

Months ago now, I read Haruki Murakami's HARD-BOILED WONDERLAND AND THE END OF THE WORLD. Even though it was originally in Japanese, the Spanish short stories from Murdaland have the same wonderful inconsistencies. I don't think this has anything to do with the quality of the translation, but there are definite artefacts when thoughts are shifted into a different culture and system of thinking.

I say system of thinking because I'm of the opinion that each language has a base set of assumptions that affect every thought made through that language. Some languages attach gender to inanimate objects, some don't have an equivalent word for 'self-esteem', some have many words to describe different types of snow, some only have one word for love.

While meaning can be lost in translation, something else can happen too. A well-turned phrase, a combination of words that would not normally exist in English can bring a smile to your face or create a poetic rhythm that has its own charm. The foreignness of the culture or the thinking behind the writing is what makes it so fresh.

But it doesn't always work and I've found that there are passages that I zoom through with glee then get pulled up short when a joke or idea doesn't translate well to English. I can't help but wonder what would have happened if the writer wrote in English from the beginning. But like Douglas Adam's poet who wrote on leaves and whose work was ruined when time travellers gave him liquid paper, I doubt the final work would have the same originality.

Something lost, but something gained. I might go read some Arnaldur Indridason right now.


Stephen Blackmoore said...

"I say system of thinking because I'm of the opinion that each language has a base set of assumptions that affect every thought made through that language."

Absolutely agree. We don't have a real equivalent for schaedenfreude or chutzpah in English, so I think some of the nuances of the concepts get lost. Reminds me of that bit in Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy about a race whose equivalent to "The grass is always greener" was so complex no on used it. As a result everyone was much happier, showing that the best way to not be unhappy is to not have a word for it.

You see a lot of this in insults. Some of them are equivalent, but what they do with them doesn't necessarily make sense to a non-native. Afrikaans has one that translates to, "Go shit in a millet field". I get it, but why millet? What the hell is millet, anyway?

The Arab preoccupation with hatred for dogs. Such an insult to compare someone to a dog. My dog's one of the nicest people I know. But then, the U.S. has a much stronger cultural attachment to dogs as pets, rather than snacks.

The toughest has to be poetry. How do you grab the imagery, stay true to the words and the feel of the poem and still create a worthy translation? I love the English translations of Neruda's sonnets, but have no idea if it's at all accurate. Poetry's so often like painting, if the words are changed, no matter how equivalent they are, something gets lost.

Daniel Hatadi said...

Someone still reads my blog!

You should see some of the insults in Croatian. They involve mothers, corpses, horses and fluids in almost every combination you would never want to think of.

I love when a translation produces 'accidental poetry'. My favourite Swedish band of all time, Komeda, once came up with this gem:

A strawberry-flavored composition
Is all that it takes
When the lyrics stand on end
And the head is full of conclusions of a simple mind