Monday, October 20, 2014

Lost in Translation

In the process of taking up poetry again, I have been rereading various poems in translation and am thinking about some of the problems associated with translation. Language has always troubled me. I was slow to talk, bad at learning other languages, and didn't read much until I went to college. Even now I am not usually talkative. In high school I preferred math and science because they were more precise than the other subjects. When I studied philosophy in college, my main interest was the clear expression of ideas in English.

It seems to me that ordinary prose can be translated from one language to another in a relatively straightforward way. There may be difficulties finding comparable terms, and some concepts may have more circulation in one language than another. The structures of the languages may differ, but it seems as if it would usually be fairly easy to translate the basic ideas in a sentence from one language to another. The translation of basic prose would not necessarily have to capture all of the subtleties, if any, in the original.

When greater precision in translation is required, as in fiction, essays or technical papers, difficulties begin to arise. Technical papers probably preempt many of the obstacles with the adoption of universal technical language that obviates the need for the translation of crucial content. Essays may include more subtleties than ordinary prose, but, assuming that both languages have traditions that include essay-writing, with attention to detail, translations can be made. Much larger problems must arise in the case of translating literary fiction. Here, the author may have used lyrical writing, unconventional word choices, slang, colloquialisms, obscure cultural references, unusual sentence structures, etc., that do not lend themselves readily to translation. I suspect that the results in translated fiction may tend to be somewhat unsatisfactory, since some aspects of the author's original intent may not survive in translation.

This brings me to poems, and I think that in many cases their translations must be complete disasters. When I read poems from other languages that have been translated into English, I often feel that they have a clunky, aesthetically grating quality and wonder what it would be like to experience them in the original. Similarly, I don't see how any of my favorite poems could survive translation into another language. Rhymes and rhythms may be impossible to duplicate. When a poet has fretted over each word, its position, the line breaks, the spacing and the punctuation within the poem, any change at all may instantly ruin the entire poem or at least divert its effect to something other than what the poet intended.

For this last reason I am inclined to read only poems that were originally composed in English. And in English it is tempting to read only those poems that are in close proximity in geography and time to the here and now. The farther away one gets, the more the uses of language diverge from the familiar, and correct interpretation becomes more problematic. Dictionaries are a recent invention, and even so they require periodic revisions if they are to maintain their accuracy.

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