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An interesting look at translation:
January 4, 2002 9:07 PM   Subscribe

An interesting look at translation: Australian writer Peter Goldsworthy "on being Spanished, Deutsched, Japanesed, Greeked and Malayed", and what he thinks is gained or lost in the process. (Also: translating poetry.)
posted by eoz (10 comments total)

This is a haiku
I translated it from Spanish
Oh crap
posted by whatnotever at 9:18 PM on January 4, 2002

Doug Hofstadter wrote a whole book on this problem. A good one, too.
posted by kindall at 10:47 PM on January 4, 2002

In fact, it turns out he has also published his own translation of the Russian epic "Eugene Onegin," which he discusses in Le Ton Beau de Marot.
posted by kindall at 11:03 PM on January 4, 2002

Borges may be wrong; English may simply be a more complex, evocative language, having borrowed from so many different sources. It's well known that English has many more synonyms than most languages; often we might have a formal Latinate word, a similar French derivative, and an Anglo-Saxon root, all with different emotional shadings. It's no accident that Nabokov, brilliant in Russian and French, chose to write all his novels in English after he learned it (largely by translating his own work).
posted by dhartung at 11:45 PM on January 4, 2002

"No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous sea incarnadine,
Making the green—one red.”
William Shakespeare: Macbeth, ii. 2.

First, the Latinate; then, the Old English. All in one brief sentence. Wonderful!
posted by Carol Anne at 4:24 AM on January 5, 2002

"TRANSLATING poetry is the most difficult of all translations. Not only does one have to render the meaning of the original work, but the form, rhythm, sounds, harmony, and tone must also be intact. One should try to re-create the poem and be creative."

As someone who has translated & published a lot of poetry from Vietnamese, I'd say that the above formulation is simply wrong. In most cases it is impossible to bring the poetic form of the original into a new language. In Vietnamesr, for instance, each syllable of the language can be given up to six tones, with each tone changing the meaning of the syllable. Poets, of course, take advantage of such resources to pack double & triple meanings into poems. English simply has no such resources & the translator must discover other means by which to bring the meaning & feeling of the original across. Perhaps translation is impossible, but it ramains valuable, even necessary. The best & most realistic solution is probably that adpoted by John Balaban in his recent translation of the poetry of the 18th century Vietnamese poet Ho Xuan Huong: the text (nom) in which she wrote is printed, along with the modern, romanized Vietnamese script (quoc ngu) & Balaban's translations into idiomatic English. Balaban also provides a set of notes to fill in details that simply cannot be brought directly into the English texts of the poems--things Vietnamese readers would know without thinking.

(The American Literary Translators' Association has resources & theoretical discussions of translation problems.)
posted by barkingterrier at 5:56 AM on January 5, 2002

Interesting comments about language being a way to obfuscate communication. The example of lawyers is apt. In every culture where I've been exposed to local legal documents, this is true. Most cultures seem to have a colloquialism to describe impenetrable legal prose as well.
posted by MrBaliHai at 5:58 AM on January 5, 2002

whatnotever: Now, stop that! It's too early in the morning to be spitting mouthfuls of liquid onto my laptop!
posted by at 7:01 AM on January 5, 2002

S.J. Perelman put it more succinctly: Tell me your phobias and I will tell you what you are afraid of.

posted by MiguelCardoso at 9:19 AM on January 5, 2002

Goldsworthy's claim of a kind of shared onomatopoeia among sign languages is superficially correct but has been more or less conclusively debunked in the interpretation he seems to hold – that sign languages are so much more likely to use "iconic" signs that sign-language speakers have a closer grip on elemental thought. Research dating all the way back to Klima and Bellugi in the 1970s showed that, while sign languages all seem to have a few signs that are transparent (understandable without explanation even to non-speakers), such signs are vastly outnumbered by signs with no onomatopoeic reference.

Further, some signs common to multiple sign languages have different meanings; they are false cognates like French assister and English assist. And anyway, isolated words (or signs in this case) barely scratch the surface of language complexity. The implication seems to be that signs are so iconic that anyone can understand them, which fails to explain why everyone on earth cannot sign right off the bat without instruction or simply understand the signs of other people.

(I thought I posted this before, BTW. Where'd it go?)
posted by joeclark at 12:54 PM on January 5, 2002

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