dc113507 on Apr 30th 2012
“The limits of our language are the limits of our world.” -Ludwig Wittgenstein
What a bold statement to make in regards to the barriers of human intellect. Modestly put Ludwig is asserting the fact that as humans our culture, and inevitably our language bars us from appreciating the literature, arts, and humanities of other cultures to their full extent.
Ever wonder how large the scope of difference in translated text is when converted from one language to another? I’m sure at one point you have gone to Google translate, typed some foreign text in and instead of getting a desired translation what you got was a jumbled version of converted English banter. Sound familiar? Puffs Tissue’s advertising campaign is a perfect example of how words can get lost in translation. Only until after the launch of their product in Europe did the company unexpectedly find out that ‘Puffs’ is slang for ‘whorehouse’ is German. These humorous examples can lead us to ask a broader question: What else is lost in translation, especially in regards to literary texts.
Just glossing through the contents section of our ‘Norton Anthology of World Literature’ book can give us an estimate to just how many texts we read are presented to us in a translated version. As a student it makes me wonder just how much of the true theme and beauty of language structure is lost when reading a translator’s interpretation of a text. Does the translated version of a novel, play or short story fall flatter than the author’s authentic creation? How can we really know what we are missing out on?
As part of our World Literature course I have found myself facing some challenges when reading translated texts. One such challenge is the toil that accompanies trying to follow along with footnotes and annotations provided to clarify a rusty translation. Although tools like footnotes are only there to aid a reader, I often find them a hinderance to a steady and fluid pace of reading. Eileen Chang’s ‘Love in a Fallen City’ is just one text our class has read in its translated form. When reading the biography prior to the story I learned that a Chinese reader, reading the text in its original form would understand the title to mean ‘Love for a beauty that could make a city fall.’ This meaning differs so vastly from ‘love in a fallen city.’ It makes me question what else contemporary students are deprived of when reading translated works. Translation can unintentionally change so much about an original literary work. Vocabulary choice and sentence structure are choices strategically made by an author that inevitably differ in translation. Translation and interpretations make texts that would otherwise be lost on a contemporary audience more available. Translators are left with a difficult task as they attempt to capture and maintain the beauty and genius of an original text, hoping this genius doesn’t get lost in translation!