Monday, March 19, 2007

Lost in translation

This story about how Lewis Carroll came to Russian readers raises questions about translation – and the absolute dependence of the monolingual reader on the translator to capture not just the basic meaning of a text, but all the other subtextual and metatextual and whatnottextual stuff which gives a work its soul.

If ever there was a book where wordplay and unsettling weirdness matter, it is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. But how can we ever know that any of the various Russian translators replicated exactly the essence of the English original? It seems almost impossible that they could.

Likewise, when we read Russian or other international authors in translation, are we seeing only a pale reflection of the original literary world? I suspect so, but how can we ever know?

Beckett wrote in French because he claimed it was easier to write ‘without style’. The trilingual Nabokov described the transition from one language to another as the slow journey at night from one village to another with only a candle for illumination.

Charlemagne claimed that “To have another language is to possess a second soul”. I can order dinner and ask where the train station is in French, German, Spanish and, at a push, Italian. But alas, I only have the one soul. I can’t help thinking there are whole other lives to be led if only you stick with the languages past A-Level.


Brit said...

Some of these ideas are expanded (expanded on?) over at Thought Experiments.

Neil Forsyth said...

Glad the one language I can speak is English. Doesn't quite make up for 800 years of oppression, but I do try to look on the bright side sometimes.

Brit said...

Yes, if you are going to be monolingual, your monoling had better be English.

(You're not 800 years old, are you Neil?)

Adelephant said...

It is a favourite pasttime of English Literature dons to give a Freudian analysis to Alice in Wonderland (amongst other things). I tried translating 'birth trauma' into Russian, but it translated back as 'Patrimonial trauma'. I dread to think what Freud (or Lewis Carroll) would make of that.

Hey Skipper said...

I'm hopelessly monolingual.

However, at one time I was sufficiently mathematically proficient to think and perceive, although not to the degree of a true adept, in that "language."

It felt, words fail me here, Different.

Harry Eagar said...

'Furthermore, Soviet life itself was increasingly absurd,' which made Carroll more acceptable.

Because, as we all know, Russians of the mid-19th century were completely ignorant of absurdity in tsarist Russia.

My laugh for the week, and it's only Monday.

I read once, in the introduction of a memoir of a man who lived in a London whorehouse in the 1960s, that the 'proper translation (from French to English) of Paris is London.'

He attributed it to somebody else.

There's something to that.

Neil Forsyth said...

No, Brit. But the centuries of oppression have seeped into the Irish psyche. They have become part of our collective memory. But thanks for the language anyway.

martpol said...

I know a number of first-language Welsh speakers who provide translation from English to Welsh. The one thing they hate is a pun, which are by nature untranslatable.

I came across this discussion about translating Harry Potter, and it appears to prove the point:

I think that the french version has a pun the english version don't have :

When Olympe Maxime arrive at Hogwarts with her pupils, she says : "But ze 'orses-" before being cut by Dumbledore.
In the french version she says : "Qui va s'occupeu deu meu cheveux?"("Who's going to take care of my hairs?", because in french, cheveux et chevaux (hairs and horses) are very close. The translator uses the accent he gives at the french people in the book to induce the error.
And Dumbledore answers : "Mais vos cheveux sont coiffés à la perfection!!" ("But your hairs are very well capped!!")