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Friday, June 06, 2008

Lost in Translation

Translation is not an easy matter, no doubt, and there is often not a "right" choice about how something should be translated. But it seems to me it often is made harder than it needs to be by translators who try to get overly clever. The worst bit of translation I know of is of the titles of Proust's masterpiece. The French title was A la recherche du temps perdu, most straightforwardly translated as, I think, "In search of lost times." Not a bad English title, says I -- but the original translator chose The Remembrance of Things Past. Ok, I can accept that -- barely. But when he translates A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs ("In the shade of young girls in flower") as Within a Budding Grove he's gone overboard. And when he turns Sodome et Gomorrhe -- which doesn't even need translation! -- into The Cities of the Plain, he's entered the realm of being abusive to the intentions of the original author; he's now revising Proust and not translating him.

But it doesn't only happen in literature. Everyday phrases get mangled like this, for instance, on a German language CD I heard today where the English phrase "I will have white wine" is translated using the German verb 'trinken'! We have the same word in English ('drink') and could easily state the request using it. And German has a fairly exact translation ('haben') of the English verb -- so is Berlitz just trying to confuse the student? Why do translators do these things?

4 comments:

  1. I never understood how translators could preserve rhythmic verse or other patterns from the original.

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  2. That's a very tricky issue, and involves serious trade-offs between literal meaning, symbolic meaning, allusions, and meter. Umberto Eco's Rat or Mouse is a great exploration of such issues.

    But what bugs me in my examples is there wouldn't seem to be any trade-off to make -- just translate Sodome et Gomorrhe as Sodom and Gomorrah and your good to go!

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  3. "I will have white wine" suggests the usual American English meaning: I will take it home with me and store it until it becomes valuable. "I will drink white wine" means just that.

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