Selected by The New York Times as one of the 100 Notable Books of 2011 and as a National Book Critics’ Circle Award finalist.
David Bellos explains the many complexities of translating between languages. What is translation? What does it mean to be a good translation? How does translation differ in different domains: spoken versus written; technical text versus novels; poetry versus prose; from versus to the higher status language. As is always the case, there is much more to a subject than is initially visible from outside, and Bellos picks apart many subtle issues.
One thing he points out early on is that much of our day to day communication is non-verbal.
(Maybe it’s something about Portugal? My similar, though less impressive, tale is that I managed, in a Lisbon deli that made sandwiches freshly to order, to request and buy one ham and two cheese rolls, also without speaking a word.)
Given this non-verbal component, we can miss much be concentrating on the words alone. But even in written work, there is something strnage going on. Some people claim that a translation is no substitute for the original, and yet, given a piece of text:
Next Bellos goes into an historical account of translation. There has been a long discussion of whether a translation should be literal, ‘word for word’, or should be freer, just preserving the meaning. Amusingly, one of the key discussions about this, from Jerome who first translated the bible into Latin, contains the word mysterium, which no-one can translate. And so:
Although Bellos’ style is rather dry, his work is peppered with little anecdotes like this, which enliven the discussion.
Some translations have very strict constraints. Graphic novels and comics require the translated text to just fill the provided speech bubble. Film subtitling has to cope with screen space, and the speed of reading. I’ve seen badly subtitled films. What I hadn’t realised, however, is that some film-makers adapt their style in order to facilitate later subtitling.
Context is essential for translation, as it provides such a large part of the meaning. Many examples of why translation is difficult exist only because this context has been artificially removed. Often such example involve translation between languages that split the world up in different ways. Bellos discusses an example of Hopi, a language that has ‘evidentials’, and why it is not such a problem to translate into such a language as some might make out; or, at least, it is no harder than any other form of translation.
There’s much here: issues of simultaneous translation of speeches; how translation can change the target language; translating jokes; how the displacements of WWII resulted in many translators being available, and the issues with training the next generation; European legislation simultaneously drafted in all the members’ languages, all of which are definitive; why machine translation foundered and the new approach by Google; translating style; and more.
Interesting, informative, and entertaining.