The translation art - or ”How to achieve a burn-out in one afternoon”
(sorry for the tiny image, but the blog would crop it funnily otherwise)
Have you ever been in the position where you have to translate a longer text to another language in order to get your point across – without google translator, mind you. In my own experience, the more personal a text is, the harder it is to translate. You try every single trick in the book in order to preserve your intended message in every way possible and then some – just to realize that you’ve still failed because your readers don’t make the same connotations you do.
In the end, I usually try to teach my English-speaking friends the Swedish language, rather than drop a good idea just because it can’ be properly translated. It is sad, but the thought is affected by the language used. The word that expressed your intentions perfectly is perhaps nothing but “meh” in another language, even if you use a direct translation.
First and foremost, ye olde Greek had a lot of things to say on most topics, and especially a certain Aristotle have been quoted many a time, and is still today referred to on certain topics. That said, he was wrong about languages. This is quoted pretty much word by word from “Intercultural Communication” by Rogers & Steinfatt. “Aristotle’s position was that any thought can be expressed in any language, and translatability between languages does not present a problem”
Personally, I usually spend my time by the computer in the company of two online Swedish-English/English-Swedish dictionaries, one purely English dictionary and finally one Swedish-English dictionary that is hidden somewhere below the mess on my desk. All this effort to find the ideal words and phrases just to hear “Swedish? I would never have believed that, your English is so good!” on frequent occasions when I happen to drop a notion on where I live. Yes, this is where I express my vanity, do not condemn me – we all need to feel special with something.
From time to time I will try my hand at translating my own novels and short stories, but the result is usually the same every time. It’s not so much the critique on my English skill or lack thereof (it’s the best feedback I can get) but the process of butchering my work beyond recognition when I finally made it look right in my own language. To illustrate the state this kind of work puts me in, let us look at some quotes from a message between me and a friend after several hours of translating an unusually tough chapter (roughly 11 pm, when the people across the Atlantic usually drop by after lunch) :
”HELP!”, ”I’M DESPERATE” and then ”I’VE CONSUMED A FAMILY PACK WORTH OF COFFEINE” and later when I had calmed down somewhat ”Sorry for the caps, but I’m going slightly hysterical over here…”
Why was I “slightly” hysterical? Because I had spent hours and hours on end trying to find the ideal word, the word that conveyed everything I wanted in Swedish but didn’t exist – at all – in English according to the dictionaries I looked through. Or rather, the words I was presented with didn’t sound right. I looked into their further meaning and usage, and noticed that they didn’t sound right at all. I nearly fell into caffeinism that summer before university hit and I didn’t have time to translate any more, and I swore “never more”. Of course, I’ve said “never more” 12 times the last 5 years after similar events, and after a while I get started again none the less.
A man called Benjamin Lee Whorf picked up similar linguistic problems, and became the main creator of the Whorfian hypothesis. We’ll take an example: if a language is using the same word for what we would divide in the two colors blue and green, would they make a difference between the blue and the green shade? I first thought of a green hill and a blue sky and though “can’t be”. Then I recalled an argument I had with a friend the other year, whether maroon (rich maroon to be exact) was a color of it’s own or not. I said “yes” as the art geek I occasionally am, and he insisted that it was pink and nothing but pink.
I wouldn’t go to the far extremes of the Whorfian hypothesis and claim that you can’t grasp what’s not in your language, but I do think that language do affect our culture, and how we perceive ourselves as well as others. If you for example try to speak a sentence or two in a rather stiff and uppity accent, and then say the same thing but with an accent you would describe as the very opposite (sorry, I can’t be very detailed on what accent this would be, as English accents isn’t really my forte). You should notice that your mind and body language does a slight re-arrangement to fit the personality you associate with the accent.
Subcultures also have their own languages, not only in the form of accents and speech patterns. I for example, frequent both the LGBT community as well as the communities for Japanese cartoons and animations (hereby referred to as manga and anime). Both these subcultures have big lists of words that few outside the community is familiar with, and if you combine the two and enters the yuri/yaoi sub-subculture (roughly, LGBT in anime/manga) you get a list of terms that is almost guaranteed not used outside the subculture. To try to explain the basics in less than 5 minutes to someone who doesn’t take part in any of the subcultures is pretty much impossible without getting labeled as mad.
I’ve got a million more examples, but I’m running short of space so let’s round this up. I have come to a few conclusions during this ride, even if I couldn’t share it all with you. For one thing, translating is a b*tch. There is, and believe me I’ve checked thoroughly, no better word for it. For another, translation will happen – at least if you live in tiny Sweden where you can’t expect foreigners to speak your language. Since you can’t avoid it, better be prepared instead *lovingly pats dictionary*
And finally, ladies and gents, you are bound to perceive the meaning behind the words differently no matter how they are written, no matter what language is originally used. Individuals with excellent skills in both English and Japanese are still hand fallen in front of the linguistic horror that is the mix of English-speaking fans and Japanese animation without dub…
So, mina-san! Mata ne! Pet a kawaii neko and stay off the sake! <(^ 3^)/
Extended discussion can be found on www.crosscultural.freeforums.org