Monday 31 December 2012

Lost, or Found, in Translation

Be or not be, here in which question.
Be or not be, such is the question.
That I am or that not I am, this is the question.

Three literal translations from three languages into English, effectively reversing the original translation of probably the most famous and most translated phrase ever uttered in English: To be, or not to be, that is the question. (The languages and the original texts are given below – try to guess first!) This shows how tricky it is to translate the essence of one language into the essence of another, for that is essentially what translation involves. You have to be as non-literal as you need to be in order to render a translation faithfully. The art involved is crucial.

This art is seen at its most critical, pivotal and open to misinterpretation in the translation of the Greek logos in the first line of John's Gospel: In the beginning was the Word. Logos had a variety of meanings from ancient Greek through to New Testament Greek, depending on its use in vernacular, religious or philosophical discourse. Suffice it to say that logos could mean “word, thought, speech, account, meaning, reason, proportion, principle, standard” or “logic”, among other meanings; so which translation should a translator choose? What does a translator want to express? The meaning in the mind of John could have been “cause, reason” or it could have been “divine intermediary”, or indeed, any other of the meanings
What is clear is that the actual meaning has been argued over and translated with widely differing terms since it was written. What is also clear is that the translation, “word”, is most likely not the intended meaning. The problem is, of course, that once a term has been translated into a target language, it is generally accepted that the meaning which the translator has given it is the true meaning, especially as the likely reader will have limited or no understanding of the original language and the meaning of the original word. Hence, the expression “the Word of God” has a fundamentally different meaning in the context of John's gospel to that of utterances God may have actually said, if you believe in them, which is the way it is generally understood today. Result – confusion, disagreement, misconception and permanent misunderstanding.

So, what is the essential meaning of an utterance? How can that meaning be rendered in another language with the same intended meaning of the source language? Here's an example of such a quandary: “the quick brown fox jumps over lazy dog”. What's so special about this sentence in English is, of course, that it's the most efficient sentence containing every letter of the English alphabet. If you translated it into any other language, the literal meaning of a speedy dun-coloured member of the vulpine family launching itself over an immobile and indolent member of the domestic canine family would be immediately clear, albeit somewhat puzzling. What would be the point of it? In order to translate the essential intended meaning of the sentence – namely that this sentence contains every letter of the alphabet at least once – the translator would have to find out or work out what the equivalent sentence would be in the target language. This would mean that the literal meaning of the original would be lost in its entirety and only a restricted meaning of “here are all the letters of the alphabet in one sentence” would be transmitted. The essence of the message effectively transcends the medium through which the message is sent - i.e., the words, syntax and grammar of the languages in question. 

How about “the cat sat on the mat”? Again, a literal translation would be understood in any other language whose speakers appreciate the past mini-carpet-occupying sedentary habits of diminutive domesticated felines. However, the aim of the utterance, to show minimum pairs (minimum triplets?) or practise the pronunciation of /æ/ in English, would be largely lost in translation, though appreciated by the language students practising their pronunciation. In fact, the surface meaning described above is most definitely not the intended meaning of the utterance. Obviously, other languages would have their own strategies for expressing this type of utterance and conveying this type of pronunciation message.

So what does that tell us about understanding meaning in different languages and rendering meaning from one to the other? How can we successfully represent the meaning of a word or phrase in another language, especially when there may be no direct translation of a term, or when the concept in the original language is absent from the target language? For example, if you look up the Portuguese word ginga, the translation will normally be “waddle, scull, sway”, but these meanings are totally lacking in conveying the movement of a great football player, an expert capoeirista or a sexy Brazileira, as the word does in its use in Portuguese, especially in Brazil. 
Similarly, kefi in Greek can be translated as “high spirits”, but while this goes some way to describing the basic meaning, the essential “Greekness” of the word is lost in translation and can only be understood by being in a real Greek celebration. Which leads me to filotimo, which can loosely be translated as “love of honour”. However, this translation does little to express this amalgam of integrity, pride, honour and courage, an essential and central element of Greek life which has existed since ancient times. You would have to spend a while living in the country and experiencing Greek culture to begin to have an inkling of it. And throw timi, “honour”, and dropi, “shame”, into the mix, and you have a combination of ideas which would need a thesis to explain. And these ideas involve European languages, with similar modes of thought throughout history. Think of the problems when dealing with Indonesian, Chinese, Khoi-San, Inuit or Hopi.

So, I'd like to finish up with a term which I think will require no explanation; though it's expressed in a variety of ways, it's understood in only one way (in languages that I have learnt or have attempted to learn): feliz novo ano, feliz nuevo aňo, kali protokhronia, bonne annèe, s novym godom, selamat tahun baru, glückliches neues Jahr, onnellista uutta vuotta!


PS. Here are the original languages:

Russian: Быть или не быть, вот в чем вопрос - Be, or not be, here in which question.
French: Être ou ne pas être, telle est la question - Be, or not be, such is the question.
Greek: Να είμαι ή να μην είμαι, αυτό είναι το ερώτημα - That I am, or that not I am, this is the question. 

Don't forget to visit to find out about my book on word origins, Bless the Buccaneer with Barbecued Blood.