The true meaning of foreign literary works is crucial in translation

By Mandy wan: literature Columnist

Of the top seven best-selling novels of all time, three of them were not originally written in English: the Grimm Fairy Tales were written in German; Le Petit Prince, in French; and Dream of the Red Chamber, in Chinese.

Other foreign-language favourites include War and Peace, One-Hundred Years of Solitude, Heidi, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Anna Karenina. Even the most famous book of all time – the Bible – read by billions of people, was first written in a foreign language.

Western audiences are drawn to foreign language novels. Something about the unusual phrasing, intriguing characters and the portrayal of different cultures makes translated books very desirable. Perhaps the Western reader feels that they can experience another country through its literature, or maybe they want to be enlightened by the linguistic richness of a translated text.

But can a text in translation ever be as rich and profound as it is in its original language? So much of the nuance of the language will be lost in translation – leaving the English-speaking reader with something more palatable, yet emptier. It is like building a bridge between two cities, and yet one is vibrant and bustling, and the other is a little lacklustre.

The issue arises in the process of translating. The translator is faced with a dilemma: either they focus on conveying the meaning, but lose the beauty and richness of the language in the process; or, they focus on replicating the beauty (e.g. alliteration, sound effects and syntax) but lose the meaning in so doing. Furthermore, there may not be a direct equivalent for a word in English, and therefore the translator must deviate from the original word to find something more accessible.

This is why, when reading texts in the original language, they sound infinitely more beautiful than they do in translation

Keeping it Real

An example of this is Pablo Neruda’s ‘Cuerpo de Mujer’ or ‘Body of a Woman’ – the first love poem in his collection ‘Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair’. The first line of this beautiful poem is “Cuerpo de mujer, blancas colinas, muslos blancos” which translates into English as “Body of a woman, white hills, white thighs.” Both versions are poetic and sensual, and yet something is lost in the process of translation.

The ordering of the Spanish syntax allows for the chiasmic inversion – ABBA – of ‘blancas colinas, muslos blancos” which surrounds the description of the woman’s features with a strong sense of purity. “White” sandwiches her “hills” and “thighs”, and thus renders the image more potent.

However, this same inversion cannot be replicated in English; we would need to write “white hills, thighs white”, which does not work. Whilst the published translation conveys the same literal meaning, the beauty of language is slightly lost.

Another key example is with the title of Albert Camus’ famous novel – ‘L’Étranger’ – usually published as ‘The Stranger’ in the English versions.

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Whilst “étranger” can be translated literally as “stranger”, this does not quite convey the sentiment behind the original French word. “Étranger” in French perhaps better translates as “Outsider” or “Foreigner”, which would more strongly convey the idea of alienation that is present throughout the novel. The protagonist is of foreign origin, and this leads to conflict in identity, so “stranger” does not quite encapsulate his sense of being on the outside looking in. Once more, the nuance is lost.

The problem of translation can also be applied to other artistic works; film, music and theatre all contain examples of mistranslation or loss of nuance, with the original feeling lost in the conversion to English. A more light-hearted example is in the translation of the lyrics for ‘Les Misérables’ from French to English, performed by the late Herbert Kretzmer. He cites the example of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ which he felt would have lost the original nuance if translated literally.

In the French:

J’avais rêvé d’une autre vie,

Quand ma vie passait comme un rêve.

J’étais prête à toutes les folies,

A toutes les passions qui se lèvent.

And in his translation:

I dreamed a dream in time gone by

When hope was high and life worth living

I dreamed that love would never die

I prayed that God would be forgiving

There are very few similarities between the French and the English here. The English introduces ideas of God and religion and is arguably more dramatic than the subtle French. And, once again, the rhetorical devices are lost; “rêve…vie…vie…rêve” again forms a chiasmus in French, which gives much more power to the ideas of dreaming and imagination. This is lost in the English.

In his Obituary in the Sunday Times, Kretzmer is quoted as saying “simply translat[ing] words into the dictionary meaning isn’t going to work”, because the sentiment cannot be maintained, and herein lies the issue.

So, can we ever maintain the richness when moving from one language to another? And furthermore, how can we learn from a text if it is not as the author intended?

There are two potential answers: either, the reader falls in love with the book and chooses to study the language in order to read the original version; or, the reader sticks to the translation, but appreciates that through the unusual phrasing and content, they can become more culturally aware.

In either scenario, the reader is enlightened by the process of reading a book or text in translation. It broadens their mind in a way that is not possible with an English language book. It educates them. It surprises them. It opens the door to new possibilities and foreign realms.

Reading in translation is not a negative experience, even when the language does not quite correlate, because it is the power and the art which will have the most influence.

A novel is more than the sum of its parts, and here, more than a sum of its words. It is the job of the translator to leave that “sum” – that beauty – unharmed. And it is the job of the reader to find the value in the unknown.

mackayan: translation…lost