Book of the Month/February 2016

Tim Bayly recommended this book to me a few years ago, and so I promptly bought it. It takes very little to get me to buy a book. But since that time I have been nibbling on the book and just now finished it. The book is a delightful read, full of the kind of conundra that fascinates me, like how to form the plural of conundrum. I looked it up, and we’re okay.Fish Ear

This is a book about translation, and what translators are actually doing. This is held up against all kinds of assumptions that the general public has about translations — what we all think the translators are doing. The book is crammed with questions you really may not have thought about before. When War and Peace is translated from Russian into French, what are they supposed to do with the French sections? In that time, Russian aristocrats spoke French. How is the translator supposed to signal that when everything is now in French?

What does a translator do when the source document describes a “blue” sweater and the target language only has words for “dark blue” and “light blue.” The translator has to contribute something new to the book, which was perhaps foreign to the mind of the author.

David Bellos talks about everything. He presents the challenges of subtitles in movies. He talks about the translation of comic strips — and the need to have the translation fit into the pre-sized conversation bubble. He talks about the booths filled with translators at the United Nations, and how that business works. He talks about about how Google Translations work — which, by the way, are not machine translations, but rather search engine translations. Chances are pretty good that somebody, somewhere has already translated that phrase. And how are we supposed to handle legal translation (for treaties and contracts), where the language of the law is its very own language, and where translation into another legal language is impossible, but still necessary. How were the German war criminals at Nuremberg tried, when the prosecution spoke English, French, and Russian, and the defendants spoke German? What constitutes a lingua franca? Realize the fact that the current lingua franca is English is itself amusing. What differentiates translation up into a dominant language from translation down into a non-dominant language? Out of all books translated today, 65% are translated into English, and another 10% from English. What makes something like that happen?

This book presents a thousand reasons for refusing to treat translation from one language to another as though it were an exercise in algebra, at the end of which process you come out with the “right answer.” At the same time, there is such a thing as a translation that “matches” and a translation that doesn’t. This is subtlety, not relativism.

He has a very informative section on Bible translations. The Christian faith is a translating faith, and the implications of this are actually quite theologically profound. The Lord Jesus taught in Aramaic, and so our canonical Greek text of the gospels is itself a translation. Christians need to get their minds around the fact that this is not a defect. This is part of the design.

We are accustomed to say things like “something got lost in the translation,” which it frequently does. But can anything ever be gained? Let me pose a question for you all, without attempting to answer it myself. Having done so, I will simply recommend that you get this book if the subject fascinates you at all.

Here is my question. Suppose you take an average Greek-speaking Christian in Asia Minor about 200 A.D., and you give him a copy of the book of Ephesians in Greek, which he reads ten times. Now take a modern Christian who knows both English and French. Give him ten different translations of the book of Ephesians, 7 in English and 3 in French. He reads each one of them once through. Who now has a better grasp of the message of Ephesians?

I merely pose the question and run away.

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Ben Laakso
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Ben Laakso

Which translations in French would you have me read???

Would the English ones be KJV, ESV, NIV, NIV2011, NASB, NKJV, NLT??

what about in Spanish?

Ree
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Ree

What I can’t figure out is how they translate many great hymns, such as A Mighty Fortress is Our God, for example, into English, and end up with a perfectly rhyming hymn that, I assume, means pretty much the same thing as the original. That’s always puzzled and fascinated me.

Jane
Member

Well, English has a huge vocabulary, so there are synonyms for practically every word. So that helps. But actually, while it’s thought-for-thought similar, there’s actually nothing in German about (for example) tides of mortal ills. The German just speaks of troubles that have affected us. And the first lines of the second verse translates roughly to “‘With our own might is nothing done, we are soon completely lost” which is very close in sense to “Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing” but fairly different in literal wording. So in some places, the translator waxes… Read more »

Ree
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Ree

Thanks, Jane, that makes sense. I’m mostly monolingual, but I know a fair number of words in Hindi, and one thing that strikes me is how few words they seem to have in that language. For instance, they don’t seem to have separate words for hand and arm. So Hindi speakers always refer to the hand when they mean any part of the arm. They also have the same word for yesterday and tomorrow. And as far as I can tell, they just don’t have a lot of words to reflect connotative differences in meaning. It’s definitely made me appreciate… Read more »

Jane
Member

Speakers of languages like that are much more sensitive to context. We tend to rely on verbal precision instead. Some of the stupid Internet conversations we (English-speakers) have about precisely chopping people’s words apart to prove them wrong probably couldn’t happen in Hindi.

Language just completely fascinates me all around.

BTW, I’m mostly monolingual too. I have just enough 30-year old high school and college German to make myself sound like I know what I’m talking about, and enough Spanish to banter a bit with my daughters who know it much better (one majored in it in college.) ;-)

Conserbatives_conserve_little
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Conserbatives_conserve_little

I majored in German and I speak French fairly well with a smattering of about ten more languages, not all of them European. I would like to learn Arabic more than yes no and thank you.

Ree
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Ree

Wow, that’s kind of uncanny that you should say that because in the 27 years I’ve been married to my native Hindi speaking husband, there have been countless incidences where I took offense at his words, and he defended himself by saying that I was focusing too much on words and not on context. And conversely, there have been an equal number of incidences where he took offense at what he considered to be some unspoken meaning in my communication, when I felt that I couldn’t have been any more clear in my meaning with my carefully chosen words. It… Read more »

Jill Smith
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Jill Smith

What on earth did the missionaries do about translating Psalms and other scripture for the Inuit? Do they depart from the text in order to use imagery that comes within the experience of Arctic dwellers?

ashv
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ashv

I remember a missionary to a South American tribe writing about how he had to change the parable about the wise man building his house on the rock and the foolish man building on the sand — because their pole houses needed sand to sink the poles into, and building on a rock would make it unstable.

Andrew Lohr
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“Bruchko” by Bruce Olson (Olsen?)

ashv
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ashv

Yeah, that guy.

ashv
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ashv

Same here. The most mind-bending example of this was a collection of science fiction stories, Stanislaw Lem’s Cyberiad, where one of the stories featured a poem-writing computer and its inventor’s friend trying to test its limits. He first asks for a poem about a haircut where each word begins with ‘s’, and follows with similar requests. I thought this was pretty clever work until I discovered the book was translated from Polish. I have never managed to investigate how much of that poetry was original to the translator and how much came from the source text. (The poem in question:)… Read more »

Vishwanath Haily Dalvi
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Vishwanath Haily Dalvi

Brilliant! Thanks for sharing.

Conserbatives_conserve_little
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Conserbatives_conserve_little

Silent Night is badly translated in English. Round yon virgin mother and child is not what is said at all. The original refers to Jesus as a curly haired kid. I did the translation myself for a class I was teaching about twenty years ago.

Jane
Member

Maybe the translator thought he was improving the song by omitting references to Jesus’ hair and setting the scene better. Maybe it’s not a “bad translation” so much as a reworking in English.

Jane
Member

That is a fascinating point about translating a book into a language where portions of the book are already in that language, but are meant to stand out as the characters speaking distinctly that language as opposed to their usual or expected one. If you were making an Aramaic translation of the Bible, what would you do with “Eloi, eloi, lama sabacthani”? Especially since Jesus WAS speaking Aramaic most of the time! And how would you even deal with something as simple as translating Little Women into French and how Alcott illustrates Amy’s tendency to show off by having her… Read more »

Jill Smith
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Jill Smith

In fact, what do the translaters do with Hercule Poirot and his Gallic phrases such as making a promenade? I can’t believe I have never wondered about that before! On a different note, Jane, could you get your girls to read Little Women? It is real sadness to me that, hard as I tried, I could not get my daughter to persevere with it. It was such a huge part of my mental landscape when I was growing up, and many women I know feel the same way. I am the only person I know who wanted to be Beth.

Jane
Member

I more or less strong-armed the older two into reading it, but #3 could never get through it. Thinking back over the book itself, I’m more sympathetic. I think that my girls’ generation had more good choices of reading than I did at that age, and Little Women, though a classic and close to our hearts, really isn’t all *that* good of a work. It’s very saccharine and the characters are playing out a morality play more than living out a believable story. I realized this sometime during my adulthood when I realize that, especially in Little Men, characters had… Read more »

Conserbatives_conserve_little
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Conserbatives_conserve_little

Have her watch the movie.

PerfectHold
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PerfectHold

“Who now has a better grasp of the message of Ephesians?”

May we assume a devil might have the capability & keenness for a perfect grasp of God’s message?

Conserbatives_conserve_little
Guest
Conserbatives_conserve_little

Sometimes I will take two copies of a book, usually a science fiction, one in English and one in either French or German and parallel read them. It is a wonderful vocabulary building excercise. Read half a page of one and then read the same half page in the other. Don’t focus on every word. Worst translation I came across was in an E.E. Doc Smith story. In the original, which is in English, one of the two heroes is facing the villain who never learns the heroes’ real names. In the thranslation, the hero lets slip the other hero’s… Read more »

Katecho
Member

Regarding the title of the book, Wilson didn’t note the significance of the fish in the ear.

Jane
Member

My first reaction was that was an allusion to Adams’ Babelfish.

But I’m thinking it might well be an allusion to an example in the book where a translation issue led to speaking of a fish in someone’s ear. Not that I’ve read the book, but that kind of fits more with the way I’ve seen books on language derive their titles.

bethyada
Member

I loved the allusion to Hitchhikers Guide. The Babelfish is a fish that translates any language. But there is also the subtitle the meaning of everything which is a second allusion to the same book in which they try to find the answer to everything. Which is of course 42.

john k
Guest
john k

Tradutorre, traditore!

Andrew Lohr
Member

John Ciardi’s translation of Dante’s Purgatorio includes a “Translator’s note” by Ciardi about his struggles with the translation.