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.
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.