Monday, June 23, 2014

Lost in Translation

I am currently reading Anna Karenina in a French translation. Since my Russian is limited pretty much to samovar and troika I obviously have to read a translation, so why not French? I already read an English translation many years ago. I generally don’t like reading translations, although it is clearly a necessity in most cases. So much is lost, I’m sure, in translation.

Translation is always more than just translation; it inevitably involves interpretation. Consider a very simple example. French (like many languages) has two forms of address, the formal and the informal. I would address strangers and older people as vous, but close friends, family and younger people as tu. There is even a verb in French, tutoyer, which means to address with tu (and its counterpart, vouvoyer). If I were translating a book from English to French, I would have to decide whether the formal or informal mode of address should be used in each case. To a French reader, the use of tu between people would indicate a closer relationship than the use of vous. The translator is required to judge the closeness of these relationships. On the other hand, how does someone translating from French to English indicate the use of tu as opposed to vous? In a conversation between a man and a woman, a change of usage might indicate a change in their relationship. Using tu inappropriately might indicate disrespect; whereas using vous when tu might be expected could indicate a certain coldness in the relationship. In Les Miserables Javert uses tu to address Jean Valjean to indicate his lower status—until almost the end of the book, when he switches to vous, unwittingly showing his respect. English lacks such subtleties—‘you’ (formal) and ‘thou’ (informal) just don’t cut it these days. The translator has to find some other way to indicate this change in the relationship.

This is just one very obvious example of the difficulties of translating literature from one language to another. In this respect, the French translation of Anna Karenina follows the Russian more closely than does the English, since Russian also has a formal and informal mode of address.

I can’t imagine how you would even begin to translate a poem, when rhyme, rhythm, alliteration and so on can be so important! Imagine, also, translating between languages which have very little in common historically: Chinese to English (and vice versa) for example.

Language reflects an entire culture, and even between similar languages, idiomatic expressions are difficult to translate. Consider the French expression: ‘Avoir du chien’. Literally translated this would be, ‘To have the dog.’ I am informed that when referring to a woman it means, ‘Être séduisante, avoir un charme provoquant,’ the English translation of which should be clear. When translating from the French it is impossible to use a literal translation for a phrase like this. So does the translator, instead, translate the more literal French version, and thereby lose the idiomatic feel? Or does the translator look for a corresponding idiomatic phrase in English? How about this one: ‘Le petit Jésus en culotte de velours’. Literally translated this is, ‘The little Jesus in velvet underwear’; which apparently means, ‘To go down smoothly.’ It’s difficult to think of a similarly colourful English expression to use in its place. On the other hand, how would you translate into French the expression ‘Dead as a doornail’, or ‘Pay through the nose’?

I would love to be able to read French, German, Russian, Spanish, Chinese... In the meantime, I have to content myself with a French translation of the Russian, in which at least tu and vous correspond to their equivalents in the original Russian.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed this post. It reminds me of when my daughter was very small and she had to sing in church. Instead of 'Jesus little ones are we,' she sang 'Jesus wants a little wee...'