I am a translator that works to bring Tamil stories and articles to English. I wrote an article here reviewing a Tamil novel’s translation. To summarize, I mainly criticized the translation for not properly bringing the novel’s soul into English. To be able to do so requires an intimate knowledge of the original language of a story and the target language. Though the translator did a passable job – and it was genuinely much better than other translations that I have come across – the result fell flat over all.
While working as a translator, I have learned that just an intimate knowledge of both languages is not enough. There are things that do not carry over even if the translator does an excellent job. Such as a word’s history. By that, I do not mean the word’s etymology. I mean the word’s impact in its culture of origin, the feelings it invokes upon its use. Even when faithfully translated, the reader may not have the necessary context to fully appreciate the word or phrase being used. Let me give you an example.
It is not unheard of in Tamil literature, films, and so on for a cow or bull’s eye to be a symbol of innocent beauty. They pull the plows that till soil. They provide milk. They are raised with love and affection by their farmers. To many agrarian families, their cattle are cherished parts of their lives. A cow’s death is something to be mourned and the little purity I have left in me is telling me that the grief is not due to the monetary loss. On top of all that, cow’s have religious import in Hinduism. So is it so strange for a cow’s eye to be considered beautiful?
With that established, let’s say there is a passage I am translating where a man is thinking of his lover and her gorgeous, twinkling, dark eyes. Let’s say he compares those eyes to those of his family’s cow. Reading this as a Tamil speaker, I wouldn’t bat an eye. At most I’d find it slightly odd but I’d still get it. However. The eyes of cattle do not have that connotation for many English speakers so I am left with a dilemma. Do I faithfully translate it and add a distracting, flow-breaking footnote explaining the culture behind a cow’s eye? Do I do my job but forgo a footnote, thereby leaving my reader to potentially be confused or, worst-case, misinterpret the man’s intentions with his lover? What if my reader thinks the man is insulting her?
Or maybe I change it so the man is comparing her eyes to sparkling stars? The character’s intent – and by extension the author’s – would be preserved but I would have done so by radically altering the text. I would have robbed the reader of intuiting the culture behind the symbolism. It is not outright censorship as I am still maintaining the author’s intent, but it leaves a bad taste in my mouth regardless.
Thus far I have remained faithful in translating whatever words the authors use, trusting my readers to get it. Or use their hearts and minds for a moment and then, get it. Most readers know to take a holistic approach when reading stories. They understand that if a man is in love, his attempts at poetic comparison are given in good faith and he hasn’t suddenly developed a need to insult his girlfriend.
Despite the struggle, the times in which I have to think some more about the words I am translating are times I cherish. After all, it is a chance to turn the word over and over in my mind, playing with it and seeking why its use makes my heart beat in answer to its call.
There are also many times where I do not have this problem and the words or phrases still have the same spirit. For better or worse, they are largely ones that reflect the human experience. To prove it, I will give you a sentence from one of my favorite books of all time: Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson. Context will not be necessary.
I am confident that its impact would remain regardless of what language it gets translated to. Not due to its cutting simplicity. But because of the utterance of three words that, in a just world, would never share a breath.
“Children are dying.”
If you are multilingual, experience that sentence again in a language of your choosing. Discomfort. Anger. Grief. Weakness. Impotence. There are scores of negative feelings that those words, in that order, bring up. And they would be one of the easiest words to translate.
Immerse yourself in the sentences you read. If the work you’re reading is translated, immerse yourself some more. Words can, and will, transcend language.
An odd sentence without context, yes?