Reflections: The Difficulty with Translations

Warning: This post contains material that some may consider silly.

Recently I was having a conversation with a friend* regarding the difficulty with translations from one language to another.  We were discussing the poetry of the Persian mystic Rumi.  Without going into details of that discussion, here are three translations of the same single phrase of poetry:

Translated by A.J. Arberry: # 325 (more literal translation):

But if, as God decrees, that moon hears of those things,
he himself knows what a melancholy lover
will say in the darkness of night.

Sometimes I Forget Completely (translated by Coleman Barks – title based on first line):

I spill sad energy everywhere.   (Note: while sparse, it fits well in the context of his translation).

Uttered In Chaos (my title and loose translation):

I’m not asking you to keep secrets.  
Lord knows, the Moon overhears
every chaotic curse of night.

I was reading reviews of a new book by Haruki Murakami: 1Q84.  Some reviewers railed against the English translation.  It was their view that the English translation was nowhere near as good as the Japanese version.  Guess what, I don’t read Japanese.  I can count to five in Japanese, and know the occasional word or phrase.  That wouldn’t get me too far with Murakami.  I love Murakami (love: there’s another difficult word to translate).  I’m so grateful for the English translations of his work.  I, frankly, do not care if the Japanese version of 1Q84 is better than the English version.  I liked the English version just fine.

In fact, globalization has brought works of fiction and nonfiction from around the world into English speaking households.  Being exposed to views outside our culture, or simply to a great writer outside our culture, is more than enough justification for translations.  It’s just that they’re, well, difficult to accomplish with precision.  For example, the word commonly translated as love and the New Testament Bible comes from the Greek word agape.  Scholars state that a closer translation of agape would be charity. In our culture, the word charity is defined as giving to the poor or needy, and does not necessarily require love.  There may even be a potentially negative association – the false charity and misguided philanthropy that characterized some missionary work in the historic past, or with guilt assuaging charity of ill-gotten or entitled wealth.  Words can take on different associations in the context of separate cultures.

Following is an excerpt from THE PRINCE JAMES BIBLE IN A CAN (which can be downloaded from this website).  I hope this helps to clear things up, as far as translations are concerned.

Problems That Can Occur in Translation:
Translating a foreign language from a culture that existed thousands of years ago can be a difficult task. Can you imagine someone from biblical times attempting to translate a relatively simple phrase?

Phrase: I was so engrossed in my work, I ate a Mcdonald’s burger while continuing to rough out this draft on my computer.

Biblical Translation: 1. Not being froward in his ways, but working with diligence and wisdom unto the Lord, so that they may rejoice at the time of harvest,
2. He did forsake his formal meal, and instead did eat of the cow sacrificed under an arch of gold, at the place where they do worship the strange god with large feet and orange hair. Let us pray for the stomach’s forgiveness.
3. And he did scribe the sacred text as it was revealed to him in illumination.
4. And the words were scribed as unto clouds, both seeing them and seeing them not, for the words disappeareth when the light goes out. The Lord of all the sky sends down lightning unto the ground, and all manner of things may be stored and remembered.
5. But lest ye think that man, in all his imperfection, will render the sacred text complete unto the initial effort, the Lord of the winds may yet summon change, so that man may redeem his works.

Following are seven common problems in rendering a translation, and seven more numbers:
1. Cultural differences:
Actual phrase: In preparation for battle, the men braided the hair of his partner, also exchanging a pink handkerchief for luck.
Mistranslated as: In preparation for battle, the men pulled out braids of hair from a rugged companion, also exchanging the bloodied handkerchief for luck.

2. Misunderstanding a metaphor:
Actual phrase: When we meet at dawn, I will crush them like an egg.
Mistranslated as: When they sat down for breakfast, they had their eggs scrambled.

3. Literalizing a metaphor:
Actual phrase: The carpenter had a roll in the hay, finding the screw to jump-start his day.
Mistranslated as: The carpenter found the screw that had fallen in the hay and was able to get to work at the start of the day.

4. Incompetence:
Actual phrase: Yea, I say unto you, with love in your hearts, and resolution in your minds, embrace your neighbor and make peace upon the Earth.
Mistranslated as: Listen up! With resolution, I say, go out and perform open-heart surgery on your neighbor, lest ye die, and the Earth become as a cesspool.

5. Words with multiple meanings:
This is difficult to demonstrate with English to English examples. So let’s pretend that my example phrase is in Inuit. Many of us know that the indigenous people of Alaska have about 67 words for snow, some of which are not translatable.
Actual Phrase in Inuit: There is a clentos (made up word in Inuit for snow) on the way.
Mistranslated as: There is snow on the way.
Better mistranslation: There is a relatively mild snowstorm on the way, expected within the next 6 to 12 hours. Expect temperatures in the -10 to – 20 F range, with dry light flakes of snow that are blown in from the Northeast, heralding even colder weather to come within several days. Expect winds of 5 to 15 mph, not a lot of drifting, and expected accumulation of 4 to 6 inches.

7. Words that can’t be translated:
These are words for which a language has no corresponding word. For example, the Inuit have no corresponding word for the IRS (Internal Revenue Service).
English Phrase: He has an appointment with the IRS this afternoon.
Inuit mistranslation: There is a clentos on the way.

God is a word that fits this category (not as a clentos, but as a word that can’t be translated).

I am writing in the hope that future translations can avoid the problems so painstakingly uncovered in this classic (when I say classic, translate “of or pertaining to literature of ancient Greece or Rome”) treatment of the subject (when I say subject, translate “being under the power of another”).

* When I say I had a discussion with a friend, that may be a mistranslation of English into English.  The friend I was referring to was me – as in me, myself, and I.  I am a friend to myself, occasionally capable of taking opposing viewpoints. Now what’s silly about that?

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6 Responses to Reflections: The Difficulty with Translations

  1. Irina says:

    Jim, this subject is very close to my heart, as I’ve been a teacher of Russian at an American university. The points you make about the general difficulties of translation apply to Russian too, especially poetry. The better the poet, the harder it is to convey her/his work in another tongue. Teaching Russian poetry in translation was so agonizing for me that eventually I stopped including it in my Russian lit courses altogether.
    Apart from literature, linguistic misunderstandings can even bring us to the brink of global catastrophes. The Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, in one of his speeches addressed to the U.S. and West European nations, said: “My vas zakopaem,” which literally means “we shall bury you.” You can imagine the furor this caused in the West, headlines erupting with predictions of World War III. All due to an error of the translators, who did not know that this phrase was also an idiom in sports, as in one team saying to the other before a game: “We’ll beat you.” Khrushchev was using it in reference to his initiative to advance Soviet agriculture beyond American.
    Moral of story? Don’t know if there is one, really. Any suggestions? 🙂

  2. Irina says:

    Moral of story? Don’t know if there is one, really. Any suggestions, apart from training better translators or never attempting to translate poetry??

  3. Irene Blanck says:

    what a hoot!! I haven’t had such a good laugh in ages!!

  4. Irina says:

    Yes, the original post is very amusing. I responded to the serious part of it.

  5. Nil says:

    You certainly take mistranslations to a higher level… 🙂

    • Irina says:

      Thank you! Incidentally, there are some examples of mistranslations between English and Russian, which are quite hilarious but probably not printable by the standards of Internet “decency laws” 🙂
      Well, here is a decent one; this one is between Russian and Polish. The word rose in Russian is ‘rosa’, while in Polish it is ‘rozha’ (the ‘zh’ as in Dr. ZHivago). So far so good, but in Russian the word ‘rozha’ means an ugly mug. As the story goes, a Polish poet wrote an ode to his beloved, comparing her face to a rose. But a Russian translator took the word ‘rozha’ literally, and the Polish beauty became a hag! The incident nearly caused an uprising in Poland against the USSR 🙁

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