Getting Lost in Translation

3 Oct

We all have read translated versions of works of literature or other writing at one point or another. Almost every student has read at least parts of Beowulf and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. What most students don’t realize, however, is they were reading translations of these renowned works of literature.

Translations can be done. The question is whether or not they can fully express everything the author had intended. Was anything lost in translation? Is the translation just as genuine as the original? Critics have been discussing this issue for quite some time.

I recently witnessed the loss of beauty in words when translated. I am a Spanish minor, and for one of my courses, I had to read a poem by Pablo Neruda. I loved the poem. The poet’s emotions were well captured in the original text. Then I read the translation and was sorely disappointed. The loveliness of the Spanish words turned dull and meaningless in English. It’s a loss of beauty that’s extremely difficult to describe; however, I know I felt its absence.

An example of issues that arise with translation can be seen in the translated work by Congolese novelist Alain Mabanckou. One of his books was translated recently by two different people at the same time, each ignorant of the other’s labors. Between the two versions, only one sentence was the same: “Really?”.

There are so many different ways of saying just one thing, and a writer chooses specific words or phrases to add significance to the underlying message or meaning. How can this decision be understood and translated by someone else? It seems near impossible.

Many students had to take British Literature classes at some point in their education. I am sure some of them, like myself, became familiar with the No Fear Shakespeare help book from Sparknotes. This book takes Shakespeare’s words and translates them into our Modern English.

Early Modern English, the language Shakespeare originally wrote in, and our American English of today are so different, they are practically separate languages. Yet, in reading both the original and the No Fear Shakespeare version, I noticed the differences. The meter, the rhyme, and the significance of the structure all were lost; and this is still within the realms of English.

There are some who would argue, however, that not all works are damaged by translation. Some of the famous earlier critics, such as Robert Lowth, believed the Bible is one of these works. Scripture is written in parallels instead of rhyme and meter. For this reason, Lowth claimed even when it is not in its original Hebrew, Scripture survives translation.

The task of translation is undeniably complicated. I speak English and am still working on my fluency in Spanish. Even though Spanish is only my second language, I hope it will open up a whole new branch of literature for me to discover. I know my abilities are limited, but I still don’t want to miss out on all the great pieces of writing out there. So for my sake, and others’ like me, I hope not all meaning is lost in translation.


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