Lost in Translation?

Two weeks ago I did a mishmash of a ‘review’ about two, (at least), books and touched on the fact that they were translated.  Something that had been nagging in the back of my head for many decades came to the front:

“How much of the original writer’s work do we see in a translation?”

Granted, the STORY may come through pretty well intact, but even then, there are nuances and subtleties in the wordings or descriptions which the original writer may have placed in purposely but were lost to the translator.

Example?  As I wrote about Boris Pasternak in the review, in translation one of his poems reads: “A candle burned on the table; a candle burned”, yet in another translation it reads: “A candle flamed upon a table; a candle flamed”.
I am sure everyone who is a reader, let alone a writer, can see the difference.

When I was a teen I would watch a ‘ladies’ talk show with my mother and one segment always stayed with me.  A woman guest was about to sing a song in French, but first, she offered the translation and added, (dewy-eyed), “Isn’t that beautiful?”  Her host blurted out, “But it doesn’t rhyme!” The singer looked back at the other woman and said coolly, “It does in French.

We know and love many songs that have been translated. Lyrics have to be changed to conform to the music, be made to rhyme, and be altered because our cultures often do not use the same phrases. How do we know what is lost from the original language, the words that did not fit or could not be translated?  Could there have be an insufficiency of the translator’s knowledge that led them to the wrong choice of words?  In all works nuances make all the difference. In poetry or song lyrics they must also fit into the meter/rhyme, so other choices are made. Are they always right?

Any  writer who slaves lovingly over a piece of work looking for just the right word/words could have it all come down quickly with one misstep by a translator. After all, who knows every word in their own language, let alone another, or the soul of the piece that the writer wished to impart?
I remember the trouble that I had trying to name a polka-dotted dog which was a present to my then-infant son. “Spot” seemed perfect, but the presenter had brought it back from Brazil and I wanted to make the name reflect that. I am not sure I ever got it right, because I had no one who could speak Brazilian Portuguese near me and dictionaries at the time gave me  lists which included the words meaning “Dot”, “Smudge”, “Splotch”, “Daub”, “Blotch”, “Speck”, as any dictionary in any langue would. There was no way for me to sort out which actually meant ‘Spot’; if indeed  a word that corresponds to ‘spot’ actually exists, (which I realize now, as I write this 35 years later, may not.)

Conversely, how much might a translator improve upon the original?  Did they see something that, in their opinion, could be better phrased or convey a deeper feeling than the writer’s original work?

So, there are liberties that need to be taken. Pasternak was thrilled that one of the translators of his poetry “Captured the spirit” of his work, but not the faithfulness of the wording. I took Russian for a semester decades ago. I didn’t get far; it’s a difficult language. It was night school, I was pregnant, I wasn’t all that interested by then and the lack of articles and pronouns, (“Vera teacher. Vera home. Vera sick.”), got on my nerves. How do you translate works written like that, and make it flow to Western ears, without doing a little ‘embroidering’?

How we know if the original writer is a better or a lesser-skilled writer than the translator?

One writer I know was contacted by the publishers of her books in Japan.  One of her characters called someone a ‘name’, but it was unfamiliar to the translators. The writer told them to choose a typical Japanese insult, but something was going to be lost, since the word the writer had chosen was a semi-sanitized version of a nasty insult, which truly added to the amusing nature of the character.

I was never taught Italian, but heard it from my mother and her siblings when they spoke among themselves and the phrases which Mom used to say to us to make points, ( or to be subtle), yet I can still poke The Husband in the ribs when someone speaks Italian in a show or movie and the subtitles get it wrong; there are differences. So, I asked a friend in Italy some years ago about the dubbing in the movie “Shrek” when he mentioned seeing it with his family, because I could not imagine that particular movie without the great voice characterizations. The movie was huge a hit there, but he told me that there were no accents; Shrek only had a deep, gruff voice and Donkey had a high, squeaky one. How much was lost!  Think of it:  Shrek’s “You’re goin’ the right way for a smacked bot-om”, or Donkey’s “Can I stay wh’chu?”, gone. How can they be anywhere near as funny, if funny at all? But I digress, I suppose.

I don’t know about you, but if I like the style of writer I will read their works, even if it is not their best effort, just to enjoy the way they put words together.  Hemingway certainly fits into this slot for me; in fact, I believe that I have mentioned, I can’t say that I have truly enjoyed any of his stories, but I am mesmerized by his style. Certain poets certainly get my attention, and even songs that may not be great works of art can truly ‘grab’ me if they are cleverly written.  I love plays on words.  You can’t have the original plays on words in translations. You can read footnotes in translated books, (if they are added), but it destroys the flow of the story, especially any dialogue.

How does Hemingway play out in another language? Or for that matter, Shakespeare? Think of all of Old Will’s plays on words, indeed, his COININGS of words and phrases,  how does that work in other languages?

How much have we missed in translations from other languages?

Have you given any thought to translations?

Have you ever wanted to read a translated work in the original language?


About Tonette Joyce

Tonette was a once-fledgling lyricists-bookkeeper, turned cook/baker/restaurateur and is now exploring different writing venues,(with a stage play recently completed). She has had poetry and nonfiction articles published in the last few years. Tonette has been married to her only serious boyfriend for more than thirty years and she is, as one person described her, family-oriented almost to a fault. Never mind how others have described her, she is,(shall we say), a sometime traditionalist of eclectic tastes.She has another blog : "Tonette Joyce:Food,Friends,Family" here at WordPress.She and guests share tips and recipes for easy entertaining and helps people to be ready for almost anything.
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9 Responses to Lost in Translation?

  1. Jeff Salter says:

    Though I can’t recall any particulars, I’ve read poems translated into English from other languages. In many of these, I was quite surprised to see that the translator managed to keep the structure and also make those structured lines RHYME. I thought to myself, “how can this rhyme in [whatever] language… and ALSO rhyme in English?
    Though I didn’t possess enough knowledge of that other language, I assumed that the translator had taken great liberties — along with considerable sweat and anguish — to convert that piece.
    During a phase when I was trying to look oh-so-academic — don’t ask why — I often had a translated copy of Fleur de Mal. [I’ll think of the poet’s name in a minute.] That collection, itself, was far from “uplifting”, but there was a certain beauty in some of the translated pieces. But I recall pondering how much of the original poet’s “soul” survived that translation.
    I know one thing: you cannot just let Google run its translate option for poetry!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh,no, not Google or Facebook, for that matter, even for a comment on a post or a caption. Often it is so broken, you still have no idea what was trying to be said.
      Well, great minds think alike. At least you got to enjoy the poetry. It has to be like being a ghostwriter, though. I bet sometimes the translator wants to scream from the rooftop that they made a improvements, (at least, in their own minds!)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Elaine Cantrell says:

    The only translated book I can remember reading right off the bat is Don Quixote. The translator did a great job, but I’m sure it wasn’t like reading the original.


    • I have known people who actually tried to learn Spanish to read Don Quixote in the original, but even most of the available versions are in modernized Spanish, and not the Old Castillian in which it was written. Suffice it to say, the people I knew gave up.


  3. Patricia Kiyono says:

    Growing up, I learned several Japanese songs without understanding a word of what I was singing. I’d ask mom what the song was about, and she’d give me only an overview. There’s a children’s song about the Hare and the Tortoise (yes, the fable from Aesop), that sounds fun when singing in Japanese, but when literally translated into English is rather dull. On the other hand, a popular hit song in the 1960s called “Sukiyaki” is still poetic when translated – but probably wouldn’t fit to the
    melody any more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I still love the song “Sukiyaki” and have heard the literal translation which is wonderful. The writer said it was about his being brokenhearted over the political situation at the time, but made it ambiguous so it could be taken as a broken-0hearted love song. Lyrics have been written and sung to the music, but it’s a rather dull song.
      You learning the Japanese songs without knowing the exact words are like the phrases my mother threw at us as kids. We’d respond with words or actions,only to find out later that what she was saying was often something taken out of context from something someone said or an excerpt that would, had we tried to use it to most other Italians, would have made little sense outside of the family.
      I THINK that I remember some songs they tried to teach us in French when I was young, but I would be afraid to try them out for fear that I have it all wrong and Heaven only knows what I would be saying!


  4. trishafaye says:

    The only book I can think of that I’ve read as a translation is one that I just finished – Pieces of Happiness. It was written in Norwegian, by Anne Ostby, and translated by her daughter. I enjoyed the book and didn’t realize it was a translation until I read the back author bio when I was done.
    But now you’ve got me thinking about how much is lost in translation? I’m guessing more than I’ll ever know.


    • Sorry to burst anyone’s enjoyment, but it has been bouncing around in my head and finally, I could not ignore the thought anymore.
      I am glad that you enjoyed the book.
      As I said, the stories are generally intact, I am sure.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Words and Storie, Foreign and Domestic | Four Foxes, One Hound

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