Lost in Translation

My father shook his head.  “It’s like trying to translate Shakespeare into another language,” he remarked.  “You get an idea of how great the book is, but it’s not the same.”

We were talking about Victor Hugo’s classic novel Les Miserables.  Arthur and I had gone to see the movie musical version just before Christmas and while visiting with my parents were debating whether or not the musical summed up the scope and tragedy of the novel itself.  French is my father’s first language and he grew up largely in France, so he’s very familiar with Hugo’s work as well as the politics and history behind it.  The comment, though, got me thinking.

It’s true that I don’t think Shakespeare’s genius probably translates out of English perfectly.  The Bard has too many puns, witticisms, and jokes that depend on an intimate knowledge of the English language for the punch line.  There’s a sense in which, reading Shakespeare in a different language, you’d get a reasonable idea of why he’s so foundational to English literature but would likely miss the nuances that vault Shakespeare to the very upper echelons of the English canon.

It made me wonder how much I’ve missed over the years in the many books I love that I read in translations from their original languages.  Shusaku Endo’s great, often overlooked novel The Samurai.  Dostoevesky and The Brothers Karamazov or Crime and Punishment.  Dante’s Divine Comedy.  The aforementioned Les Miserables.  Pushkin’s poetry.  Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.  Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s surreal and transcendant One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Then I felt a little sad.  Even though these are some favorites of mine, I realized just how much I probably don’t grasp.  How much was probably lost even in the best translation of these works into English.  What was in the original French?  Or Russian?  Or Spanish?  Or Japanese?  Or Italian?  And I can’t grasp it, because it’s not my language.

At the same time, I had a sudden appreciation for the craftsmanship and writing in some of the works in the English language I love.  I don’t know how Margaret Atwood’s dry, cool writing translates into different languages or if others get the same enjoyment I do out of my favorite Atwood novels such as The Robber Bride.  Does the sweep and scope of J.R.R’s epic Lord of the Rings translate?  Faulkner’s voices and dialect?  Jane Austen’s mix of comedy and drama; of morals and manners?  What about Ellison’s Invisible Man?  This doesn’t even begin to describe the difficulty of translating poetry with meter, stanzas, and verses well.  What does Emily Dickinson, or Sylvia Plath, or Langston Hughes sound like in another language?

There’s been a lot of talk in the ALI blogosphere lately about the Pain Olympics and belonging and simply the state of the community.  I’ll confess there are days I get caught in the shuffle.  Some days, I’m convinced I don’t belong since I just haven’t been through enough and my infertility got diagnosed exceptionally early in the process.  Other times, I look at people who were successful with a few months of Clomid or Femara (or hell, even ovulated on those drugs), feel some irritation or thinly veiled jealousy flare up, and have to remind myself that just because someone else’s struggle was different does not mean it was less upsetting or painful to them, particularly at the time.

I think sometimes we lose something in translation.  The language of parenting after infertility is not one I am fluent in currently.  The language of parenting or pregnancy at all feels utterly foreign right now.  The language of multiple miscarriages or stillbirth does not come to my tongue.  The language of resolution I am struggling daily to learn, but just as I think I’ve grasped the verbs, the structure, it slips away.  The language of choosing to live without a child cannot be learned right now, as I’m still in treatment and all that implies.  The language of a many years-long struggle with infertility I cannot pretend to speak.  I know that not all in the ALI community speak my language.

It doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate these blogs or these people and their journeys or struggles.  Just as I frequently pick up One Hundred Years of Solitude and marvel at the story, or relate to a character in Anna Karenina, the fact that it’s not originally in my language doesn’t stop me from reading and finding meaning there.

It can be a struggle to be aware of all that comes to the translation process.  That I bring my own ineptitude or expertise at translation, my experiences or inexperience to the table, my emotions, as I try to apply all this to someone else’s story in a way I can relate to.  It means sometimes I have to be aware that this is not the whole story, that something’s been lost in the translation process.

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4 thoughts on “Lost in Translation

  1. Fabulous, fabulous post. Translation is something I think about a lot because I have a translation degree (it was a required part of my MFA program). When you learn to do translation, there are two approaches — one that keeps true to the feelings evoked by the words, and the other that holds strongly to literal translation. You obviously try to do both, but translators tend to lean one way or the other in emphasis.

    (As a side note, I’ve read Les Mis in French and I’ve read it in English, and it was good in both as was the musical on Broadway and the movie. Mostly because it’s just a damn good story with a great plotline.)

    It’s true; we are almost always getting each other’s stories in translation because even when we have similar experiences, we don’t speak the exact same emotional language. But I think it’s important to still read, translate, try to understand.

  2. I’d never considered exactly how to do translation – that’s very interesting, the two approaches and how it actually happens. It’s something I’ve actually wondered since a professor in college had the class all buy a very specific translation of Anna Karenina because he said it was the one that in his opinion came closest to representing the original.

    Totally agree with you on Les Mis having a great plot.

    You make an excellent point that it’s still important to try to read and translate even if the emotional language isn’t quite the same.

  3. *applause* bravo. I think that the pain Olympics are out, translation with the understanding and knowledge that your own personal circumstance gives you is the way to go. I very much got the feeling while reading Crime and Punishment that I wasnt quite getting something, that I knew it was great but there was a bit of a fog that I couldn’t break through to really grab the story by the jugular and thrash it out in my mind. It’s like the difference between seeing a butterfly and thinking it is pretty, and having it fly across your arm and you get to feel the softest touch of its wings and the slightest dispersal of air as it passes. The translation would be it; intimate knowledge of a language has to have its advantages in the telling of any story, no matter how great.

    • I got that feeling reading Crime and Punishment too – there was just something that I knew was genius, but I couldn’t quite find it. I love your example with the butterfly, that makes such sense.

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