The OF Blog: "Sixty-three Words" and the transformative power of words in translations

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

"Sixty-three Words" and the transformative power of words in translations

Growing up, a traditional retort to namecalling was "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me."  Nearly thirty years later, it has become evident that there is something key being left unsaid in that ditty.  Whether or not words may "harm" someone, the fact is that words serve to transform people, or at least their surroundings and their relationships with those surroundings.  Words form bonds that shape our subjective existence and if a word is misapplied or misunderstood, great changes can occur.

Nowhere is the transformative power of words more evident than in translation.  In his sixth essay in The Art of the Novel and in his Author's Note to The Joke, Czech author Milan Kundera discusses how translations can affect the reading and processing of a work.  Flaubert famously declared that he sought le seul mot juste when writing.  Translators (taking into account the Latin translatio, which roughly means "transference") are expected to transfer or bring across (delving further into the semantics of the Latin original) into a new language as much of the syntax and semantics of the original as possible, to find that single just or good word.  It is a noble goal, but oh is it a Sisyphean task!

Kundera regales the reader (in French for this tale, despite the novels at hand originally being written in Czech) with horror stories of translators that reordered his novels' chapters, of deleted scenes, of the style being made more ornate in the translated tongue than what Kundera had intended, and even of sentences being chopped up and puréed to suit the fancies of the translators rather than the aims of the author.  Traduttore tradittore indeed.

This is a very sensitive issue for writer, translator, and reader alike.  Personally, this topic has been weighing on my head more and more in recent months.  Although I have blogged about translations before and have provided samples of how I would have translated passages differently from the published translations, I no longer speak as an amateur translator, for I have already cashed a check in payment for a translation which is scheduled to be published later this year.  This is a very serious matter.  After all, Kundera says:

...translations are everything...

The writer who determines to supervise the translations of his books finds himself chasing after hordes of words like a shepherd after a flock of wild sheep - a sorry figure to himself, a laughable one to others. (pp. 121-122)
For the translator, the task is different but equally risible for those who have not undertaken such a task.  As flexible as English is in some aspect (look at all of the names we have for shades of color), in other aspects it is a rigid language, locked into a pattern where in declarative sentences the subject ought to come before the verb and that multiple layers of dependent clauses are frowned upon, if not actively discouraged.  But in other languages, nouns and adjectives can pile one atop the other, with direct and indirect objects indicated by case endings, with the verb packing its punch at the end, or sometimes the middle or even the beginning, depending upon the effect that the author aimed to achieve by the placement of one word after another in order to create an aural tapestry that pleases and instructs the reader as to the author's intentions.

Now take that sentence and imagine how it might look like in another language.  Say, for example, Spanish.  Would I choose to have everything in the indicative mood, or could I alter the intent somewhat by recasting it as a contrary-to-fact subjective mood?  Would the ordering of the clauses be the same, or would there be the need to shift them around in order to create a different effect?  And if so, how much would the meanings change with the syntax?

This reordering in translation is very evident to me as I am currently re-reading (and yet reading anew) Serbian author Goran Petrović's Ситничарница Код спрћне пуке in the Serbian original (for the first time) and re-reading the Spanish translation, La Mano de la Buena Fortuna.  Although my Serbian is very rudimentary to say the least, I understand enough now to see quite clearly that his translator, Dubravka Sužnjević, had to invert clauses and to reconstruct several multi-clausal sentences in order to approximate what Petrović had crafted in the original Serbian.  A reader of this story in Spanish would in no sense get the same story as would a Serbian writer - the emphasis on certain words would have shifted necessarily in order to accommodate what that Spanish-reading reader might expect. 

The importance of a single word, placed just so, is even more apparent when a reader such as myself is reading two non-native languages and finds himself thinking about the passages in a third, remotely-related language.  We are often so careless with our expressions, barely regarding just how we say and why we say what we say.  Writers and translators have to hone their words, creating an artistic tapestry that a reader can interpret and translate as s/he sees fit. 

Kundera became quite frustrated in having to pore through the various translations to see if his intent was borne across relatively intact.  At a French editor/friend's urging, he undertook writing down a list of sixty-three words that encapsulated the semantic battles being fought in his novels.  While I will not list those sixty-three words or those "definitions" that Kundera supplied for them, I will pose this question:  When faced with the barely definable, how do you reach out and grasp it?  For example, how do you represent "being" and "beauty?"  Do you shade their meanings, leaving it up to the reader to decide how the author intends for these to be examined, or do you, if you are a translator, try to capture as much of the essence and power of those words in a translation that reflects not on the translator's understanding of the words, but on those of the original author?

Words have a great power.  The difference between "shit" and "manure" is not one of smell, but in how each is viewed in relation to other words surrounding them.  So too is the relationship between a faithful and unfaithful translation.  Something may be lost in all translations, but just what and how and why that is so important is what lies at the heart of the matter.  Words, especially those in translation, do transform how we view the situation, n'est-ce pas?


Harry Markov said...

I have read translations and I have read originals in English and in German, so I fully understand, where this post comes from.

I'd like to be able to speak a few or three more languages for the kicks of it, but even with my two foreign languages I can sense the difference in expression. German is perfect to pile words and add the verb at the end of the sentence or a particle of the verb [since German words are like Voltron, they function in more than one pieces].

Bulgarian and Serbian are siblings, so you can feel the difference between those and English.

The point remains that in translation a lot depends on the intuition that an individual has towards the language. While a mind can be tuned to a language, translating from one to the other, while trying to convey the meaning and the subtleties such as word play is a murder.

Lasītāja said...

Actually, I would not want to translate Kundera into a language he claims to know. He sounds like a bad boss who is interfering with his employees' work. Translators are responsible for their choices, so they should be allowed to make them themselves.

And maybe sometimes faithfulness is not the bet possible thing. For example, Latvian translation of "Winnie-the-Pooh" was made by one of our greatest poetesses, and the Bear in this version isn't just a rhymer, it composes real poems. I still know them by heart and, yes, I think we were lucky to get this not very faithful translation.

Words are important but the most important thing not to lose is (an?) atmosphere.

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