The Fine Art of Translation

Look for an English language version of Homer’s Odyssey, Dante’s Divine Comedy or Tolstoy’s War and Peace and you will find that there are numerous translations.  Why is this so?  Why isn’t one enough?  All you have to do is take a word in Greek, Italian or Russian, find the equivalent word in English, and you’re finished, right?  Wrong.  “Woe to the makers of literal translations, who by rendering [literally translating] every word weaken the meaning!” said Voltaire.  “It is indeed by so doing that we can say the letter kills and the spirit gives life.”  A translator must know the spirit of a language.  He must intimately know both the original language of a work and the language he or she is translating the work into or verbal disasters will occur.  Oh, and one more thing, all languages change over time, so a translator of The Odyssey, for instance, must be aware of meanings and nuances of the Greek that The Odyssey was written in 2,500 years ago in order to translate it correctly.

Just in case you aren’t convinced yet that translation is exceedingly difficult, consider the added difficulty of translating a poem into English.  How do you duplicate the structure of the original in English?  The more appropriate question might be can you duplicate the structure in English.  In many instances you can’t, so you end up with what is essentially a prose translation that is in the guise of a poem.

An article in the New York Review of Books discusses the fine art of the translation as well as a segment from NPR.  You can either read or listen to the NPR segment.

You might also be interested in an article about the husband wife translation team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky that I directed you to in an earlier post.

And finally, I wonder if we are fully aware of the nuances of the words we use to communicate with others in our native language.  It’s common to say something, and then to have to add, “what I meant to say was . . .”  Perhaps we should be a bit more careful in our choice of words.

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