One of the major themes we have been looking at in Lit class is the imprecise nature of language. Throughout the year we discussed how one word can be interpreted in many different ways and how at times language fails as a mode of communication. More recently, we have been discussing the impossible nature of translation. Language is slippery and sneaky and when coupled with cultural differences it becomes a challenge to translate.
Each language contains different words and phrases. The Inuit have many different words for snow, whereas in Canada we only have two. Sanskrit has 96 words for love while English has one. Yet we have many more technological words than they do. Language arises out of need and can differ greatly from region to region. What is called one thing in one country can mean something very different in the country next door. Objects are grouped together differently too. What can be referred to broadly in one country requires more specific language in another. And what of jokes, poetry, or slang?
We’ve all heard of humorous mistakes in translation, or issues that have arisen from the misinterpretation of a single word. So how can translators take a novel and exchange words from one language to another while keeping its meaning fully intact? You can’t really. Sacrifices must be made. Titles need to be changed, places altered, words censored and rhymes rewritten. I know many people who read originals when possible for this exact reason. But sadly, I cannot speak French or Russian or Chinese or Spanish or other languages from countries that publish wonderful books.
Each time I pick up a translated novel I pray that it is as close to the original as possible. But sometimes I really do wonder…