Lost in translation

I just finished translating a new story today, and am going through that daunting moment where it is about to land in the middle of the crossed fire of the workshop reviewers and I’ll have to kill darlings I never imagined were here. Well…

I was also just thinking about all the random language "facts" that are so widely believed even if they are so stupid, facts I was happy to believe myself when I started to be fluent in English and was waiting for every occasion to show off. For instance, that some languages are better suited to some uses than others. I used to be convinced that English, for instance, is much better suited to songwriting than French. This was merely due to the fact that since it was not my native language, I was able to appreciate the sounds of the words as sounds, not as signifiers, which made it much easier to fit them with a melody; also becaue my grammar was even worse then than now, which meant I could write any kind of nonsense and find it beautiful. I often wonder, when reading weird-sounding lyrics in English from non-English speaking authors, if they are not going through the same kind of process, or if they simply get away with it because the Anglo-Saxon culture places much less emphasis on song lyrics than, say, the French culture.

Are there many more myths like that? I recently read that some people hold English to be the "natural" language of science, for what reason I can’t even start to imagine. Some others will say that there is "naturally" more feeling and passion in languages such as Spanish, while other are supposed to be more precise, like German that, I read somewhere, is or was held to be the "natural" language of philosophy.

Those myths are to clichés what champagne is to wine: they rise to your head easily and they taste wonderfully elitist (because only linguists can argue for or against them), but ultimately, they are no more than a big bunch of rotten fruit juice, just like the rest.

Hard as it is to shake off the comfortable old idea that there is a place for everything and a hierarchy for all, including for languages, it must be done. Languages mirror the culture where they emerge, it is true; this means that for things like songwriting, science, philosophy, diplomacy or literature, which were present in all the cultures I’ve heard of and possibly in many I don’t know about, they are equally suited. Now little differences exist, it is true. They don’t prove anything, but they are still fascinating. And bloody annoying at times.

One of the reccurring headaches of translators is the fact that, inevitably, you will arrive at some point where there are five words in language A where language B has only one word, and you are forced either to improvise if you’re translating from B to A (which one to choose?), or to lose precious nuances of meaning if you’re doing it the other way. A famous example is the sheer number of words for light and sounds in English, when French has much, much less. Ask any French student of English how long it took them to memorise them all. But the reverse occurs as well. I was recently very frustrated when I translated that story I had written, in which the main character was supposed to have the shape of a horse: there are specific words in French for many body parts of a horse, which in English simply translate by "nostrils", "neck", etc. And I didn’t want to explicitly write "horse" either…

One other problem I have is with slang. Sorry to all of you English-speaking people… but mostly, English slang is to French argot what boiled vegetables are to curry. So whenever I write a story in which the narrator is not supposed to be too well-bred or educated, it is a regular conundrum to render their speech into English without having to go fishing in Dickens’s novels for some words nobody uses anymore. An example: if you want to refer to young human beings in English, common terms will include "child", and "kid", maybe "boy", "girl" or "brat" if you want to get into specifics. In French there must be a good dozen words, with varying degrees of triviality and affection. A bad horse is a "nag"; again, in French, there are three very common words translating this one. It’s very annoying when you don’t want your character to sound like a gentleman or to lack imagination. 

Still, it’s one of the reasons why translation is so fascinating. You get more brain exercise on one word than on a whole grid of sudoku.


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