On translation

I don’t trust translations. As a child, however, I did, and had great time reading all sorts of things in translation–French, German, Russian, Spanish–it didn’t matter. I took the translators at their word that they would faithfully read, interpret, and re-write a book so that I could read it in English. Of course, I lost my translation innocence when I learned Spanish, leaving behind my career as a life-long monolingual who had basked in the naivete of a one language world. I had always suspected, for example, that when strange species met on episodes of Star Trek that they would have trouble communicating–English-speaking earthlings shouldn’t be able to communicate directly with just off the space shuttle Klingons, for example–but I suspended my disbelief so I could enjoy the show. I was, however, skeptical that the Klingons didn’t even have an accent of any kind when they spoke, or was that the accent of Los Angeles that they had learned via Rosetta-stoned? Then, I kind, if not well-meaning, teacher taught me that the word for “red” in Spanish was “roja.” Again, I was skeptical, but I kept it to myself. In fact, I kept my skepticism to myself for years while I learned this other “language.” For the most part, even when using Spanish (I’m not going to brag and say “speaking” just yet), I still felt that English was right there, a crutch, a back-up, that would always save me, that is, until I landed in Spain and English was useless on most any level. I realized right away that none of these Spanish speakers knew any English at all, and their world seemed to work pretty well: the ate, communicated, fought, drank coffee, gave directions, explained, interacted, and a whole host of other things while ignoring English completely. They said “hola, buenos días” as if they meant it. After about a month of this foolishness, it began to dawn on me that there were places in the world that didn’t know English, and didn’t want to, either, to paraphrase Thorton Wilder. I began to learn and use words in Spanish that I had never seen in a text book, had never written in my notebook, and didn’t really know what they meant in English, or at least I didn’t know what their English equivalent was. At that moment, a major epiphany struck: English and Spanish don’t know each other, aren’t equivalent, and you can’t make one language mean the other, especially if the discourse is at all complex. “Roja” does not mean “red.” Both words refer to a similar darkish shade from the rainbow or perhaps the color of some apples, but words from different languages are not equivalent. The idea is absurd, especially to bilinguals. I joined that group of people in my early twenties, forever ruined for reading translations. At some point I did a translation assignment that concerned a poem by García Lorca, “Canción del jinete.” I turned in my assignment, crestfallen because I knew it was a failure–you can’t translate that poem and still keep the poem alive, and my horseman had died long before he ever made it to Cordoba–so the poet had been, ironically, right–he never did make it to Córdoba. Whenever I must read a translation today, I always try to keep an original near. I read Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago in English, knowing full-well that the Russian must have been gorgeous. I know why Dante and Petrarch were so good: their poetry sings in Italian in a way that it never could translated into English, but the best way to kill Shakespeare? Translate him out of English into anything else. There is nothing funnier than Hamlet speaking Spanish, except Hamlet is not supposed to be funny. Cervantes is brilliant in Spanish, but he’s just funny in English, and so it goes. I guess I’ll have to learn Klingon to enjoy their operas, now, won’t I.