What Really Gets “Lost” in Translation

I’m a writer. And as a writer, my job is to get you to understand exactly what I mean exactly the way I mean it without you so much as hearing my real voice, or me getting the chance to explain something if you have a question. Doing that in a language that I presume we both speak (English) is hard enough, but now imagine if I only spoke French and I had to have someone interpret my writing and explain it to you in the same amount of lines without any room for explanation. Sucks, doesn’t it?  language-barrier
Image from ilCartello.eu
Well, in fact, I do speak fluent French, along with Futhark and I’m learning Spanish as my fourth language for this exact reason. In Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, a book by Eliot Weinberger that consists of a plethora of translations, (nineteen if you could believe it), of the same Chinese poem by Wang Wei, the author discusses and criticizes each minute change of diction between the translations. The poem in its original script is only twenty characters, but when it goes through the process of translation, those characters are left up to personal interpretation. For instance, the first character of the poem which directly means “empty,” is translated by the very first two readings as “lone” (8) and “no one.” (10). This is a theme that runs consistent throughout the rest of the translated interpretations.

Even the simplest of change in words that might share a common meaning can spin an entirely different story in a reader’s mind. “Sunlight, entering a grove,” (10) offers a radically different sensation to a reader than, “Sunlight pierces the deep forest,” (20), and as a translator, there is no way around making that distinction from another translator.

It is for this reason that as much as we’d like to think that words mean the same thing from mouth to mouth, as it would sure make understanding literature a whole lot easier, they don’t, especially when translated through opposing languages. So while nothing may be “lost” in the process, a whole new experience is surely created, and regardless, that’s something to value.


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