How to be lost in translation

For the first time in my life, the phrase “lost in translation” has manifested itself. Fleshy, real, and complex. Interestingly enough, translation has never been a problem for the past 25 years of my life, despite me being multi-lingual. My language used to be Russian, but at some point its throne got fully occupied by English. The two rarely interact. What I can express in Russian I can express in English, but the converse is frequently not true. Having learned the language of teenage rebellion, of science, of depression, of (still in progress) maturity, in English – this language has organically become my mode of communication.

I never actively tried to bring my Russian to the level of English because I never had to. In Russian, I am still a child. Though aware of this gap, I never fully understood the complexity of translation because I assumed my gap to be that of vocabulary. I was wrong.

Today I curate theatre reviews for Weird Canada. Weird Canada has taken on a heroic quest to actually be Canadian, one of many aspects of which is its bilingualism. Every piece has a French and an English version. I have just had my first francophone writer create a riveting and mentally stimulating piece. She also translated it into English. As the editor, my job was to (yes) edit. I was not prepared that this would be one of the toughest tasks to date. Here are a couple of questions and observations that I was left with:

  • What does it mean for a translation to be accurate? If I preserve the vocabulary and the sentence structure of the original piece, then in some cases the translated version stops sounding like the original author. Even though it’s the original author who translated from French into English in the first place. What a conundrum.
  • If I attempt to edit the English version to sound like the literary work of art that the French version is – I might butcher whole paragraphs. Though I think I sound like the original author, am I depriving the reader of the layers that the original piece had? Yes I am…
  • Where is the balance???