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???
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3 thoughts on “How to be lost in translation

  1. These are such good questions. I don’t have any answers, but I love being encouraged to think about this subject. I wonder: what does it mean to you for an author to “sound” the same in French and in English? I don’t know that I’ve ever come across a translation that I would say sounds like the original. The core meaning may get through, and some measure of the author’s facility with language, but how could the sound, or even the voice, of the author be similar in both languages?

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    • Your post made me go back and reread one of my favorites of Nancy Huston’s many works: Nord Perdu. There she writes, “Rilke en allemande, Rilke en français : deux poètes différents. Ou Tsvetaieva, en russe et en français. Si Beckett avait opté pour le serbo-croate, aurait-il écrit Fin de partie et Oh ! les beaux jours ? Quel genre de roman aurait inventé Conrad s’il n’avait pas renoncé au polonais ? Et pourquoi Kundera a-t-il perdu son sens d’humour en abandonnant le tchèque ? Ainsi de suite… Qui sommes-nous, alors ? si nous n’avons pas les mêmes pensées, fantasmes, attitudes existentielles, voire opinions, dans une langue et dans une autre ?” I remember my own disappointment upon reading Nancy Huston for the first time in English translation. She was someone…else. Not the writer I knew and loved. And I am not sure there is any translation that could have conveyed the writer she was to me in French.

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      • I fully agree with you. I am starting to think that translation is more of a stand-alone work of art that is inspired by the piece as opposed to one that exactly represents it.

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