The Impossibility of Translation
The word "translate," from the Latin translatus, literally means "carried over," but it loses this concreteness in its 'translation' from Latin to English.
My wife and I have begun translating books from Korean into English. Rather, my wife translates, and I edit her translation. We try very hard to translate well . . . but what does this mean?
To help myself understand what this means, I'm currently reading Susan Bassnett's Translation Studies, first written in 1980 but revised in 1991 (London and New York: Routledge). Bassnett draws from Hilaire Belloc, On Translation (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1931) to explain one of the difficulties of translating well:
The translator should not 'plod on', word by word or sentence by sentence, but should 'aways "block out" his work'. By 'block out', Belloc means that the translator should consider the work as an integral unit and translate in sections, asking himself 'before each what the whole sense is he has to render'. (116)
Translating is a type of traveling, so you have to know where you're going if you want to get there. The "whole sense" of a section is your next destination. But different languages map out differently. Here's a problem described by Cathy Porter for those who might want to translate Russian:
Russians have a first ('Christian') name, a patronymic and a surname. The customary mode of address is first name plus patronymic, thus, Vasilisa Dementevna, Maria Semenovna. There are more intimate abbreviations of first names which have subtly affectionate, patronizing or friendly overtones. So for instance Vasilisa becomes Vasya, Vasyuk, and Vladimir becomes Volodya, Volodka, Volodechka, Volya. (Alexandra Kollontai, Love of Worker Bees, translated by Cathy Porter (London: Virago, 1977), 226)
Bassnett cites Porter's note on page 118 and observes that this information "is of little help during the actual reading process," for if a translator "retains the variations of name," then "the English reader is at times confronted with the bewildering profusion of names on a single page all referring to the same character." This complexity is made still more complicated because:
[T]he naming system can indicate multiple points of view, as a character is perceived both by other characters in the novel and from within the narrative. (Bassnett, 119, borrowing from Boris Uspensky, A Poetics of Composition (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973))
Translating from Korean poses its own peculiar problems. The hierarchical nature of Korean society is reflected in the varying ways that characters in a book speak to each other, but the degree of courtesy and formality expressed naturally in Korean will sound artificial, stilted if rendered in English:
"Honored older brother . . ."
People simply don't speak like this in English. Bassnett cites Robert Adams on page 119 to show that this problem also pertains to translating from French into English:
Paris cannnot be London or New York, it must be Paris; our hero must be Pierre, not Peter; he must drink an aperitif, not a cocktail; smoke Gauloises, not Kents; and walk down the rue du Bac, not Back Street. On the other hand, when he is introduced to a lady, he'll sound silly if he says, 'I am enchanted, Madame'. (Robert M. Adams, Proteus, His Lies, His Truth (New York: W. W. Norton, 1973), 12)
Bassnett sums up the problem and her approach to its solution:
In the discussion of equivalence . . . it was shown tht any notion of sameness between SL [Subject Language] and TL [Target Language] must be discounted. What the translator must do, therefore, is to first determine the function of the SL system and then to find a TL system that will adequately render that function. (119)
In my experience, this is at times simply impossible in a literary text. Something -- often very much -- is lost in translation. One could, of course, retrieve it in a footnote, but this is scholarship, not literature.
Shaping a translation thus requires a subtle negotiation between precision and style, and translators, like diplomats, must be well-versed in the art of finding a graceful compromise.