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11 September 2011

L'Amore Tradotto

For the first half of my undergraduate degree, I was technically a pure modern languages student (although I was taking so many linguistics papers that my purity may be doubted), studying French and Italian. In both of these first two years, I had to take one general grammar/use-of-the-language paper and one translation class for each language, along with additional literature or, in my case, linguistics papers.

In the first year, you translated into English and in the second year, you translated from English. In the translation exams you had, I think, two hours to translate two texts, with no dictionary. This is, of course, highly unrealistic given that in a real-life setting, you would have access to a dictionary and any other reference works you need. At the time, you would also be unlikely to be asked to translate out of your native language, although after having to translate ten highly technical geoscience-related press releases into French as part of my job last year, I am reconsidering this point. How well you did in the exam was a bit of a lottery depending on which texts came up--I remember getting a high first in my translation-from-Italian mock exam in my first year and then only a high 2:1 in the real thing. As for the second year, you try translating an extract from 2001: A Space Odyssey into Italian in one hour with no dictionary! Especially when you didn't even realise it was 2001 because the only identifying information was: "Author: A. Clarke."

Anyway, I always rather liked my translation classes--doing a good translation often felt like solving a tough crossword, with so many things to consider. My first year translation-from-Italian supervisor (who was in the process of translating Dante's Inferno) always insisted that we should be translating "for [our] soul" rather than for the Tripos exams we were taking. I didn't see it that way at the time but I was interested to read David Bellos's new book, Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, which highlights some of the trials, tribulations, joys and jubilations of translation. It was a relatively quick read for me, partly because some of the material was very familiar, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Bellos, who was brought up in England but has lived and worked extensively in the US, is used to having his English de-Britted or de-Yanked by subeditors. The resultant copy is in a language he calls Tranglish. In the book, he outlines some of the general difficulties translators face on a regular basis and then looks at some more specific cases: politics (at the EU or UN, for example), law, religion news, jokes and literature. What happens when you're translating Tolstoy into French, for example, given that some of the source texts contain sections of dialogue in French, as was standard for the Russian bourgeoisie at that time? This is an example of translation loss and you would have to add the meaning back, perhaps by using a particular dialect or register of French. And although computers can play chess, they still can't produce a very faithful translation of Proust, despite the advances made by Google Translate.

But even when you're looking at translating individual words, it's challenging when very few concepts, except perhaps biological species and some other scientific terms, have exactly the same meaning when translated into another language. The Russians have different words for light blue and dark blue (which is fine if the translator is translating a text about the sky but more difficult if she doesn't know what shade of blue is being described in the source text) and we all know about the Eskimos and their words for snow (Bellos counters this by pointing out the dozens of words we have for coffee, as anyone who has tried to order just "a coffee" in Starbucks will know).

Bellos concludes as follows: we all speak different languages but we're all really the same. So, "translation is another name for the human condition." And I think my first year supervisor would definitely concur.

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