Saturday, 12 November 2016


When you become someone else's voice, you make choices based on how you want to be heard or read. Authors have their own unique style. A translation has to respect that and make it work in parallel with another language. I say parallel because it cannot be the same but it proceeds along a common direction.
That might not be as easy as one would think. The original author's skill is not on trial, sentences can and have to be changed in order to fit the right syntax but the simplicity or the complexity of the writing has to be respected. Whether the narrative is skilled or poor, a translator has to remain true to the original text as much as possible.
The best tool for a translator is how words and sentences are interpreted in a different language. The meaning and structure vary greatly because words are loaded with historical and social baggage. This gives room for a broader choice of grammar, vocabulary or conjugation.

Certain works, once translated, surrender part of their essence. Take music, be it operas or pop. Nobody would dream to sing a Beatles' song in French, but you can have Puccini's La Boheme in English at the English National Opera. Does it work? That's a perspective worth exploring.
Words are chosen by an author for very specific effect. In poetry especially, they fit a certain rhythm and meter, the linguistic pattern for the verses. The meaning of the chosen words is vital for the "soul" of a poem. Dante's Divine Comedy, to cite one, is impossible to replicate in English. Most editions are wonderful to read and they tend to preserve its function as an historical, witty and gory read. And you can still savour its medieval texture. But it was written with a very specific dactylic hexameter, to echo Virgil's writings, Dante's master inspiration. That can be achieved in another language by either changing words, thus its impact, or the meter, thus losing its core values.

Robin Waterfiel's translation of Plato's Republic (Oxford University Press, 2008), is a flowing read and it connects with the modern reader because the expression and the lexicon used is contemporary rather than archaic.
But do contemporary idioms have a place in unfolding ancient texts? Waterfield makes use of terms like raison d'être or ad infinitum, for instance, both most definitely not en vogue in Plato's time. English was not used in 380 BCE either, but that's the acceptable part as reading in your own language becomes a subconscious undertaking. The abrupt insertion of yet another language, like French or Latin of the examples above, interrupts the flow and brings the reader to a more conscious level. Whether that is a good or bad thing, it still raises the question of consistency in a 'voice', i.e. Plato's.

In an era of easily-found apps and websites offering all sorts of quick fixes, the craft of the profession offers a necessary and incredibly useful tool to divulge thoughts, art and ideas properly. Translating is a constant compromise of intents. The work done by the professionals is not necessarily always the best but in the vast majority of cases it is a wonderful and underappreciated task, taken for granted, which allows us to enjoy the only truly positive globalisation... that of thoughts.

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