Though we many not often stop to consider it, the notion and practice of translating literature is not foreign to us. Some of the most famous literary and historical works, such as the Bible, The Communist Manifesto, and The Odyssey have all been translated from their original languages in order to be understood by a larger audience. The benefit of translating literature is clear: a writer can get their message across to all parts of the world. But are there any disadvantages? Is there something to be said for the cliché “lost in translation?”
It’s easy to argue that some works, like the ones above, should be translated from their original language. But that could be partly because certain genres of literature are more affected by translation than others, poetry being a key example. When studying, analyzing, or even just enjoying poetry, so much of its value comes from elements such as rhyme, imagery, alliteration, and meter. But those aspects just can’t be translated—and that’s where the problem lies. Even if a translator were to work extremely hard to perfect a meter or rhyme scheme, there’s no way that the poetic effect can truly be duplicated.
Let’s say for example that there is a poem written in French that features a beautiful line that mimics the sound of the wind blowing by using alliteration. (For those who don’t know, alliteration is the repetition of a consonant sound such as ‘s’ or ‘m’). A translator has a duty to convey the literal meaning of the line, so they’ll choose words in their language that best match the French vocabulary. But what about the alliteration? It is highly doubtful that the translator will be able to find words that both express the idea of the line AND are able to maintain the stylistic effect that the alliteration offers. The great thing about the line in the French poem is that not only is it describing the wind using words, but the repetitious sounds are able to give the effect of blowing and whistling as well. Therefore in translating the poem there’ll undoubtedly be aspects that’ll be lost and that won’t be conveyed to the new audience. A large part of what makes the poem, in a sense, “poetic” is gone!
On a more basic level, even word choice can be problematic in the translation of literature, and once again we see poetry as being most affected. Translating vocabulary in more objective works like journals or novels is more straightforward than in poetry, because the effectiveness of poetry often relies on the diction and its subtleties and nuances. In other words, several adjectives may have the same definition more or less, but there undoubtedly exist slight variations and specializations in their meaning. For example, if you are trying to express that someone is frustrated, adjectives such as agitated, irritated, and aggravated could all be acceptable, yet there are definite distinctions between them. These distinctions, however small they may be, are taken into account when writing poetry because poetry is so immensely calculated. But when translating a poem, sometimes an equivalent word may not exist in another language or the translation will simply fail to capture the power of the original choice of diction. The full effect of the poem is lost as a result.
It’s not to say that novels and other forms of literature don’t purposefully employ diction, imagery, and other devices in terms of stylistic effect and message. They obviously do, so therefore it could be reasonable to say that the translation of any literature is problematic. But in terms of a poor translation, there is something about poetry that makes the offense seem so much greater. Perhaps it’s because poetry often relies so heavily on literary devices like the ones described above. For while in a novel the most important aspect is the ultimate message, with poetry the most important aspect may very well be the way in which it expresses or arrives at that message.
Sadly there is no perfect solution to this problem. It would be unfortunate if people could only read literature written in their native language, but at the same time translated literature does not always live up to the original work. Translation must therefore be accepted as somewhat of a necessary evil, and when reading translated work we should try to keep in mind that the translator’s own interpretation may not perfectly convey the sentiments of the true author. A partial remedy to this problem could be to read several different translations of a work (if they exist) in order to gain a fuller understanding—but clearly you’d have to really like the book to do that. Otherwise, I’d recommend hitting the books and learning a few more languages yourself!