The Vertigo of Translation

The act of translating a play or a drama induces a sort of vertigo-like feeling, where the number of choices one is presented with seems to create a kind of hall of mirrors effect. 

When translating, one has to keep in mind at any one time, multiple levels of meaning.

On a semantic level, you look at the literal meanings of words and sentences. But words do not ferry across perfectly from one language to another. Chomsky talks about how the idea of ‘river’ for an English speaker could be quite conceptually different to that of the idea of ‘river’ for a Spanish speaker. (1)

He says “studying Spanish and they teach you how to make sentences and so on… that’s the empirical side of the old tradition… it was assumed… if you looked at a dictionary you could find the meaning of a word. So you want to know the meaning of the word ‘river’ or ‘tree’ or ‘city’.. look it up in the dictionary and it will tell you. It was assumed the dictionary was comprehensive and indeed the grammars were comprehensive. Well, both beliefs turn out to be totally false."

Then there one has to consider the pragmatics of translation - the context the words are spoken in and how that influences the meaning of language. How the social and situational factors affect the meaning of what the character says. 

There is subtext to consider. What the character says and what they mean can be different. There is the ‘action’ behind the words of the character, sometimes hidden. "I love you" and "I love you" are very different.

There are cultural references, some of which go back in time quite far and are held affectionately in the collective memory of the speakers of a language. For example, in German, “Das Bild hängt shief/The picture was squint” is the punchline to a sketch which is as recognisable to Germans as Monty Python’s ‘Dead Parrot’ sketch. How does one translate that and keep the joke?

Are people different when they speak in different languages? Will your character, translated from Spanish into English, feel like a different person? Will they move differently? What registers of the language you are translating into will you use? Will the quality of a translated work be different, depending on the langage it is translated into?

The Late Iain Chrichton Smith, Scottish Poet, talks of “certain things one can do in Scots that one can't do in English. I am quite sure of this. There are some marvellous words in Scots like MacDiarmid's 'yow-trummle' ... the trembling of the ewes...Then again Morgan found it much more fruitful to translate Mayakovsky into Scots than into English. Some English translations look pale beside Morgan's. MacDiarmid wrote in Scots and English but is far more powerful and imaginative in Scots.(2)

Chrichton Smith saw the gap between languages during the act of translating, and considered translations of his poetry, not as translations, but as new poems in their own right.

And this brings me to how the act of translation can bring great joy. It is like solving a 3-D crossword puzzle. In the complexity, there is a space for the translator to be present and involved in the creation of the new text that is being created. Hunter S. Thomson would try to get this same effect by typing out entire novels of writers that he loved, just so he could physically feel what it was like to write a sentence exactly like Faulkner or Hemingway.

As a translator, you can also get close to the work of the original writer in a way which is much deeper than you get from just reading a text. You have to try and discover the deeper thought processes of the writer. 

I like to collect example in different languages of the words that they use for the act of translating. In Scottish Gaelic “eadar-theangachadh” - moving between tongues. In German “übersetzung”, which is the same word, but with a different emphasis in the pronunciation, to the term used to describe the ferrying of something across a river. In Japanese the word ‘Honyaku’ combines the meaning of the words ‘flip’ and ‘turn’ with translation. 

It is all these things at once, moving, ferrying and turning. And then one day the translation is finished. You come up for air and all the other myriad translations that could have been, fall away. But they are still there in your mind, like the library in the Borges story, which contained every book ever written. 


Iain F Macleod's Blog

(1) Noam Chomsky, Talk at New Hampshire University 1995.

(2) Neill, William, and Iain Crichton Smith. “An Interview by William Neill with Iain Crichton Smith.” The Poetry Ireland Review, no. 31, 1991, pp. 47–56. JSTOR, Accessed 19 Apr. 2024.


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