Dictionary of Untranslatables
Thread poster: Tom in London

Tom in London
United Kingdom
Local time: 05:48
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Italian to English
Jan 29, 2015

V. intriguing book review in the Time Literary Supplement

"At one extreme, translation is conceived of in terms of literal identity of meaning; at the other, it is simply impossible"

http://www.the-tls.co.uk/tls/public/article1512220.ece

[Edited at 2015-01-29 18:07 GMT]


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Tomás Cano Binder, BA, CT  Identity Verified
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I basically agree... Jan 29, 2015

...that based upon very objective reasons, translation is impossible, the same way communication is very unlikely indeed.

Despite all odds against it, we do translate, and we do communicate. We translators are supposed to be the ones who manage to achieve a target meaning (in all senses of meaning) that is closer to the source meaning than anyone else. That's why they pay us. We do the magic.


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Tom in London
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Yes but... Jan 29, 2015

Tomás Cano Binder, CT wrote:

...that based upon very objective reasons, translation is impossible, the same way communication is very unlikely indeed.

Despite all odds against it, we do translate, and we do communicate. We translators are supposed to be the ones who manage to achieve a target meaning (in all senses of meaning) that is closer to the source meaning than anyone else. That's why they pay us. We do the magic.


... some of the examples given in the article, such as "consciousness"/"conscience" etc. are very interesting.


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Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 13:48
Chinese to English
I dunno, I think this is pretty terrible Jan 30, 2015

Like most media commentary on translation, seems to miss the point fairly comprehensively.

E.g.:
...if translation requires identity of meaning, then if A translates B and B translates C, then A and C are identical in meaning. A moment’s reflection shows this cannot be right: “castle” can be translated as Schloss, and “Schloss” as château, but the Château de Chenonceau is not a castle in anyone’s book. Translation is not identity of meaning.

Right. Similarly, the fact that avocat means both lawyer and avocado implies that when a Frenchman calls for his avocat it means something quite different to an Englishman asking for his lawyer. Who knows, maybe the French dude was just hungry?

However, it is important not to exaggerate when we reject the mapping conception of translation. Google Translate does work...

This just makes me want to swear. Is the writer an absolute idiot? GT is all about *not* using meaning.

The best articles...tease out the complex relations of meaning and etymology across the languages of Europe.

Etymology is the last refuge of scoundrels. It has sweet FA to do with translation.

All in all, the usual blathering by witless culturati who think they know what translation is about because they once read something in a foreign language.


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Balasubramaniam L.  Identity Verified
India
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Dharma and religion Jan 30, 2015

Earlier in the last century, when a lot of Indian philosophical texts in Sanskrit were being translated into European languages, particularly German and English, the translators had trouble with the term dharma. In Sanskrit and Indian languages, it stands for ethically correct behaviour. As no single term existed in any European language that conveyed this meaning, the translators substituted religion for this term. Now in Sanskrit, religion is not the same as dharma; the word mat is used for religion. It is possible to lead a life confirming to dharma by following any religion, as all religions come with ethical norms. So, dharma is a broader concept than religion.

Many now feel that much of the religious strife present in India which was famed for its inclusiveness and its acceptance of religions of all forms and denominations - inherent in the Sanskrit saying "Ekam sad vipra bahudha vadanti" (truth is one but wise men define it in many ways) - was due to this mistranslation of this one word.

Since the imperialists aggressively promoted their versions of Indian texts, so that they could justify their occupation of Indian lands, many Indians who had been indoctrinated to believe that their own religion and culture was inferior, internalised these mistranslated texts and began to see dharma as religion, and that lead to the religious strifes of India which culminated in the mass killings at partition and the division of India.

Of course this story is an oversimplification but it does illustrate that mistranslation of difficult philosophical terms can happen and these mistranslations can have far-reaching consequences.

[Edited at 2015-01-30 06:36 GMT]


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Tom in London
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Dharma bums Jan 30, 2015

Balasubramaniam L. wrote:

..a lot of interesting stuff


Kerouac got as far as titling one of his books "The Dharma Bums" which is what Indian religion became after it had passed through Alan Watts and California, before it got to me and (whether you like this or not) was still enlightening no matter what was lost in the translation (and I don't know what that was). Balasubramaniam L is saying (interestingly and beautifully in a language not his own, and all the better for it) that Derrida was correct (since accurate translation is impossible, what matters is not understanding accurately but misunderstanding and wrongness) and what Edward Said was saying when he talked about the colonised who are now returning to invade us and haunt us children of imperialists with tastes of our own medicine. As for Phil - he just hates the whole thinking thing. Not for him. Something other people do. People of whom we should be suspicious. Who have the luxury of time whilst the rest of us just get on with our work and don't ask what it means. Don't even think it means anything.

[Edited at 2015-01-30 09:32 GMT]


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Michael Wetzel  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 06:48
German to English
Schloss, castle and palace and GT Jan 30, 2015

While "castle" can be translated as "Schloss," it could also be translated as "Hund" (dog). The latter translation would be just as wrong as the former, but it might be better, because it is obviously wrong and thus not misleading.

Now, "Windsor Castle" is properly translated as "Schloss Windsor," because the concepts behave differently in German and English. In English, a fortification of this type is still a "castle" even if it functions as a residence. In German, it is the other way around: A residence of this kind is still a "Schloss" even it is in the form of a fortification. Nothing is untranslateable here, translators just have to pay attention.

And as Tomás wrote, what is described here as the impossibility of translations is exactly the same thing as the impossibility of communication. Everyone associates particlular signs with a personal set of references situated within a personal system of interlocking references. We cannot communicate or translate, but we can.

Google Translate does NOT give word-by-word translations: It is observant enough to note that in a sentence containing "Bunratty" and "Castle," the German translation should probably be "Burg" and in a sentence with "Windsor" and "Castle," the German translation should probably be "Schloss." That is the whole point of Google Translate. It is also the second most important reason why Google Translate is not getting any better: GIGO, that is, the vast majority of translations in the Internet are garbage and therefore the output of Google is not improving as more data is processed. (The most important reason is that the whole premise of GT is flawed: Correlations of that kind are simply not enough to solve the problem of reliably and effectively automatically translating natural language.)

Still, the book sounds kind of fascinating - a translation into English of Continental Philosophy's translation into French. And it intriguingly contradicts (and also illustrates the significance of) the basic principle of translation as involving a cultural, as well as linguistic, transfer. I'll never read it, because I have two kids, and I probably only have 40 or 50 years left on this planet, but if I ever become immortal, I will certainly take a good look at it.


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Merab Dekano  Identity Verified
Spain
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The more practical, the better Jan 30, 2015

The article is interesting, but not in practical terms. It may be insightful to surmise whether anything at all can be translated, but here we are; translating and earning a living by virtue of a profession we are proud of. And it looks like it is not about our own rejoice only; folks around us actually need stuff to be translated.

I have always been of an opinion that translation should be looked at from more practical angle. You translate a contract from English into Spanish and the Spanish speaker should get the same thing (when reading the Spanish version) as the English speaker (when reading the English version).

This goes for literary translation too. For example, even though I am not native speaker of the English language, I do get, let’s call it “pleasure”, when I read: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep”. When I read the Spanish versión (Somos de la misma sustancia que los sueños, y nuestra breve vida culmina en un dormir), I am getting the same “amount of pleasure”. Then, for me, the translation is good.


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Sorana_M.
Romania
Local time: 07:48
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In Romanian... Jan 30, 2015

Balasubramaniam L. wrote:

Earlier in the last century, when a lot of Indian philosophical texts in Sanskrit were being translated into European languages, particularly German and English, the translators had trouble with the term dharma. In Sanskrit and Indian languages, it stands for ethically correct behaviour. As no single term existed in any European language that conveyed this meaning, the translators substituted religion for this term. Now in Sanskrit, religion is not the same as dharma; the word mat is used for religion. It is possible to lead a life confirming to dharma by following any religion, as all religions come with ethical norms. So, dharma is a broader concept than religion.



it stayed dharma. Just like many other Sanskrit concepts did. Explained, but not translated.

[Edited at 2015-01-30 16:37 GMT]

[Edited at 2015-01-30 16:38 GMT]


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Tom in London
United Kingdom
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Lost in translation Jan 30, 2015

Merab Dekano wrote:

stuff


Ah but "We are such stuff as dreams are made on" is a long way from the merely functional "Somos de la misma sustancia que los sueños" and "little life" does not mean "breve vida"; in this instance it means a combination of "poca vida" "vida pequeña". There is no reference to brevity.

The idea of "our little life is rounded with a sleep" is not about culmination, but is about life as something small that is enveloped (rounded), gently, in something big (a sleep) - like a mother with a baby perhaps. This is a very long way from "Somos de la misma sustancia que los sueños, y nuestra breve vida culmina en un dormir".

As for "sustancia", this is not the equivalent of Shakespeare's "stuff"; his meaning here would be more like "materia" or "paño".

And there's more. I don't know who did that Spanish translation, but nearly everything has been lost. I would hope there are better translations than that one.

So it matters, you see, that we devote some time to thinking about what happens when we translate. Something happened there. What was it? Do you REALLY think it doesn't matter?

[Edited at 2015-01-30 17:43 GMT]


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Michael Joseph Wdowiak Beijer  Identity Verified
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Shakespeare’s Memory Jan 30, 2015

some_text

-> http://www.akirarabelais.com/vi/o/thelibraryofbabel/borges/memory.html


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Tom in London
United Kingdom
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Someone else somewhere else Jan 30, 2015

Michael Beijer wrote:

that stuff up there


Fantastic ! I love the way Borges makes himself into a German (Hermann Sörgel) who has difficulty translating German phrases into English !



[Edited at 2015-01-30 21:45 GMT]


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Merab Dekano  Identity Verified
Spain
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It's not a contract Jan 31, 2015

Tom in London wrote:

Merab Dekano wrote:

stuff


Ah but "We are such stuff as dreams are made on" is a long way from the merely functional "Somos de la misma sustancia que los sueños" and "little life" does not mean "breve vida"; in this instance it means a combination of "poca vida" "vida pequeña". There is no reference to brevity.

The idea of "our little life is rounded with a sleep" is not about culmination, but is about life as something small that is enveloped (rounded), gently, in something big (a sleep) - like a mother with a baby perhaps. This is a very long way from "Somos de la misma sustancia que los sueños, y nuestra breve vida culmina en un dormir".

As for "sustancia", this is not the equivalent of Shakespeare's "stuff"; his meaning here would be more like "materia" or "paño".

And there's more. I don't know who did that Spanish translation, but nearly everything has been lost. I would hope there are better translations than that one.

So it matters, you see, that we devote some time to thinking about what happens when we translate. Something happened there. What was it? Do you REALLY think it doesn't matter?

[Edited at 2015-01-30 17:43 GMT]


Oh dear! Let's sue the translator:-).

Technically, only Shakespeare knows what he intended to say, and he is dead. Yet, "somos de la misma sustancia que los sueños" is by no means functional, Tom. When Spanish speakers read it, they utter: ¡madre mía, qué bonito!

Moreover, I would not sue the translator for altering the allegedly intended meaning in a poem. After all, the goal is to have the emotions going (soft stuff). The "exactness of the information" (hard stuff) is irrelevant, really.

Believe me, it would be awfuller if the translator opted to write: "Estamos hechos de la misma materia que los sueños, y nuestra insignificante vida queda acurrucada por el dormir (si desean más información sobre la acepción de cada término utilizado, acudan al autor; este traductor no asumirá responsabilidad alguna)" or anything similar.

Now, if you ask me, it makes no sense at all to translate poetry (personal opinion). You are effectively writing one and not all translators are good poets, are they?



[Edited at 2015-01-31 18:45 GMT]


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