Translation often has to face the accusation that it keeps losing things. As if translators were scatterbrained, absent-minded professors. Well, honestly, I ask you !? This criticism is especially levied at poetry translation. Robert Frost even quipped, that poetry is neatly definable as "what gets lost in translation".
Of course, translation is not aiming to lose anything, or add anything, but substitute to make understandable what the translator has understood. In that sense, it is re-authorship. Thus, a perfectly translated misunderstanding remains a misunderstanding. Loss or embellishment was not just in the translation, but in the reading of the original.
While translation may add distortion of original intent, it can add clarity to a fuzzy original's imperfect expression. Since a good translation begins with a meticulous quest for meaning, translators can spot oddities in the (transcription of the) original. Ultimately, what meaning may have been lost or deformed in the writing, or its transcription, may end up being put right, or at least found out, in translation.
To give an example, why not take something as classic as Shakespeare's Sonnets. To paraphrase Wikipedia "The cross-cultural importance and influence of the sonnets is demonstrated by the large number of translations that have been made of them. In the German-speaking countries alone, there have been 70 complete translations since 1784. There is no major written language into which the sonnets have not been translated, including Latin, Japanese, Turkish, Esperanto, Afrikaans, Albanian, Arabic, Hebrew, Welsh, Yiddish and many more."
When I decided to have a go at translating the sonnets myself, I made a point of going right back to the original versions, as published in 1609. This led me to some interesting discoveries.
Most notably, sonnet 116 (in sequence) was numbered 119. A simple error of typography? Plausible, were it not for the message of that sonnet. "Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments..." or rather, let's take a look at the original, here
Being IT trained, to me this looks suspiciously like a check-sum situation, a sonnet to reveal tampering. A sonnet typeset so provocatively "wrongly", yet praising the tolerance of faults? If this be error and upon me proved, I never wrote it then, sorry.
One interesting word in the original spelling here is "higth". A word that looks like height and sounds like hithe (port). Just a misprint? Or is it significant? "It is the star to every wandering barke" (A dog's bark? No. A barque, a ship), "whose worth's unknown, although his higth be taken". This is taken to be the star's height, by readers, editors and translators. After all navigators take elevation readings. But what if higth is a pun on the ship's hithe, its destination? And, as a double meaning, the ship's height in the water, burdened by carrying cargo, evidently. Or all three aspects, star elevation included ...
My late brother had a theory, that this sonnet was about a pregnancy, i.e. carrying a treasure, to term, guided by the star of true constant love. The young man of the sonnets would be the author's illegitimate son with a high-ranked lady, and the sonnets a homage to that affair, cryptic, to save damaging his loved ones' prospects.
But enough about that tantalizing possibility.
One of my favourite translation tasks is nonsense poetry. While the task is in a sense very free and forgiving in the target language, and hugely creative, it is no less a challenge, riddled with pitfalls. In Lewis Carroll's much translated Jabberwocky, for instance, the very fact that the title is not Jabberwock, like the monster, leaves most translators cold. But why the "y"? Is the title a name for the mini-epic itself (like story), or for the land where it takes place (like Italy), or the weather, or a state of mind (murky), or just some other whacky adjective? Do let's choose our solution(s) in translation(s), never overlooking such detail.
Is Jabberwocky all nonsense, or does it contain allusive hints of sense? What about "manxome foe"? Anything to do with the Isle of Man, perhaps? Is the monster dock-tailed, like a Manx cat?
To my mind, quite possibly.
And, to close the arch between the two pillars above, has anyone translated any Shakespeare, sonnets or otherwise, into Manx Gaelic, as yet?
Now, there's a Manxome Foe.