Sunday, April 24, 2011
Out of whack and out of step
(advertising sign in Rajasthan, India)
Out of whack and out of step
A reflection on translations and synonyms
"For there is only one great adventure and that is inward toward the self, and for that, time nor space nor even deeds matter" - it was this pick-up line of Henry Miller that made me fall for his novel "Tropic of Capricorn" in one single sentence after I returned from my first trip to India.
I had borrowed the German version of Miller's book in the library in my hometown, but thought twice about it in the middle of the second chapter and ordered the English version, which was the right decision. It's not that the German translation was not worthwhile, it's just that the original version is so much more of the real thing, it has a different flow, a different breathing.
Like this sentence for example: "at least I knew that I was unhappy, unwealthy, out of whack and out of step" is what Miller had written, a line that still could be written today, eventually even could be rapped from a stage. What unfortunately can't be said for the germanised line: "ich wusste wenigstens dass ich ungluecklich und arm war und nicht aus der Reihe tanzte." The line rather sounds like a bleak cover version performed by someone who had never been on those ragged roads himself, and translates back into: "at least I knew that I was unhappy and poor and did not step out of the line."
Which isn't exactly what Miller had said. But then just going ahead and doing it the babelfish way, translating a sentence word by word and just leaving the original words when in doubt which synonym to pick is not the most elegant of ways either. And probably it's in fact true what some say, that some things just can't be translated and that you never know which words the author would have chosen himself if he or she had written the text in a different language, especially as every language comes with another set of words, with another world of expressions and intonations. Maybe this fact would have even lead to a completely different story altogether, one that starts at the same point in the same setting but follows another chain of thoughts, another line of images, brought upon by this other set of words. And probably it is exactly this difference in cultures that leads to the effect that texts, when they get translated, also get transformed.
And isn't it a bewildering thought that a huge part of the books that are piled in the bookshops are just that: transformed translations. That they originally had been written in another language, and therefore during the process of translating lost some of their texture, some of their mood, some of their meaning. That they might even have lost something essential, some parts of their personality, some spaces between their lines, some of the wide horizons they unfolded. Some of their identity. Some of their reality. Which basically is what good books are: alternative identities put in words, distant realities wrapped in paper. That is were the attraction of a pile of books comes from, or the joy of walking through a library. It is like standing on the edge of the world, ready to leap into the oceans of other spheres.
Really, there should be another word for that, one that is stronger than "to read". Maybe "to word travel". But there isn't. Even so there are 37 synonyms for "to read" in English, going all the way from a to v: apprehend, comprehend, construe, construe, decipher, dip into, discover, explain, expound, express, flip through, gather, glance, go over, go through, interpret, know, leaf through, learn, make out, paraphrase, perceive, peruse, peruse, pore over, put, refer to, render, restate, scan, see, skim, study, translate, understand, unravel and view.
Maybe there are is another word for "to read" in another languages that has more of that feeling inside, just like there should be another word for the "adventure that is inward toward the self." And maybe in some ways these two thoughts might even be expressed by the very same word.
Some notes on the essay and the image
About this post:
This post is part of the new edition of the language / place blog carnival: "language and place on the edge", hosted by Michelle Elvy at Glow Worm. For more about the blog carnival, visit the main page: language/place blog carnival.
I can't remember the place, but it was along the journey through Rajasthan that someone recommenced to read Henry Miller's book. India is a country with 2 official languages (Hindi and English), and 14 official regional languages. There, in the course of an hour, you can have a surprisingly in-depth conversation with an Indian shopkeeper about the German reunion and the history of India, and a bit later, find yourself disoriented and clueless, out of step, and out of whack, in a seemingly alien place. (In case you are interested in my India adventures, here's more: Masala Moments). It was in that time that I started to think more about the nature of languages and translations, and wrote this short essay that later got published in a place with a name that fits in many ways: Identity Theory.
An additional linkFrom theme, this essay also connects to my first contribution to the language/place carnival, which tells a bit more about my bilingual background and includes a note on reading another translated book: "I still have vivid memories of reading Toni Morrison’s book "Sula" in German, and then in English. It was a different book." - the essay is here: My Mask.