Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Charles on translation

My buddy Charles is a fluent speaker of Korean, and has done more than his share of professional translation work-- not the piddling stuff, either, but work for entities like the South Korean government. When Charles writes on translation, it's always an education for someone like me, and his latest post on the subject is no exception. Charles ends his post by asking:

To what extent is it even possible to convey the original sentiment of the language?

I began the following essay as an emailed reply to Charles, then decided it was the sort of thing that should appear on the blog, since it's pertinent to the question of dialogue, one of my pet subjects. Many of the dialogical principles underlying this discussion can be applied more widely to fields like religious studies and history, and to human sciences like psychology, sociology, and anthropology.

To what extent is it even possible to convey the original sentiment of the language?

We know the PoMo answer to the question: it's ultimately impossible. With no transcendental signified, the world of discourse is a free-floating, vibratory, radically subjective and context-dependent realm! It's hard enough to communicate one's meaning to one's own speech community; translating someone's thoughts into another language, such that the communicator's original intentions are perfectly preserved, is exponentially more difficult.

(Of course, many English-language PoMo works have been translated from languages like French, despite their abstruseness...)

The above was a somewhat flippant response (sorry, but I can't help tweaking PoMo sensibilities), so allow me to offer a more serious one: I agree that there's no easy answer to this question, given all the variables inherent in human communication. History and culture play roles in how people both see the world and form symbols to relate to it: what "bread" means in one culture might not resonate the same way in another, even if "bread" is translated from language to language in a way that is-- how should I say this?-- lexically correct. In that sense, the PoMo'ers do have a point, trivially true though it be: we all approach texts from our own distinct perspectives, and this can pose a translational problem.

But this isn't to say that the project is totally hopeless, because human beings are capable of empathy and imagination: I'm moved to tears by some of the poetry of Langston Hughes (I have a collection of his stuff lying in a box somewhere), despite my not having experienced the pain he must have gone through. I'm pretty sure I have a good emotional and intellectual grasp of Gibran's "The Prophet," despite its being a fictional work by a non-American about a situation I've never experienced (standing in a crowd by the waters, listening to a wise prophet's parting words). Conveyance of emotion and meaning-- of perspective and experience-- is not a mere possibility: it's a reality.

We have to trust, on some level, that human beings experience the world in ways that largely overlap, whatever their differences in culture, language, and personal/corporate experience. I tried to make this point in the "philosophy of mind" chapter in my book: there's a reason why the makers of Coca Cola have been successful at selling a drink whose formula varies very little from country to country-- they assume, rightly, that we're all wired in similar ways. Humans can say "I know how you feel" for a reason. We're capable of empathy, of reaching beyond our own skulls, by virtue of our mental and physical similarities. I reject the idea that we're merely "islands of radical subjectivity," as one of my profs mockingly put it. And if it's true that we experience the world in largely overlapping ways, we can probably trust that, even if a translation doesn't convey every ounce of the creator's original intent, the core thoughts and feelings will nevertheless come across, at least in most cases.

So how strict a standard are we following when we talk about "conveying the original sentiment" of a work? As an American, I obviously can't understand a poem about the Korean War in quite the same way that my mother can, so perhaps at some deep, cellular level, conveying the original sentiment is impossible. But is this really the standard to which translators should hold themselves? I suspect that there's a wide middle ground between "absolutely faithful" translations (whatever that might mean) and "absolutely loose" translations (not slipshod, per se, but taking dangerous liberties-- as I saw when I bought a Christian rendition of the Tao Te Ching).

So I'm optimistic about how much meaning can cross the linguistic divide. Here's what I'd consider a clear-cut case of successful communication through a sort of translation. Let's say I'm learning Hungarian, and I get to the stage where I've learned the phrase "Please sit down." Obviously, I'm not at a point where I'm thinking in Hungarian; what I'm doing is mentally translating locutions, like a monk in a scriptorium-- it's a slow, deliberate rendering. I go to Hungary and someone says "Please sit down" to me, so I manage a "Thank you" in Hungarian and sit. In such a situation, I'm not inclined to worry that something subtle has been missed, or that something has been lost in translation. For all practical purposes, what occurred was clear communication. Other practical examples might be "Give me that cup" or "Close the window; I'm cold." It would be hard to misunderstand these utterances, and most sane people, in such moments, won't spend hours pondering their deeper meaning. So perfect conveyance of sentiment between speakers of different languages is possible.

Going a bit further now: let's say I'm someone who speaks fluent French but can't claim to know French inside and out-- many of the language's puns, proverbs, and recurrent metaphors aren't part of my active vocabulary. One day I find myself in rapid conversation with an older Frenchman about some stinky topic, and he says, "Plus on remue la merde, plus elle pue." ("The more you stir the shit, the more it stinks.") Despite my not having heard this expression before, I know, thanks to my general fluency, (1) exactly what the expression means in its literal sense, and (2) the expression's metaphorical relevance to the present conversation. As a result, I laugh heartily or smile grimly, as the conversation warrants.

While not as neat an example of clear translation* as the Hungarian example was, I'd say that this, too, shows that the speaker's original sentiments can be clearly and quickly transferred to the interlocutor, despite the fact that the two conversants are native speakers of different languages.

All of which is to say that there is, in my opinion, plenty of room for perfectly satisfactory sentiment-conveyance in translation. It can never be absolutely perfect (I'd have to have telepathic access to my interlocutor's mind for that!), but in many-- or even most-- cases, it's entirely feasible.

To be clear, I'm not implying that all original sentiments are so easily conveyed across language barriers. There are concepts that are difficult or even impossible to translate, given their culture-boundedness; kimchi is a good Korean example here, as is another of my favorite Korean concepts: nunchi. Poetry and humor are also devilishly hard to translate; much can be lost in the move from one language to another. Scholars tell us, for example, that Jesus did have a sense of humor; he apparently used plenty of sly puns in Aramaic that sound awkward in biblical Greek, but would have made sense to first-century Galileans), so yes, one can never expect absolutely perfect sentiment-transmission in all cases. Many words and concepts can only be grasped through experience, just as mastering the proper flow of English or Korean or French can only come from immersion** and practice.

So in answer to the "to what extent?" question that motivated this essay: I can't provide a specific measure, but I feel comfortable saying:

To a great extent in most cases, and to the point of perfect communication in many other, simpler dialogical situations. But perfect transmission of sentiment in all cases? No. That sort of perfection is only attainable through perfectly intimate knowledge of the culture in which the relevant language is spoken.***

UPDATE: For an example of a semantic morass, read this article about the hokey-pokey song and dance. I had no idea the song could provoke such visceral reactions. (Many thanks to Richardson for the link.)

*You could argue that a fluent speaker isn't translating at all, so please know that I use the word "translation" with caution here. There are good arguments to be made about whether a non-native but fluent speaker of a language is in truth translating rapidly, or is so immersed in the target language's thought-world that s/he is simply producing utterances naturally. This question becomes murkier the more fluent a person is.

All the same, I think my French example is relevant because of the inherent inseparability of language and culture. I think something translational is happening when a native speaker of one language speaks with a native speaker of another, even if the latter is perfectly fluent in the former's language. I say this because speakers of two languages often find themselves in multicultural situations where it's necessary, on some level, to perform something like translation (e.g., a fluent Hebrew speaker inviting a goy friend to a Jewish party).

**In this instance, "immersion" doesn't necessarily mean that a language learner must live a long time in a country or culture that speaks the target language, but it does mean that, because learning a foreign language inevitably involves learning a foreign culture, the best learning comes from some sort of sustained empathetic immersion in that culture's thought-world. I've met Koreans who speak nearly perfect English without having set foot on anglophone soil, so I know this sort of immersion is possible-- rare, but possible.

*** I subscribe to the notion that one can be a true native speaker of two or more languages.



Anonymous said...

Excellent! I will be posting a link to this at the end of my note forthwith.

I do intend to come back to this question in the near future, although I think I will focus more on the practical aspect, since I think your answer is the only one that makes any sense. In other words, I'll be probably be writing something that answers the question, "If perfect sentiment-transmission is not always possible, what does this mean for how we should translate and how we should judge translations?" Actually, that's where I'd like to end up--I imagine there will still be some wrinkles to iron out before I can get there, though.

Kevin Kim said...

That's an interesting question. I haven't done nearly enough translation work to have an answer, so I'll be curious to read what you have to say on the matter.