Publishing/Writing: Insights, News, Intrigue


Translating: How to Protect the Original Language Emotion in Words

I am always thunder-struck by people who can speak and write in more than one language…but, especially translators who transform books from one language into another for the enjoyment of readers in another country!

Imagine, if you will, the awesome responsibility of translating, not just the direct words, but the emotion conveyed in the words of the original language! In some cases a direct, cold translation into another language would not convey the intended emotion; so the translator HAS to understand the underpinnings of each of the languages s/he is dealing with and make necessary adjustments to give the reader the truest intended emotion…make sense?

Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours and By Nightfall, wrote “Found in Translation” for the New York Times:

As the author of “Las Horas,” “Die Stunden” and “De Uren” — ostensibly the Spanish, German and Dutch translations of my book “The Hours,” but actually unique works in their own right — I’ve come to understand that all literature is a product of translation. That is, translation is not merely a job assigned to a translator expert in a foreign language, but a long, complex and even profound series of transformations that involve the writer and reader as well. “Translation” as a human act is, like so many human acts, a far more complicated proposition than it may initially seem to be.

Let’s take as an example one of the most famous lines in literature: “Call me Ishmael.” That, as I suspect you know, is the opening sentence of Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick.” We still recognize that line, after more than 150 years.

Still. “Call me Ishmael.” Three simple words. What’s the big deal?

For one thing, they possess that most fundamental but elusive of all writerly qualities: authority. As writers we must, from our very opening sentence, speak with authority to our readers.

It’s a little like waltzing with a new partner for the first time. Anyone who is able to waltz, or fox-trot, or tango, or perform any sort of dance that requires physical contact with a responsive partner, knows that there is a first moment, on the dance floor, when you assess, automatically, whether the new partner in question can dance at all — and if he or she can in fact dance, how well. You know almost instantly whether you have a novice on your hands, and that if you do, you’ll have to do a fair amount of work just to keep things moving.

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