Something not many people think about on a daily basis, but which happens to be my area of specialty and study in my East Asian Studies degree. I'm going to be going on to get a PHD in EAS with this as my main focus, so I thought it would be fun to come on here and talk to you all about it since you're generally intelligent people. I don't get to talk to many people about this subject, so hopefully this thread will actually help me revise my views in a way I haven't been able to so far.
For the purposes of this thread, I'm going to be focusing on East Asian languages, my experience being with Japanese. I only say this because the issues that arise when translating those languages are very different from those encountered when working with European languages.
Most people assume that translation is pretty normal and don't think about it. You see a book on a shelf that says it was translated from another language and the natural assumption is that it's pretty much the exact same as the original, just in your language.
I contend that translation, as a process, has some inherent issues that make it a generally flawed thing and which needs to be seriously reconsidered.
My first problem is that translated literature, film, and whatever else give us a window into another culture (or so we think) and so any
issue in the translation will necessarily skew our view of that culture. This is why the other points are important - they are minor taken by themselves, but as a whole skew our picture of other cultures. If translated materials were not so important to how we perceive the rest of the world, it wouldn't be as big a problem.
Problem two: that information is necessarily lost in the translation process. Words have certain connotations and cultural meanings associated with them which are necessarily lost when translated because, well, it's not the same word or culture any more. The example that comes to mind here is the English translation of Murakami's "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles" (originally Japanese, obviously). The book is written in first-person narrative style. In the Japanese version, the main character refers to himself as "boku" which is translated as "I" in English. This loses a whole lot of the meaning of that word though. Japanese has three words that males can use for "I" (and the narrator is a male). Watashi, the standard one, watakushi, a more formal version, and boku, an informal and somewhat childish one. The narrator using the word "boku" suggests to the reader a sense of childishness which really impacts the story very strongly (as anyone who has read the book can probably attest to). "I" does not carry any of that. This is an example of "lost information".
Problem three: Similar to two, but slightly different. Words do not "mean" other words. "Boku" does not mean
"I". They are equivalent in many ways, but "mean" implies that they are somehow intrinsically connected, which is not the case. A good example here is the word "aoi" in Japanese. The example I use comes from Ezra Pound's translation of the poem "The River Merchant's Wife" by the Chinese poet Li Bai. It was first translated from Chinese to Japanese, and then Pound translated Japanese to English. I'm just focusing on the second translation.
A line in Pound's translation reads: "You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums." The word translated as "blue" here was "aoi" in Japanese. Aoi can be translated as either blue OR green, but like the word "green" in English can be taken to connote unripeness (as would be appropriate in this case, given the rest of the poem). Pound took the word "aoi" to "mean" the color, not considering the connotations. Similar loss occurs when, in English, the politeness levels and status markers present in nearly every word of Japanese are lost, losing a major piece of information from the original. Even if both words correspond to the same action (run, drink, etc) they do not MEAN the same thing because of the politeness markers.
Problem the fourth: Orientalism. This is a concept that most people are unfamiliar with, and rightfully so since it isn't really taught except in the EAS programs. It is essentially the idea that the people of the Occident (Western cultures such as US, England, Spain, France, so on) do not actually recognize the Orient (Japan, China, etc) but rather their idea
of the Orient. It's very difficult to paraphrase, but it kind of says that we have taken their culture and possessed it and altered it to make it our own construct with no regard for the original. How we think of Japan is not how Japan actually is, but we think we know how they should
be better than they do. Clearly this is more true of some people than others. If you're interested in knowing more about it beyond my shitty brief, read Orientalism by Edward Said.
In translation, I take Orientalism to be in the process of translation itself. Because information (as previously shown) is discarded, somebody must be doing the discarding. In essence, the person is deciding what is important or not important - how to translate "aoi", for example, means excluding some of the meaning. The translator decides what portions of the words and text need to be presented in the target language (for me, English). This would not be a problem if it wasn't being presented as what the original said
. It isn't. It's an interpretation. It is the person filtering the work through the lens of the Western mind. It is, in a very real way, taking the original text and making it ours (culturally) without regard for the differences. That is basically the definition of Orientalism.
I know that is my most contentious and also most poorly worded claim, so feel free to ask for clarification if I did a shitty job describing it.
Problem five (and final) : ethical questions. How do you translate a direct quotation and continue to call it a direct quotation? It isn't what was said because it has been changed. How do you call a work a translation if it has been altered to make sense to the new audience? Do we need to assume alteration during translation? Most people I know don't assume that, but I and some others do. Which is the more common view?
I have a few ideas about solutions, but I want to see what people say about all of this first. I'm NOT saying translation should not occur, just that it needs to be done differently.
Anyway, what do you all think?