Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Translation: Opening Worlds of Writing

Writing offers many advantages as a medium for thought. Writing can be accurate: true in detail to fact and nuance; versatile: no subject is beyond its grasp; imperishable: first editions return in time to dust, but texts can be reprinted; economical: a slim volume can hold a treasury of ideas.

Yet writing has one limit as a thought medium: readers must have the key to a language's written symbols and grammar. Once lost, that key can be hard to find. From 400 AD until 1822 when Jean Francois Champollion deciphered them, the hieroglyphs of the pyramids were as silent as the Sphinx.

Most readers can only read one language, few more than two, yet writing comes in many languages around the world. I know these lines of Hindi:

—are writing, but I can't read them. Writers face the same problem in reverse: how can we convey thought to readers who do not understand our language?

Wordless arts suffer less from this limit. Music, dance, acting, painting, and sculpture are languages with symbols and grammar that vary between cultures. Watching a shadow play in a Javanese village, I might not get why an audience laughed, just as one of the villagers might not get what I get from jazzmen at a jam session. Yet by my fifth time at the shadow play, I'd have learned much by watching, listening, and trying to understand; I could stare at that Hindi passage until Doomsday and never get its message.

Why? Because nonverbal arts share universal elements. All music uses sound and silence, tone and tempo to convey thought and feeling. Dance and drama condense their languages from the expressive gestures of all mankind: a jump is a jump in Germany or Japan, so too is a grin or a grimace.

No such skeleton key unlocks the world's written languages; writing's thought/symbol link is more arbitrary than the same link in the nonverbal arts. In English we could spell "smile" f-r-o-w-n, either by giving the letters f-r-o-w-n the sounds we now give s-m-i-l-e, or by giving the sound "frown" the meaning we now give to "smile." Doing so might be silly, but nothing in the symbols prevents us. We can'ts switch nonverbal symbols with similar impunity, for a smile looks like this:


—a frown like this:

—and everyone knows it.

Translation leaps writing's language-to-language limit. Someone who knows two written languages rewrites the first in the symbols and grammar of the second. The Hindi passage above comes from St. John:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.

—in the King James translation of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek into English.

Translation opens a world of writing to me and gives me hope that people worldwide will one day read and understand my writing. Some writers, however, believe that translation doesn't work. Once thought and word are wedded in writing, they argue, only the same words can convey the same thought. "There are not various ways of saying the same thing," my grammar gurus Foerster and Steadman declare, "therefore, there are no translations":

There are so called "translations," to be sure, but on account of the organic unity of thought and expression, they necessarily fail to reproduce exactly the author's meaning. The only way to read Homer is to read Homer.

I believe translation is possible—there are various ways of conveying the same thought. Thought doesn't give up its freedom when fixed in word; it gains the freedom to play on countless new minds.

For writing serves thought, not the other way around. Thought is our problem solver, and writing is among its best answers to our need to communicate with each other. When difficulties arise between two languages, thought finds a way to skin the cat.  In New York City the transit authority doesn't want subway riders leaning against train doors, so they post this sign in English:


Many New Yorkers read only Spanish, so they also post this sign:


The Spanish with it's reflexive "se" and feminine "la puerta" feels more intimate than the impersonal English, but I observe Spanish and English readers getting the transit authority's thought from the sign and, in equal measure, heeding and ignoring it.

Life, moreover, is too tumultuous for writing to be an exact science. Scarlet, crimson, ruby, rose, and vermilion convey shades of red, but some reds lie between magenta and maroon. Many wordings can describe the same reality. If John walks across a room energetically, one witness might write, "John strode across the room," and another, "John walked boldly across the room."A Frenchman might write, "Jean a traversé la salle vigoureusement." The sentences are different, yet there's no reason but taste to choose between them: all describe the same event with equal accuracy.

All readers translate what they read into their own inner languages. Reading is a dynamic process: the writer's thought reacts with the reader's. Sometimes a line is so in tune with a reader's own thinking that it becomes a favorite quotation. Far more often readers remember the gist of what they read as they'd express it themselves, an internal translation that proves that the written thought has reached the reader. As teachers say, a student knows a subject "when she can put it in her own words."

Readers have translated the Bible, Homer, Shakespeare, and Dickens into all the languages of the world, into operas, plays, poems, paintings, sculptures, symphonies, and stained-glass windows. Such translations are new works of art, not copies, yet Michelangelo's Pieta, Picasso's Don Quixote, and Olivier's Henry the Fifth convey the thought that inspired them. We often know translations as well or better than their originals. Millions see Da Vinci's Last Supper in these words from St. Mark:

And in the evening he cometh with the twelve. And as they sat and did eat, Jesus said, Verily I say unto you, One of you which eateth with me shall betray me. And they began to be sorrowful, and to say unto him one by one, Is it I? and another said, Is it I?

Finally, translation works, well enough at least to satisfy me and millions like me. Maybe I do know Sister Carrie better than I know Pere Goriot. Like Dreiser, I am American, English is my mother tongue, and I daily walk the New York streets that Carrie walked. Yet I can understand Balzac in translation, as I understand Sophocles and Cicero, Moliere and Zola, Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn. Good writing in translation of becomes lively, idiomatic, and believable English. I can see this Russian carriage bowling along through summertime Pavlovsk:

... a magnificent carriage, drawn by two white horses, suddenly dashed by the prince's house. Two gorgeous ladies were sitting in it. But after driving no more than ten paces past the house, the carriage stopped; one of the two ladies turned around quickly, as though she had suddenly caught sight of a friend she wanted to see.
—Dostoyevsky, The Idiot, translated by David Magarshack

—as easily as I can see these horses pulling the Dover Mail up Shooter's Hill one murky night in late November:

With drooping heads and tremulous tails they mashed their way through the thick mud, floundering and stumbling between whiles as if they were falling to pieces at the larger joints. As often as the driver rested them and brought them to a stand, with a wary "Wo-ho! so-ho-then!" the near leader violently shook his head and everything on it—like an unusually emphatic horse, denying that the coach could be got up the hill.
—Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday December 9th 2010, 11:16 AM
Comment by: nannywoo (Wilmington, NC)
As always, a thought-provoking article from Michael Lydon. My favorite poet of the moment is Nobel Laureate Wislava Szymborska. I'm not sure who is responsible for the translations that capture her irony and wisdom in English, but I applaud the translator, as well. I had a student whose mother speaks Polish as her first language. On a first reading, she felt that Szymborska is mistranslated. But she's not a poet. I have no way of knowing, of course.

The translator tackling poetry (including the Biblical passages Michael uses as examples) has an impossible mission. Do we go for literal meaning or the beauty of the sounds, the subtle undertones? Teaching a survey course in world literature in translation, in a course open to students throughout the university (basic studies, no less), I have depended greatly upon the kindness of strangers and have juggled anthologies to catch the translations that I find most satisfying to my ear as a lover of the English language and / or most accessible to my students. Once, we had an interesting lesson in interpretation when a group of students inadvertently had one translation of a Neruda ode (to the tomato, if I'm recalling correctly) projected on the screen and read another from the book -- a teachable moment I didn't pass up. We looked at the original Spanish, too.

I always began the first week of class in the ancient literature semester of world lit like a Bible salesman, with a suitcase full of as many translations as I could find (including a couple of interlinear Hebrew / English versions, one of them including the Greek Septuagint). We then dug into Psalm 23, finding subtle and not so subtle differences in meaning. To my surprise, students who professed no religion at all strongly preferred the resonances of the King James Version to what they saw as Bibles for Dummies or Cliff's Notes newer translations. I'm not sure why. Michael's observation about the Spanish seeming more intimate might be relevant here. Does the Early Modern English of the KJV allow the distance needed to see it as poetry rather than as words to live by, as some religious Jews and Christians might see it? Does the KJV distance the text from the preachers they disdain? (This wouldn't have been true in my generation, I don't think, because we connected the KJV with the most conservative fundamentalists.) The same students tend to prefer the (seemingly) most transparent translation of other texts. That idea of intimacy and distance is intriguing in this context.
Thursday December 9th 2010, 4:50 PM
Comment by: christiane P. (paris Afghanistan)
I am sorry but I don't know Micheal Lydon, Why? I am french an my language is French.Nevertheless I feel a great pleasure to read the article of Micheal Lydon. When you speak about the language which makes reference
to painters sculptures authors , this language is not very easy to understanding.
The translation and interpreting are not really true to the thought of the author. About the Bible you meet the problem.Don't you?

Thank you for the translation of the sentence; Jhon walked boldly across the room. It is the first , I read a french translation; thank you very much.
Le Pere Goriot the author is; Honoré de Balzac;
La Piéta from Michel-Ange in french, but you have a painting ; La Piéta, from E Quarton 15 century.

When studies are translations to do how difficult it is to respect the thought of the author, to avoid nonsense.

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