How is literary translation a special creative art?
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Languages consist of much more than signifiers and syntax, and can express in a myriad of different ways. First, one of the most elusive parts of translation are connotations, because while the lexical “meaning” of a word can be conveyed, connotations of that word cannot; they are rooted in the history of their previous use and in the culture that generated them. Secondly, slang terms always stem from a sociological base not shared in all languages. Thirdly, the tones and textures of languages—the way they sound when uttered, are an integral part of their “sense.” Finally, a piece of literary fiction is performing much more than the simple act of narration, of “telling a story”—it is taking the reader through a journey of revelations, self-examination, insights, and “wonder,” a procedure so deeply imbedded in the reader’s shared life experiences with the author that a translation to another language loses the shared life experience.
As illustration of these points, let me remind you of the genesis of the Cold War itself—Nikita Kruschev said, in Russian, “we will outlive you.” The translator to English rendered the sentence as “We will bury you.” These two entirely different claims are actually opposite each other.
For connotations, consider the phrase “volkswagon,” rendered as “the people’s wagon” if taken literally, but meaning a vehicle affordable by anyone” when uttered by German politicians during WWII, but meaning “a mid-priced reliable auto made in Germany, with a rear engine and a beetle-shaped body” or something like that.
For slang terms, take “pot” in other languages, and the meaning of marijuana is lost. The Germans have a slang saying, “Es tut mir Leid,” which literally means “It makes me sad” but is translated into English as “I’m sorry.”
For tones and texture, consider the French “Chansons d’amour” (songs of love)—Which language maintains its sense in the pronouncing of the phrase?
Finally, when an American reads Chekhov’s short stories and plays, do you think he goes on the same mental journey as a native Russian speaker, whose background includes real-life experiences of peseantry? In fact, there are notoriously “good” and “bad” translations of his work, especially his short stories.
To “translate” all the texture and sociological and connotive power of the original, a translator must be an artist in his/her own right, not just a bilingual person. The Romans had a god of translation (Proteus), who bestowed his blessings on these particular artists.
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