Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 501
Tradition has it that something is always lost in the translation. What that something is, and the significance of it, has been a matter of debate for as long as there has been a need for translation. The practical effects of the practice of translation, however, are much easier to judge and document. Translation is not just a literal recasting of a work from one language to another, but is also an adaptation of one culture’s values and biases into another.
The Bible is perhaps the most translated work in the history of publishing. Beginning as a collection of Hebrew and Greek texts, the Bible first went through a process of canonization, in which some texts were selected as authentic, and others dismissed as inauthentic. It then underwent translation, in which the whole was brought into a single, standardized language. Further translations became necessary with the spread of Christianity, such as in the famous English King James version of the Bible, on down to the twentieth century, with such works as the “plain” English Good News Bible. This ongoing process of translation and re-translation is an example of cultural adaptation and abridgment of texts through translation.
Specific examples of censorship through translation abound in English. Works originally written in older versions of English, such as Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, are often sanitized through translation to suit the tastes of modern audiences, or to placate school boards and textbook selection committees. Chaucer’s scatological “Miller’s Tale,” for example, contains numerous examples of dilution through translation. Nicholas, the young Oxford student described in the tale, grabs the good wife Alison by the “queynte.” This word has been translated textually as “middle” or “waist,” but it literally and contextually refers to the female genitals, and is believed to be a pun on the etymological ancestor of the modern term “cunt.” Few, if any, modern translators have taken it upon themselves to be as forthright as Chaucer and his lower-class Miller.
The record for translatory censorship most likely belongs to Giovanni Boccaccio’s fourteenth century Decameron, sections of which remained untranslated into English for more than five hundred years. Of particular concern to the translators was the tenth story on the third day, the pornographic adventures of the religious hermit Rustico and his young female student Alibech, who receives instruction concerning “how to put the devil in hell.” The earliest English translations of the work omitted the story entirely and even substituted stories by other authors in its place. The story was finally included in an 1822 edition, but its key passage was printed in Italian, though the bilingual could also refer to another version in the footnote, which was in French. Later nineteenth century editions printed large passages of the story in French. In 1930, however, the first publicly available complete translations of the tales were printed, and after a wait of almost six hundred years, the general reading public was finally allowed to find out what was lost in the translation.
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