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Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Trouble with Translation

I'm not a translator, but I live in a bilingual household, and have to deal with translation and interpretation on a daily basis.

The story I'm about to tell I posted on Facebook earlier today, and I was astounded at the response to it. If you follow me on Facebook, you can skip to the bottom of this post, where there's one more story I tell that isn't about my family.

So I asked my sons, T (aged 11) and H (aged 9), what they thought about the Women World Cup being a contest between their mom's country and their dad's country. T looked at H and then said, "It's perfect. We can't lose."

I agreed. "That's true. We can't lose."

"Well, YOU can lose," T said pointedly to me.

The next day at the breakfast table, H said that he was hoping for a tie in the World Cup championship. We explained to him that a tie would not be allowed to stand. H said to me, in English, "Then I hope America wins, Mom." He turned to my husband and said, in Japanese, "Dad, I hope Japan wins."

We all started to laugh, and my husband said to H, "You do realize that everybody at this table heard and understood everything you just said, don't you?"

"Then everybody knows I was just translating," said H.

"But you said opposite things," T countered.

"No, I said the same thing," answered H.

These conversations reminded me of a PEN American podcast by several women poets and translators that I heard earlier this year. During the discussion, an Israeli translator told about how when she was translating a story into English, she came to the part in which the author had written that a character had gone down to the HomeDepot to buy something ordinary. The translator knew immediately that if she translated it as written, going down to the local HomeDepot, it would stop the foreign readers in their tracks. They would all start wondering, Wait! There are HomeDepots in Israel, really? (The translator assured the podcast audience not only that there are, but that they look eerily like HomeDepots in other countries.)

The problem was that what was meant by the author to be a sort of throwaway statement, a description of an ordinary action, would get all kinds of disproportionate attention if the actual name HomeDepot was used, and the sentence would lose the ordinariness it was meant to convey. So the translator opted to write that the character had gone to the hardware store to buy the item, a sentence that gave the workaday flavor that the author intended.

So what was the best way to translate that? I bet my son T would argue in favor of writing it as HomeDepot because it was a literal translation, and also the reader would learn something interesting and new.

However, I guess my son H would go with using the ordinary hardware store, since everyone would get the feeling that the author intended them to have when reading the sentence.

And what would I have done? Or you? Making that choice is one of the chief troubles of translating.

(If you want to listen to the PEN podcast, it is available on iTunes. Here's the link to the PEN Podcast website. It's the episode entitled "Women Poets from the Middle East," dated 3/1/2011.)

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