Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Can translation ever convey the original adequately?

My simple answer is....no!

I think the whole range of translations, along with the articles about these translations, even for Beowulf alone, is proof enough of this. Of course, nobody ever knows when it's a language like Old English, and until someone invents a time machine and returns to the Anglo-Saxon era, then we never will, and even then, it would still be impossible to truly convey the exact meaning and feel of the original. And who knows how much you'd even learn when the most readily available drinking source was ale.

When reading translations of modern literature, like Haruki Murakami or Mikhail Bulgakov, I actually spend a lot of time thinking how I will never know if this is how the author wanted to convey it exactly (so deep)...and I know it can never be perfect, for the simple reason that languages are different and have different sounds, and cultures are different and have different meanings and values. The English translation of Norwegian Wood, for example, is beautifully written, but it's not going to sound anything like the Japanese. How can I know myself, that that is what Murakami wanted to convey exactly. This is especially true for works that put a lot of emphasis on words and use particularly poetic language - yes, we can recreate the alliteration, but then we lose the exact meaning - so which do we pick - we lose something in the end. When I read translations, I often think that yes, this is so-and-so's ideas and story, but it's not necessarily their language. Does that ruin these books for me? Not really, but it is something that is in the back of my mind. First world problems, eh?

As Jay Rubin, the translator of Murakami's English publications states: "When you read Haruki Murakami, you're reading me, at least ninety-five percent of the time". And at that, Rubin has the advantage of being able to discuss translating with the author, whereas for things like Beowulf, we can't exactly phone up the scribe and ask him "what exactly did you mean on line 1294? Oh, is that so? Cheers lad, nice one". Imagine how more accurate Beowulf translations would be if the author was still alive? And yet it would still not be able to accurately convey everything because, at the end of the day, if we can't accurately translate a godamn author who is alive and living in the 21st century (even if it is Japan, and we all know how weird Japan is), then what hope do we have? Nada. And at least if we want to read the 'most accurate' translation of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita or Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, we can look up the hundreds of threads and blog posts about it, and yet, even when that language is still in use today, we can still never be satisfied.

The much awaited Tolkien translation, to be released this May. Yipee

Some translators of Beowulf may decide that taking the route that recreates the metre and the alliteration is the best, most accurate way to go, others will decide that a literal prose translation is the best way to go. Others may try to find a middle-ground. But in the end, nobody is really going to give us Beowulf as it was received by the Anglo-Saxons.

No matter what way someone goes about it, there's always going to be some criticism of something being lost in the process. It can't be faithful in every single way - it cannot maintain all alliteration, all metrical idiosyncracies, all syntax etc, while still maintaining the most accurate and literal translation of the language itself. As a French critic once said, translations are like women, they can be beautiful or faithful, but not both (certainly, he was full of crap). As a female, I like to think of beautiful but unfaithful translations as the Jude Law's of translation.

And even if there was some way of doing this, we still cannot understand the poem how Anglo-Saxons would have. We simply don't have the same culture or beliefs anymore (although maybe if you lived in one of those modern day Viking communes in Norway you might have a better understanding!). A good example, as John D. Niles points out, is the problem of the word cuþ, "known". He asks "how can a translator express the emotive force" that this word had "for an Old English speaker, who seems to have viewed the unknown as something terrifying and who placed exceptional value on the comforts of familiar surroundings". For a culture that (most likely)believed in dragons and panotti and blemmyae, the "known" had a completely different significance!

Even if we think of this issue from an Irish point of view and look at Irish writers like Flann O'Brien (Brian O'Nolan) for instance, whose writing has a particularly Irish feel about it (the syntax, the humour). Is it possible for another culture to 'get' it as much as an Irish person would 'get' it? I'm not so convinced. 

Good feckin' luck to ya

Niles, John D. “Rewriting Beowulf: The task of Translation.” College English 55.8 (1993): 858-878. Print.


  1. Brilliant post! I totally agree with you! The original is the best but you always also need the cultural background for it...
    It's very interesting to read especially because I'll do my BA project on translations of an Irish tourism website. ;-) (Which is of course much more boring than what you look at! ;-) )

  2. Thanks Lizzie!

    Your BA project sounds interesting, never really heard of anyone doing that before!

    1. I can imagine that.... I'm probably the first and the last one who works on such boring stuff. Then only interesting thing about it is Ireland! ;-)