Lost in Translation

Winter                                                                    Waning Moon of the Winter Solstice


What happens in the act of translation?  After years of reading translated texts and noticing the often wide discrepancies among various translations of the same underlying words, I have wondered how such drastically different English versions can come from the same work.  Understanding this, really translation as a whole, and understanding Ovid’s Metamorphosis in particular, is what led to my current project, learn Latin and make my own translation of this Roman masterwork from the time of Augustus Caesar.

Some of that learning has already begun to happen.  Though I’m only 60 verses into the first of 5 books in the Metamorphosis, I have learned a complex truth about translation.  There is no such thing as an exact translation, probably not even such a thing as a literal translation.  Why?  Several things.  First, grammar has rules, sure, but the application of those rules can lead to different English.  In Latin a good example is the participial phrase.  Latin uses participles much more often than English and in ways we never do.   One such use, the ablative absolute, can consist of as few as two words, perhaps neither of them a verb, that gets translated into a subordinate clause in English.  Sometimes, in order to translate, you have to add a verb, almost always you have to add a conjunction.  There is no right conjunction nor is there one way to translate the participle into a verb in the clause though in both cases you can make an educated guess from the context.

Second, the words themselves, as in English, are polyvalent.  Example:  nebula.  It can mean mist, smoke, vapor, fog, exhalation.  Again, context helps, sometimes the desired English word is obvious, often not.

Third, at the level of a sentence or a paragraph, it may be impossible to render in any exact way what the author intended.  Instead, the translator has to read the Latin, understand the author’s intent as well as possible, then create an English sentence or paragraph that conveys the sense of the Latin rather than an accurate word for word translation.  In other words, translation is interpretation from the very beginning, in essence.

Fourth, as Greg and I found in today’s Ovid, texts themselves vary.  His text had three words in one phrase that mine did not have, one missing altogether in mine and two with different cases.  This is a phenomenon very familiar to me from study of the Bible, that is, textual criticism, where judgments must be made about the authenticity of the original text.  Usually, in textual criticism, it is assumed that the more difficult rendering is the older and therefore closer to the original, while the easier is assumed to be a scholarly “cleaning up” of a problematic passage.  So, the text used for translation matters.

Fifth, once you’ve cleared these hurdles, in a text like the Metamorphosis, you have to deal with the difficulties the text presents because it uses poetry rather than prose.  This means words may be in odd locations to justify rhyme schemes, metaphor or other poetic devices.  In particular words that need to be together in English may be separated by several other words, the relationship only apparent at all because of endings.

Sixth, in the case of poetry you have to consider the challenge in creating English poetry from Latin poetry. Often the decision is to render the whole in prose, because making Latin rhyme schemes, for example, work in English may be next to impossible.

So, even though I’m still far from my goal of fluent translation, I’ve already learned, from the inside, several things that explain vast differences in translated texts.

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