Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Translation is Adaptation

Translation in its basic meaning is rendering a text written in one language into an equivalent text in another.  It aspires to fidelity but this can mean truthfulness to the form of the text or its sense, and the sense can mean the text’s meaning or its aura; and, furthermore, the exact nature of the sense the translated text means to convey depends on the judgment of the translator.  

A translation may be passably successful but rarely, if ever, even adequately successful.  A translation at best only approximates the original text; it necessarily transforms and distorts; it unfailingly fails to capture the real character of the original text.  As Italians express so tersely, traduttore traditore

This is inevitable in so far as languages differ in their constitution, not only lexically but, more importantly, sonically — lexically because a word in one language differs from a corresponding word in another language in its semiotic territory and attendant connotations, and sonically because each language possesses its own particular sound, rhythm, and cadence.  Translating poetry is, for this reason, an ever unbeatable task.  The aforementioned Italian dictum, which may be translated as “translator is a traitor,” may be more naturally rendered as “translation is treacherous,” but in either case, the sense of the pun is lost as is the peculiarly Italian cadence.  

The problem is inherent in the art or science of translation, true, but more accurately and importantly it is that we are misled to thinking of translation as an effort to achieve equivalence just because the languages are all equally verbal.  But, rather, two languages are actually like two different mediums.  A painting redone in engraving is not a painting but an engraving, and they are appreciated and evaluated accordingly; even a watercolor copy of an oil painting is a different animal altogether.  A clearer example is a novel made into a film; the filmed novel never really reproduces the novel because words are abstract while pictorial images are inexorably concrete.  A sentence like “A woman stood at the window, looking down on her garden and beyond the fence” will have to be photographed in a film with a woman of a certain age and constitution, costumed in a particular style standing in a specific posture by a window of certain design, shot either from the back or from a distance outside facing the window.”  There is no such an indefinite entity as a woman, a window, a garden, or a tree in photographic representation.  A novel rendered as a film is an adaptation, even though many spectators expect it to be a faithful rendering almost like a translation; it should bear a title different from that of the original novel and described with the phrase “adapted from” or “based on.”  

A poem in translation must be understood, too, as a rendering that captures only some of the sense of the original.  Ezra Pound’s rendering of Chinese poems into English is far from faithful but show that he understood that translation can only aspire to very rough approximation.  He knew the truth that Translation is Adaptation. 


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