There Is No Such Thing as a Literal Translation

It’s complicated.

As a writer and a lifelong lover of communication in its various forms, I am driven to distraction by two types of people: 1) Those who believe that translations are literal, and 2) Those who think that grammar in any language is rigid and settled and should not change in any way, from now until the end of time. (I’ve written about this last group many times before, so I will only lightly touch upon these fools today. In other words, don’t get me started.)

As for the first group, let me start off with a little personal background information. I have a degree in Spanish and Latin American Studies. That was my major because it interested me, and I had vague notions of becoming a translator or an interpreter or getting a job at an embassy someday. I really wasn’t thinking about how I’d actually make a living, or what my life would look like if I pursued these career paths. Now that I know myself better, I’m very glad that I did not do so.

Just the fact that I went to college was a major accomplishment as far as I was concerned. And while I’ve probably gotten some jobs because I had a degree, I can tell you I’ve never gotten a job because of my specific degree. Even so, I don’t regret the experience of college. It has made me well-rounded and a lot more open-minded than I would have been otherwise. It has honed my ability to think critically, and it seems that this is becoming a lost art in society at large, so I value that skill even more now than I did in my twenties. In that way, all that obscene expense was worth it. (But the illusion that a certain degree will guarantee you a certain career is absurd, and if that’s what you think you’re paying for, don’t waste your time. You’re bound to be disappointed.)

So, let’s talk about translations. Yes, some words are equivalent to others in other languages. For example, “necktie” in English equals “corbata” in Spanish, if you’re simply referring to the object one (usually someone who identifies as male) ties around one’s neck to go with a suit when donning business attire. But there is much more to words than just that.

Words convey meaning, of course, as well as literary style, rhythm and meter, imagery, puns, humor, and rhyme. Jokes and slang, in particular, are difficult to express in another language. If the document you’re translating is full of pithy banter, it will be hard to come up with an equivalency in another idiom. You have to be aware of both cultures, the text’s subtle connotations, and the context as it relates to all things social, political and historical. Words convey emotions and beliefs, assumptions and philosophies. To get the message across, you have to interpret what the author was trying to say in all those many contexts and translate accordingly. That’s why it’s impossible for two translations to be identical.

Something that is rarely discussed about translation is what I call “word habits”. For example, let’s assume that I tend to use the word “everyone”, quite a bit, and that I almost never use the word “everybody”. When translating, it’s important to realize that “everyone” is more formal. Which word you use shouldn’t just be based on your habit. It should be based on the type of document you’re translating. If it’s a speech to congress, perhaps “everyone” would be more appropriate, but then again, the speech giver may want to come across as folksy, so you have to take that into consideration as well.

Now that I’ve demonstrated how complicated translating can get, check out this article entitled, Translation and Interpretation Mistakes with Huge Consequences. It’s an eye opener.

But let’s get back to those people who think translations are equations, and that the translation they’ve settled upon is the only true translation. Poppycock. Balderdash. Stuff and nonsense.

A prime example is the Lord’s Prayer. The original text is in Aramaic. Before it gets to most of us, it’s translated to Hebrew, then Greek, then Latin, and then English.

Can you see how certain subtleties could get lost along the way? Could it be that the style and the cultural context and the meaning has fallen by the wayside? It would be like having a beautiful, plump juicy orange, and by the time it has passed through four translators, each with their own strengths and weakness, each with their own moods and agendas and habits, what you get handed is a dull and lifeless orange clay pottery orb. Devoid of life. No longer serving its original purpose. And a lot less tasty.

The fewer the languages a document passes through the better, obviously. And in truth, even then, even with just one translation, that orange might turn into a grapefruit. That’s just fine if you aren’t picky about your citrus, but you have to understand that it’s a slippery slope.

Let’s compare the Lords Prayer, translated directly from the Aramaic to English by Neil Douglas-Klotz, the author of Prayers of the Cosmos: Reflections on the Original Meaning of Jesus’s Words and The Hidden Gospel: Decoding the Spiritual Message of the Aramaic Jesus.

O cosmic Birther of all radiance and vibration,

soften the ground of our being and carve out a space within us where your Presence can abide.

Fill us with your creativity so that we may be empowered to bear the fruit of your mission.

Let each of our actions bear fruit in accordance with our desire.

Endow us with the wisdom to produce and share what each being needs to grow and flourish.

Untie the tangled threads of destiny that bind us, as we release others from the entanglement of past mistakes.

Do not let us be seduced by that which would divert us from our true purpose, but illuminate the opportunities of the present moment.

For you are the ground and the fruitful vision, the birth, power, and fulfillment, as all is gathered and made whole once again.

And So It Is!

Isn’t that beautiful and fascinating? I might have become a Christian if I had been shown that translation. Maybe. In that translation, there is a depth of emotion. In that translation, there is music, art, and poetry. In that translation, there is more room for a multitude of us, in all our diversity. And So It Is!

To read many other gorgeous translations of the Lord’s Prayer, check out this page. It’s fascinating. It makes me contemplate what we all really desire out of life, deep down. It also makes me wonder if it’s even possible to truly understand what someone else is trying to say.

Apparently, Octopus is the card you use to pay in convenience stores or public transit in Hong Kong.

Like this quirky little blog? Then you’ll enjoy my book!

Author: The View from a Drawbridge

I have been a bridgetender since 2001, and gives me plenty of time to think and observe the world.

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