Lost in Translation (or the Excruciatingly Agonizing Experience of Bilingualism)


For those of you out there who speak more than one language, the issue of translation is not a new one. As the only member of my family who speaks a language other than my mother tongue, I often find myself in the position of the translator or interpreter. So I know firsthand how challenging and ridiculously difficult it can be.

Most people who have a basic knowledge of a foreign language (basic meaning they can direct a tourist as far as the metro or the next bus station) think that translation is easy. You just replace a string of words with a different string of words in another language. Piece of cake! I don’t know what you’re complaining about! Having a more than rudimentary knowledge of the workings of a foreign language also means that for those around (friends, relatives, colleagues) you constantly function as a walking dictionary. I have had friends ask me multiple times: “How do you say [insert word here] in English?” And every time I had wanted to scream: “It doesn’t work like that guys!” Instead, I replied: “What is it you want to say?” and translated accordingly. Situational awareness and CONTEXT are key!

And because I am an English major I have to elevate this to a literary status as well. Translation problems often arise in literature. First, let me be clear about something. I prefer reading a book in the language that it was first written. However, knowing that for many people this isn’t an option, I am vehemently in favor of translating works of literature to other languages. Provided the translation is a good one. I was discussing Wuthering Heights with my mother the other day (because as it happens book-loving is genetic in my family!) and she admitted that she didn’t like the book at all, while I loved it. “It must be the translation,” she said. And herein lies the point. How often have we all blamed the translation when we didn’t like a book we were reading?

But is it really the translator’s fault? Yes and no. Translation is not as easy as some people would have you think. If it were, Google Translate wouldn’t mess up half the time! (No offence to Google Translate, but when it comes to sentences it’s hopeless!) It is inevitable that the cadence and specific style of the writer as well as any particular regional characteristics his writing may possess will get lost in translation. That does not necessarily make for a bad translation. Though, there is, however, such a thing as a bad translation. For me that happens when the translation fails to capture the necessary literariness that makes a text flow and enchant its readers.

I refer to my mother once again because she is the only person I know who reads literature in a language that isn’t English. Anyway, my mother was reading this book in which one of the characters’ mother tongue is English. So she keeps dropping lines in English or using an abundance of English words. Note that my mother can’t speak any English, so she had me translate all the English words and phrases she encountered in the text. The experience was…informative (if not excruciating). I found myself revisiting my colloquial and urban vocabulary to explain the character’s words. How do you translate “hot shot” and “wannabe,” when the words have infiltrated my mother tongue mostly unchanged, to a person whose working knowledge of the English language is limited to “Thank you” and “Good morning”?

But the problem is not limited to my family life. I was watching the news and I was faced with the reporter’s frustrating inability to appropriately translate a few simple words. Maybe I was bothered because I am a control freak. But maybe, just maybe, appropriately translating from one language to the other is actually a big deal! Think of the consequences that could ensue if someone confused, for example, “burden” with “murder”?

Translation is a daunting but important task. It is a vital part of communication between nations and people in areas ranging from politics to tourism and culture. It acts as a channel for promoting cultural understanding without eliminating the need for diversity. As long as languages are alive, so is translation. For my part, I have heard so many stupid remarks about translation over the years to last me a lifetime! I hope we don’t end up killing it through incompetence.


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