Found In Translation

It never fails to amaze me just how many people read foreign books – from Dostoevsky’s Crime And Punishment all the way to Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist and Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo – without giving any thought to the good translators responsible for introducing them to their shelves in the first place. Translation does not happen by magic or chance or Google Translate but through the arduous, heart-felt labors and expertise of dedicated professionals. Take, for example, The Bible, which remains among the most influential works in the shaping of world history and current affairs: it requires not one but numerous translators and scholars to address its complex multilingual content held sacred by billions of people in the attempt to produce an “accurate” translation. Other religious texts such as the Koran and the Bhagavad Gita similarly demand outstanding scholarship, cultural expertise and poetic craft in addition to linguistic fluency.

Without the existence of translators to connect the world and smooth over cultural differences, international relations would be impossible. Translation, though often assumed to be a simple, black-and-white (even easy) practice actually requires an enormous amount of tact and creativity. In fact, many of the famous writers we glorify today were themselves translators: Virginia Woolf, J. R. R. Tolkien, Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, Edwin Muir, Christopher Isherwood, and Fernando Pessoa, to name but a few! We spend so much time obsessing over what is “lost in translation” that we forget to celebrate what is found. Literary translation isn’t just about making a series of difficult choices and sacrifices, but about enacting a profound transformation capable of enriching our own language and culture and deserving of greater recognition.

I promise I’m not exaggerating. The publication of the King James Bible in 1611 contributed some 257 idioms to the English language, many of which are still commonly used in vernacular speech i.e. to put words into someone’s mouth; see the writing on the wall; eat, drink and be merry; fight the good fight. Even such immensely popular phrases as “scapegoat” and “peacemaker” were born of the King James Bible, a translation now credited as having had a greater impact on English than all of Shakespeare’s works combined.

 And translation doesn’t only apply to our favorite books, but also to the movies and music we regularly enjoy! Amélie, one of the highest grossing foreign films ever released in the United States, wouldn’t have been accessible to most of us without the aid of audiovisual translation (dubbing and subtitles). The same is true of Anime, which has accumulated the majority of its fandom outside its native Japan. You know that famous old song “Beyond The Sea”? It’s actually a loose English rewrite of Charles Trenet’s “La Mer”! Or the Bossa Nova hit “Girl from Ipanema”? – That’s a Brazilian-American remix of “A Garota de Ipanema” composed to include English lyrics.

I don’t mean to give the world a lecture about how translation ought to be appreciated (or maybe that is precisely my intent), but to highlight the active role it plays in our daily lives. A glance at any high school or college reading list will include over a dozen translated classics: One Hundred Years of Solitude, Dante’s Inferno, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Diary of Anne Frank, A Doll’s House, Oedipus Rex, The Iliad, etc. (I imagine all of these look unbearably familiar to most of you). Or just think of a few of your childhood favorites like The Little Prince, Pippi Longstocking, Arabian Nights, The Wise Men of Helm, and Grimm’s Fairytales… which were translated out of French, Swedish, Arabic, Yiddish, and German, respectively.

My point is this: we translators may be invisible but that doesn’t make us insignificant. So the next time you read a book from another language or watch a foreign film that sweeps you away with its genius, by all means go ahead and praise the original author/director – but PLEASE don’t forget to give at least a slight nod of thanks to the translator!



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