Joy in Translation

One of my favourite John Keats poems is “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”. In the poem, Keats describes how The Iliad came alive for him after reading George Chapman’s early 17th century translations of Homer’s two epics. Keats describes himself as feeling “like some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken.” That’s how powerful that translation felt to him. He felt like he was discovering a new world.

Having just finished an excellent audiobook of The Iliad, I can relate to the feeling. Ancient Greece may as well be another world. Homer wrote around the 8th-7th centuries B.C. in a culture that looked nothing like the one I exist in now. Yet because of a good translation, I can feel Achilles’ grief as he weeps over the body of his fallen friend, feel his anger when Agamemnon takes away his war prize and roar in the heat of battle as Achilles chases Hector around the walls of Troy. That’s the power of translation.

How many books would you have never had the pleasure to read without translation? I can’t imagine never getting to read Voltaire’s Candide. No Dante, Beowulf or Boccaccio. No Qur’an, Bhagavad-Gita or Bible. My literary world would be much smaller without translations, limited only to English texts. Translations make literature more accessible.

But have you ever read something in translation that was so good that it made you want to learn the language? Have you ever found yourself poring over the words thinking, “If it’s this good in English, imagine how amazing it must be in the original?” I’m that crazy person who actually tries to learn the language. I started to learn French in high school, but I decided to declare it as a major when I got to college simply because I wanted to read my favourite novel, Les Misérables, in its original French. The same thing is starting to happen with German. I read Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and the thing I loved most was Mann’s style, but how do you judge style in a translation? I read some Gabriel Garcia Marquez, fell in love with his magical realism. Now I want to experience it in Spanish. His imagery is so amazing in English. How beautiful must it be in a language as gorgeous as Spanish?

However, in that desire to learn the original is the recognition that translations have their limitations. They’re convenient. No one has the time to learn every language in which the books they want to read were originally written. I love the Indian epic The Ramayana, but I don’t see myself learning Sanskrit anytime in the near future. Translations mean I don’t have to be denied the opportunity to read this story. But since I speak two languages fluently, ChiShona and English, I know that some things are just not translatable. No matter how hard you try, some ideas, some sentiments lose their meaning and their weight as you move them from one language to the other.

It makes you wonder, doesn’t it, about the books that we base our lives on, books written in long dead languages, or languages that have evolved over the centuries. I base so much of my understanding of the world on the Bible. But it’s not really the Bible I’m reading, is it? Rather it is someone’s translation and interpretation of what someone else wrote about what he understood about God. A person’s interpretation is influenced by their own personal outlook on the world. What gets lost in translation? What gets added?


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