Tuesday, December 6, 2011

approaches to translation


Just finished reading William O'Daly's translation of Aún, by Pablo Neruda, and it left me thinking about the different ways people approach the process of translation. You can either stray toward translating the literal meaning of the words, or toward an artistic translation that aims to communicate your interpretation of the deeper meaning.

For example, a common spoken farewell in Spain is "Hasta luego." In English, you might translate that to "See you later", which is a common spoken farewell in the United States, and which means pretty much the same thing. Or you could translate it to "Until later", which is more literal, and still understandable, but which might strike some as awkward.

O'Daly seems to favor the latter approach, but sometimes he sways in the other direction. One example is his version of the poem's title: Still Another Day. A more literal translation of "aún" would be the adverb "still", as in "I'm still breathing" ("aún respiro"). If O'Daly wanted to make sure the reader didn't read that "still" as the adjective "still" (as in "motionless") he could have translated the title to "Even Still," or something like that, which is closer to the literal meaning of the word. But he went for, instead, Still Another Day, which draws from the meaning of the poem (which deals thematically with the passage of days) to add meaning that the original Spanish title doesn't have.

Why did he do this? My guess is that he'd explain it as an artistic decision. He might tell you "Still Another Day" sounds more elegant than "Even Still". He might argue that Neruda's Spanish version of the poem is elegant, and that the elegance itself is something that should be preserved, instead of sacrificed by a more literal--and probably more awkward--translation.

And he might be right.

But personally, I almost always favor the more literal approach, and part of the reason for my preference relates specifically to that greater awkwardness. I think there is value in being reminded, while reading, that what you are reading is a translation. Awkwardness can help with that reminding.

Why is it important to remember that you are reading a translation? Because there is more to language than just the meaning of the words. Language, and the differences between languages, reveal differences in the minds of people. And if we abandon the literal approach, and translate not just the words but the sense of 'elegance' we get from a piece, if we translate it so it sounds like an American wrote it, then we lose something essential to the piece itself--we lose what it reveals about the mind that produced it.

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