Reflections on translation

1 – Among my favourite mistranslations are Welsh signs that have been translated by English-speaking officials in their efforts to retain bilingualism in Wales. One sign written as Rhybudd: Gweithwyr yn ffrwydro, which in Welsh means ‘Warning: Blasting in progress’ was translated as ‘Warning: Workers are exploding.’

2 – Recently, there was quite an uproar over whether a white translator should be allowed to translate the work of a black writer. Dutch writer and winner of the International Book Prize Marieke Lucas Rijneveld was tasked with translating Amanda Gorman’s presidential inauguration poem into Dutch. The most vociferous attacks came from activist-journalist Janice Deul, who said it was ‘incomprehensible’ that a white person had been chosen for the job. If sharing an identity grouping is necessary between writer and translator, Deul missed out the fact that Rijneveld was born female and identifies as non-binary, making ‘them’ even less qualified. In this way of thinking, Rijneveld should have gained some points for being a poet and in their 20s, like Gorman. Nevertheless, it didn’t take long for the publisher to cave in at the thought of a boycott and lost book sales to pull Rijneveld from the assignment and issue an apology for the poor choice of translator. I share in the sentiments of Gorman’s Spanish translator, Nuria Barrios, who described Deul’s victory as a ‘catastrophic…victory of identitarian discourse over creative freedom.’ 

3 – Apparently, historians had deliberately mistranslated – or perhaps creatively translated – love letters sent by Frederic Chopin to his many men ‘friends’ in order to make the composer appear straight. According to one German source (er, which has been translated into English), many of the translations from were fraught with consistent ‘errors,’ such as male pronouns in Polish being translated as female in the target language.

4 – In Nice, there’s a restaurant with a bilingual menu that lists the French salade aux avocats in English as salad with lawyers. Bon appétit.

5 – Language documentation involves the preservation of dying languages, mostly indigenous languages that have lost out to conquests and the globalisation of the world’s leading lingua francas, such as English, French, Spanish and Arabic. I was pleased to read about a linguist who has been translating newspapers dating back to the 1890s from Hamaii, the dying native language of Hawaii, into English. Even though the original project was about documenting the language and the culture of the pre-American Hawaiians, a by-product has been the discovery of a treasure trove of meteorological and geographical information. Climatologists are now using these digitalised translations to help predict earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and other potential disasters.

6 – George Steiner once said, ‘Without translation, we would be living in provinces bordering on silence.’

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