I have a tattoo on my arm. It is in a language I can not read. It is chapter eight of the Dao De Jing, and it is in Chinese. I can recite three different English translations of it from memory and got the tattoo done directly from my English-Chinese bilingual copy of the book. I feel like I know what these symbols on my arm mean. But still, I don't speak the language.

I got into thinking about the subject last week, after reading my sixth translation of the Dao De Jing. The book is a collection of eighty-one poems and I feel quite familiar with all of them. Yet each time I read through new translation, I will find a few verses and say to myself "I don't remember this."

Which brought me back to a question I have thought on many times before: When you read a work in translation, to what the degree have you read the actual work and to what degree have you read a different piece inspired by the original and written by the translator. Crime and Punishment is very near the top of my list of favorite books, but have I read a book by Dostoyevsky or by Garnett?

I have always seen WVO Quine as something of a prophet. The way he describes the scientific process as a continual act of searching for the line-of-best-fit for an unwieldy data set seems very intuitive to me. And his thesis that no scientific theory can ever be proven because every data set will fit an infinite number of curves is something which rang religiously true to me the first time I read it. And one must remember that Quine was a linguist before he was a philosopher of science. The Scientific Indeterminacy hypothesis began life as the Indeterminacy of Translation hypothesis. For any given utterance in Language A, he states that there are an infinite number of utterances in Language B which, according to available data, should count as equivalents. So which of these utterances is the true translation? All of them? Certainly not, because many of them will be logically inconsistent with one another. One of them? Too convenient, and impossible to determine. None of them? One would hope not, but it seems the most likely possibility.

Yet, when a person is capable of speaking two languages, they do not seem to become different people who hold an entirely different set of logical propositions to be true when they switch from one language to another. In a practical sense, can one not say that "C'est un livre" is equivalent to "It is a book"? Still, there are some words which always provide stumbling blocks. I feel that I have a very good understanding of what Dao and Zen mean, but it a huge struggle to try and define these words in English. They are religiously and emotionally charged words which mean so much more than what appears in a simple Chinese or Japanese to English translation manual ("a way" and "sitting meditation" respectively). They can not be defined shortly and the longer a definition of the words gets, the more uncomfortable I become with it. It makes me wonder how much these awkward, heavily charged words will affect a translation of a written work of fiction, like Crime and Punishment. Do "soul" and "AYWA" really mean the same thing? It seems unlikely.

Sadly, I speak only one language so I have never had the pleasure of reading a book in translation and in its original. This makes it difficult for me to say objectively how much meaning and intent is conserved between an original work and its translation. My flatmate has read the Mahabharat in English and Hindi and her opinion is that it is incredibly difficult to do a good translation of a religious work, since so many of the concepts are deeply ingrained in the culture. Good news for Crime and Punishment, but bad news for the Dao De Jing. I recall that when I read the Mahabharat in English translation I needed to discuss it with several people who had been raised Hindu before I could even begin to really understand it.

I talked also with a coworker of mine who speak English, Italian and French. She had read Dante and Voltaire in both original and translation. Her opinion was that, though the original was better, someone who had read only the translation could certainly still claim to have read the book.

Then I realized that there was another person I knew who could give me excellent insight into the matter. I went out and spoke with the hot dog vendor in front of my work. She has a Masters degree in literature. And she speaks Russian (and English and Polish and Yiddish). Surely she could answer my concerns about Dostoyevsky.

"There are some things," she said, "which can only be expressed in a certain language. They are tied to the words. Maybe you can say one thing in two words in Polish and the same thing takes five in English. It is no longer the same thing. Part of what made it what it was was the saying of it in two words. And the same thing happens going the other way of course."

"Yes," I said, "that is why poetry in translation is so silly, but meter isn't as important in a novel."

"Not meter," she said, "but vocabulary. A great writer chooses every word with care. When he chooses his word, he has many reasons. When the translator comes along, he has to choose a new word to replace the old one. Will he understand ALL of the writer's reasons? or perhaps only some?"

"So it's a lost cause then," I said.

"No! It just must be done carefully," she said, "a good translator will understand as many of the reasons as possible. They will put themselves inside the writer's head and try to write the book which the author would have written had they been born with this tongue instead of that. When the translator is a great poet, the translation can even exceed the original. Sometimes little wrinkles disappear in the transfer."

To explain her point, she told me a couple of anecdotes. When she was in university, one of her favorite book was Catcher in the Rye. She read it in Polish translation. It wasn't until many years later that she read it in English. When she read it in Salinger's original words, she said, it was like a whole new book. It went from being one of her favorite books to being far and away her favorite. It is like a bible for young people, she said, every teenager should read it in every country.

On the other hand, she spent a lot of time studying Shakespeare at school. But they studied it always in Russian translation. She wrote a thesis paper twenty years ago on imagery in Hamlet. Her daughter is in high school now and is reading Hamlet (in the original English). Her daughter was having trouble with her homework, so my friend decided to help her. She picked up the play and started reading. It wasn't even the same play, and to be honest (she told me in a whisper) it was a lot worse.

All of this has only reinforced my original perspective of reading a translation as being similar to looking at a shadow of the original. If the light source is strong and focused, you can get a very detailed silhouette, still, it is only with several shadows from several different directions that you can really get a clear image of the thing's true shape. With six perspectives on the Dao De Jing, I feel that I have a very good grasp of its shape. Each new translation might reveal a couple of bumps or grooves that I had missed before, but I can see clearly its basic form. I still do truly feel that I know what these symbols on my arm mean.

Oh, and I asked her about Crime and Punishment as well. Sure enough, she had read it in Russian and also in English (the Garnett translation, same as myself).

"The only thing you are missing," she said, "is a lot of bad Russian puns."


Famous people who have written on the subject

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.