June 24, 2019

Lost In Translation

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You may not know this, but I'm trilingual, and I got my bachelor's degree by studying literature in all three languages. While I could pretend there was some higher ambition there, the reality is mostly that I like reading—and I especially like reading in the original language. Because no matter how good the translation, something is lost when an author's words are filtered through someone else's understanding.

This isn't to say we shouldn't translate stories—we should! But we should also be aware that we may not quite be experiencing the work the way it was originally created. While I was aware of this before, it was crystalized for me during one semester in college, when I was assigned Madame Bovary in both a French lit. class and a comparative lit. class led in English. You wouldn't believe how different the experience was! While the story is pretty dreary in English, the original is infused with touches of humor. Now, obviously I don't mean it's a comedy, and they certainly aren't laugh-out-loud moments, but the humor is there, lightening the entire reading experience. (Writing my paper based on the French version didn't go over well with the TA who'd only read the English... Whoops.)

The difficulty in conveying the original author's meaning struck me once again when I was discussing the musical Notre Dame de Paris with someone who doesn't speak French. Luckily—you'd think—the musical has been translated into multiple languages, including Russian and English. But as I was listening to the Russian version, I couldn't help noticing just how different the lyrics are, how drastically the characters are changed as a result, even if on the surface it's the same story.

Now obviously translation is even harder with lyrics because they have to fit the melody, but I'm still going to pick on these translations a little bit. To illustrate, I'm going to use an excerpt from perhaps the best-known song from the musical: "Belle."

Since I know you all don't necessarily speak these three languages, I've translated the French and Russian versions into English (for meaning—not at all poetically):

French version

Russian version

And the English version:
Belle, is the only word I know that suits her well
When she dances oh, the stories she can tell
A free bird trying out her wings to fly away
And when I see her move I see the hell to pay

She dances naked in my soul and sleep won't come
And it's no use to pray these prayers to Notre Dame
Tell, who'd be the first to raise his hand and throw a stone
I'd hang him high and laugh to see him die alone
Oh Lucifer, please let me go beyond god's law
And run my fingers through her hair, Esmeralda
So what is it Quasimodo craves so badly? In the French version, it's a rather innocent desire: running his fingers through her hair. In the Russian, this has been transformed to (euphemistically) spending a night with her. Suddenly the character seems much more worldly, much more like the other men who ultimately destroy her (Frollo, the priest, and Phoebus, the soldier). In the French version, both the priest and the soldier have a carnal desire for Esmeralda, while Quasimodo's is a more general, more innocent longing for closeness. For him, it's not about sex.

Note also how much more of the Russian text is about him—his ugliness, his happiness, etc. The French, meanwhile, focuses more on describing her and commenting on their society. And there's more intention in the Russian, a choice being made—"I would sell my soul to the devil"—as opposed to asking the devil for the favor of caressing her hair since Quasimodo already feels doomed to hell for having watched her dance.

While the English version seems a touch closer to the original at first, by the second verse that all changes. Though it ends with the line about running his fingers through her hair, that verse starts with: "She dances naked in my soul." In the original, he's stricken by having seen some skin exposed as she danced, but in translation she's dancing naked in his mind—once again eliminating the juxtaposition of how Quasimodo sees her compared to the other men, equating all three men.

Also in the French, Quasimodo—again, quite innocently—says someone who would judge Esmeralda (by throwing the first stone) doesn't deserve to walk the earth. But in the English this has become rather sinister and malicious: "I'd hang him high and laugh to see him die alone."

Seriously, just take a moment to appreciate how differently this character is presented within a handful of lines. "She's so beautiful, no one should want to hurt her" vs "If someone raised a hand to hurt her, I'd kill him and laugh at his gruesome death."

It's a stark reminder that words matter. And when our experience of someone's words is filtered through someone else's manipulation (via translation), our experience of the characters and the world created by the original author is unavoidably altered.

Unfortunately, most of us can't learn every language out there, or even most of them. And when it comes to traveling and basic communication, things like translation apps are definitely useful, even life-changing. But that utility doesn't translate (pardon the pun) to literature, where nuance is so important.

While we shouldn't give up on reading in translation, it would serve us all well to remember just how much can be lost or distorted by translating someone's art, even when done by a human and not an algorithm. It's one more very good reason to encourage people to learn new languages, opening new worlds not just through reading, but by reading the original author's words to experience what they really wanted to say. And if you do speak another language, all the more reason to practice it by exploring its literary culture in the original.