creative translation

[estimated reading time 9 minutes]

i’m so tired of people telling me translation is about accuracy. it’s not. not even a little. unless it’s done by a computer. and that’s not translation in the sense i’m talking about it. translation of literature simply doesn’t work that way. and it shouldn’t. it can’t. because if you translate for accurate meaning you stop having literature. literature serves many functions but communication is never one of the primary ones. telling the story is only the way it shares the story’s real payload with its audience. so the mechanics of the story itself are only vaguely relevant to the encounter between author and reader. it’s that encounter that the translator must mitigate. and taking the author’s words and rendering them equally in another langage without shifting them is rarely useful.

actually, it’s never useful. because you don’t need a translator for that. you need google or deepl. they do it just as well, realistically. if you speak english, you can take any piece of writing in almost any language currently spoken by more than a million people (i don’t know of one it can’t handle — only tiny-minority languages aren’t yet supported by at least google translate, though i am a bit shocked at some of the absences from deepl’s list) and have it give you totally-comprehensible english. it won’t be beautiful writing but it will give you all the fundamental aspects of what you’re trying to find. if you think you need a human translator to give you the functional meaning, think again. it’s not useful. and it’s not something you should either pay or wait for. you can have it right now. and it’s good enough.

but that’s not why we read literature — poetry, novels, short stories. even plays and television dramas. taking those things and translating for meaning and syntax alone gives the audience an experience that isn’t just incomplete — it’s incorrect.

as an english-speaker, this may not actually be easy to understand so i’ll try to give some examples of how this attention to content rather than emotion and culture plays out to create a disastrous miscommunication. let’s take a look at one of the oldest examples of lacking translation — the translation of complex short poetry trying to maintain form and words without maintaining meaning.

the most famous japanese poem outside japan is probably basho’s haiku about … well, it’s a love poem. but everyone thinks it’s about a frog. in japanese, it reads “古池や / 蛙飛び込む / 水の音” and this usually shifts to english as “the old pond / a frog leaps in / sound of the water”. leaving aside the whole issue of the fact that this translation is simply bad poetry, let’s take a look at the meaning. what’s happened in this poem? a frog jumps in an old pond and there’s a loud splash. exciting, right? you must be thinking seventeenth-century japanese poets are about as fun as dead grass. but that’s not what this poem is about. in classical japanese poetry, the frog is a symbol of love (usually young love). and water is a symbol of sexual purity. when the frog jumps in the old pond, it’s a revolutionary statement — this is about love going in the other direction from usual, not a young, pure virgin girl being penetrated by a dirty old man but a woman past her youth and, in that society, seen as worthless and expired if unmarried and childless, being renewed and brought back to life from the love and sexual energy of a young man who has fallen for her. the splash has two meanings — one is the actual conclusion of the concrete story of the frog that is told as a symbolic allegory. the other is that this makes noise in society that echoes as it breaks cultural norms. basho is telling a secret and doing it in a way that people can pretend not to understand. it’s understated but unmissable. unless you read the poem in english. then it’s not just understated. it’s absent. we need something far better. try this… “her heart once ice liquifies as his energy pours through ancient gates its sound spilling over the walls of the old pond”. no, that’s not a direct translation. but it’s far closer to the original cultural meaning. this is a single-line example, of course. so we’ll move on.

much of translation comes down to cultural norms. in the last decade, one of the most popular novels to come from the european north is “the girl with the dragon tattoo” and i believe it has been fairly-well-translated to english, relatively-speaking. here’s the problem. even good translation is desperately-lacking in the cultural-understanding department. here’s an example. what do dragons represent in western culture? i mean, what do they mean in english-speaking western culture, at least? for the average american, dragons are childhood symbols of fairytales and rescues of princesses by princes. that’s what our cultural background tells us. and to apply that notion of anderson and grimm to the dragons of swedish culture is … silliness. there are two cultural aspects to dragons in northern society and neither is the slightest bit childish or gentle. dragons are the symbol of purity and power. they represent a historical land of magic that still seethes under the surface of a culture that is aware of its own inherent strength. from a history of viking conquests, sweden has become more a dominant power in the world of furniture production and television mysteries than warfare but that old warrior culture remains — not active in the physical sense but a huge part of ritual and cultural celebration. it’s about cultural pride and strength in the history of thousand years — more like the chinese notion of the dragon energy within us all than the western idea of dragon as child’s story-companion. the other part of this is that the dragon is a female symbol of power, one of rising against the physical strength of the dominant male with feminine energy to fight back. from this perspective, doesn’t it feel a little wrong to apply the prince-saves-princess model to the protagonist with the tattoo of cultural strength and feminine resilience? translation. it really is that significant and this information is known by those speaking the original language. you can’t just take the words. you have to share the culture, even if the author didn’t originally have to. the story isn’t complete without it. neither is the translation.

a simpler way to look at the same thing is to take something written, theoretically at least, in english and look at how it should be translated for a modern audience. i am highly-critical of the study of shakespeare in schools and it’s been a hot-topic of late in my writing so let’s beat that horse a little more before it has a chance to end up with its head in anyone’s midnight party.

“a midsummer night’s dream” is a fantasy of a play in a play set in a mythical forest and, sort of, in a royal court. of course, mythical forests were imaginary even in the time of shakespeare but they were much, much closer to the everyday reality of most people living in england at the time and their sense of mythology as part of daily life and the potential for fantasy was much more significant. they didn’t have modern scientific logic or education. magic was part of their experience of the world. the world wasn’t any less logical. they just didn’t know much about how the world worked — yes, other people in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries definitely had a good grip on the functioning of physics, chemistry, biology and astronomy. but the english were not those people. they were backward, uneducated fools living mythically-driven existences mostly mitigated by a misleading church and a manipulative society of oppression. actually, not much has changed. but that’s a whole other issue. mythology aside, the audience would have been, without any doubt at all, familiar with the social niceties of court relations with the outside world and the ritual nature of interclass communication. so when shakespeare writes about what happens in that forest and it sounds like a children’s story to us it’s not the right understanding. when he writes about joiners and weavers and tailors, this isn’t a quaint, historical throwback to another time. these are the people you would see if you had to deal with everything else in daily life. the story of a midsummer night’s dream is simple — it’s talking about a break in the fabric of reality where the silly ideas common people of the time had about what could be true actually really happen to the most normal people and it overflows into their relationship with their rulers with disastrous impacts. it’s not a children’s fairytale. it’s much closer to what we would think of today as science-fiction with a hint of fantasy, as most modern science-fiction tends to be. “a midsummer night’s dream” is the shakespearean equivalent of stargate or interstellar — a story about bridging the gap between the real and the almost-real-but-just-outside-sensible. a modern translation has to understand and communicate this or it is missing the whole point of shakespeare’s story. no, i don’t think shakespeare was a bad writer or storyteller. i just think his work has no relevance in its current form — but in modern-english translation it could become just as amazing as a popular-culture icon as it once was for a much larger, newer audience.

translation in the literary sense isn’t about communicating content. at least, it’s not about only communicating content. and it’s certainly not about communicating it in the original manner. the form and linguistic structure of the original is about as relevant to the result as the leaf pattern of a tree to the shape of a desk made from its wood or the color of the paper from its pulp. it’s how it was originally constructed. and it has nothing to do with the result of the translation. if a poem originally looking like a sonnet is translated to another language and the result is a sonnet, it hasn’t been done very well. there’s no way to shift the cultural information and emotional content without inherent structural change. it simply doesn’t work that way. there’s more information to communicate and the method has to fit both the time and target-language.

that doesn’t mean it has to be longer. it doesn’t mean it has to be complicated. let’s take a very simple example. in asian languages and cultures, a statement that directly translates to “i’m sorry i can’t talk because i have something to do” is extremely common (“何かしなければならないので話せなくてごめんなさい”). practically-speaking, this is something you hear all the time in japan, korea, china or vietnam (ok, the japanese version wouldn’t be heard in all those places but i’m sure you know what i meant and i don’t speak the others well enough to use them as examples like i do japanese).

i suspect you see the problem with this statement if it is translated to english, though. if i said “i have something to do” and didn’t then go on to explain what it was, leaving it simply at that, it would be unimaginably rude and insulting in modern-american culture. it has a context. what that sentence says is more like a whole paragraph. this paragraph…

“i’m not sorry but i hope you don’t hate me so i’m going to apologize now because what i’m about to say is incredibly rude and hurtful and i probably shouldn’t say it but i want you to know you’re being disrespected and we’re both aware of it. it doesn’t really matter if i want to talk to you because there’s something i’ve got planned and it’s more important than you but i’m going to very intentionally and blatantly hint at the fact that you’re not going to know what it is. i want to keep it a secret. i don’t trust you or want to share it with you — either because i want to be hurtful or simply don’t trust you with the information. but it’s not just that it’s a secret. it’s that it’s a secret i want you to be very aware of in this moment i’m refusing to share with you.”

that’s the deeper context of that sentence. in japanese, though, the context is different. completely different…

“i want to apologize because i know it’s disappointing we can’t talk and i don’t want you to think i’m doing it intentionally. i am actually going to be busy at the time. i’m not going to tell you what i’m doing because it’s irrelevant but i’m not bringing it up to point out or remind you that you don’t know and i’ve kept it secret, just that i want you to be aware i’m not just choosing not to talk to you for no reason.”

these are so incredibly different both in emotion and actual content, the translation suddenly causes a huge problem. if you translate the japanese to its equivalent english sentence, what you have actually done is given a nearly-inverted meaning. all the words are absolutely correct but the cultural and emotional content is almost-completely reversed and the impact of the japanese being to legitimately apologize and soften the situation is replaced by a rude and belligerent english version doing exactly the opposite.

this, of course, has only been a handful of examples but these types of situations abound in literature (as well as daily life) where translation of words without context or structure without cultural understanding is much more harmful than you may have thought. literary translation isn’t a skill of computation. it’s not something a computer should do because it requires depth of emotional comprehension and vast social, cultural and psychological understanding of both source and target languages and backgrounds.

translation is often done badly. sometimes it’s even done well. but it’s rarely done with enough attention to what is being lost. the phrase “lost-in-translation” is so ubiquitous it’s an idiom but i believe people often think this is because of inaccuracy. we have to stop focusing on linguistic accuracy in our approach to other languages and cultures (or even other times, as we saw in the example from shakespeare) and start dealing with the real underlying source of literature’s amazing potential power — its ability to share emotion and understanding. we must be sensitive to this and use it properly, wisely and accurately. as translators, it’s our duty. i only hope we can at least be aware of it and stop pretending we’re just more-accurate, human versions of google-translate and tell our literary clients exactly what it means to communicate their messages. thanks for taking the time to explore this with me. may you find peace today in a beautiful poem.

actually, here’s a translation of one of my favorites.

a single sliver moonlight reflects on the song of the grasshopper calling for her partner

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thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.