Archive for May 2nd, 2006

Traducing Translations

Try rendering the following into the target language of your choice: translating things can be a bit of a bugger.

Anyone who has taught English as a foreign language will know that a big challenge for students is the whole area of phrasal verbs, where commonly occurring verbs acquire a different meaning through the insertion of a preposition or a particle. For verbs where there is some sense of displacement – e.g move, go, bring, drive- the preposition may simply indicate a sense of direction, for instance: she drove her car into the swimming pool, or he lifted his glass eye from the snooker table. However, the conjunction of the verb and the preposition may create a radically new meaning, as evidenced by the chorus of guffaws every time a football commentator says something like ‘Raul doesn’t look too happy with the way Camacho pulled him off’.

Another example: this afternoon I plan to take out my great aunt. The presence of ‘out’ lends the phrase to multiple interpretations. The most mundane of these would be that I plan to bring my great-aunt somewhere, perhaps for tea and scones at the Shelbourne, or to Stations of The Cross. Another interpretation of this, under certain circumstances, could be that I plan to have my great aunt assassinated because she has nationalised her country’s oil refineries.

So, I’m rather cautious when it comes to thinking about phrasal verbs being used in translations, particularly where there is a specifically idiomatic sense to the choice of verb. That is not to say that they ought not to be used; on the contrary, the fact that they are normally short and snappy means that they can be very handy, but their use depends, as ever, on such dreary things as context, register, intended meaning as perceived by the translator, and the like.

Such fusty considerations are not really the stuff of news reporting, so when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was reported as saying that Israel should be wiped off the map, there seemed to be little doubt that that was what he indeed said. The obvious thing to point out is that he did not say that Israel should be wiped off the map. He said something that could be translated as such in English, which is by no means the same thing. Now, was ‘wiped off the map’ a reasonable translation? Christopher Hitchens thinks so. Juan Cole disagrees, and he’s not too happy about Hitchens either.

Of course, there are plenty of other languages into which you could translate the remarks. The French translation, at least via Google, appears to be ‘rayer de la carte’, and in Spanish it appears as ‘borrar del mapa’. The question then arises as to whether these translations are directly from the Persian, or whether they come from the original New York Times translation which Hitchens approvingly cites (the map/carte/mapa referenced does not appear in the original remarks). But at any rate, neither translation seems, to my mind at least, to preserve the casual yet vivid violence of the English version, although the Spanish rendering seems rather brutal, whereas the French word ‘rayer’ translates in Google language tools as to stripe. (‘Borrar’ translates as ‘to erase’).

This is not to say that neither translation from the English is appropriate (in fact they are pretty accurate), nor that the Google language tool should be a definitive source (like, duh), but to point out that a translation from one language to another always results in both losses and gains. In the case of ‘bayad az safheh-ye ruzgar mahv shavad’ getting translated as ‘wiped off the map’, what appears to be lost is a literal fidelity to the original, but what is gained is a greater sense of certainty that there are things out there we might need to blow up.

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May 2006