Translated Gold

by Nic Olson

An author uses words deliberately to evoke images and thoughts in the mind of the audience. A poet does the same but even more deliberately, with the economy of words. I consider myself a man of ideas, in that I can use the English language to share concepts but my actual ability to manipulate the language is somewhat limited. A person’s self perception is often skewed, and that may be the case for myself. I likely don’t even have the idea ability on my side.

I am reading pieces of work by literary heros Camus and Tagore, both authors likely capable in the English language but chose their own mother tongues to write the majority of their collection. I am nearly able to read Camus’ writings in the original language and plan to someday be able to do the same with Tagore’s, which is how I believe they were meant to be read. Reading the translated version is like reading a rough interpretation of the original language; there is a potential that the specific wording and imagery change, and a loss of certain phrases that only work in the original language. Lost in translation. Like an amateur painter who traces, follows and copies a world masterpiece. Just because a person is bilingual doesn’t mean he is qualified to translate a book from French to English. An atheist who understands ancient Greek and Hebrew maybe would translate the Bible more accurately than a Christian, but at the same time his ideals could get in the way. A French aristocrat could likely translate the works of Camus but would miss out on ideas aimed at a different audience. Authors such as Dostoyevsky, Camus, the authors of the Bible, or any other famous author worthy of translation use words purposefully and when translated, retranslated and untranslated, the original magic and authenticity can be lost. In the case of religion, mistranslation has likely caused more problems than the translations are worth. The translated version is a slightly less authentic although equally as important version of the original.

Whenever I’m reading a book that I know has been translated from the original I have it in my mind, through every sentence, that the translator likely missed something huge. He or she didn’t catch the idea that the author meant to communicate and translated in his or her way, and I missed out on what was really meant. That I am not reading what the author wrote, but what the translator thinks the author wrote. It distracts me to the point of having to read each page twice. A solution to this would be to only read literature from your mother tongue, or at least a tongue you are fluent in, but that would reduce English speakers to Shakespeare and J.K. Rowling and not much else. Translations are legitimate, but they are not the original.

When I become a world famous author I hope to be able to chose who translates my books into one of the eight remaining languages in the world, likely just before the apocalypse. I would choose someone that understands the my ideas and my mind, who may not end up being the greatest language student. As an idea man I would hope that although a word for word translation might not happen, and the images I paint may get changed (likely for the better), that the general idea that I am aiming for, the root of the piece, gets through. This may be easier for an idea writer, and not quite as easy for a real, image filled, wordsmith of a writer.

Language is deliberate, and the manipulators of language are precise. Translation is loose, subjective and never precise. The two don’t go together very well. Therefore if you want to read Dostoyevsky, learn Russian. If you want to read the Bible, learn the languages it was written in. If you want to read Tolkien, become an elf. If you want to read properly, learn the language, don’t let some snobby university graduate tell you what you are reading. Don’t trust anyone.

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