Translation: “Meaning” is more than just the “message”

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Joel Hoffman has asked some good questions over at “God Didn’t Say That,” dealing mainly with the goals of translation:

I agree that conveying the original meaning is one goal (and I agree that word-for-word renderings usually don’t do this), but I don’t think it’s the only goal, because there’s more to a text than what it means.
The point of some texts is purely poetic and they don’t mean anything. (This isn’t to say that they are meaningless.) Some of the poetry of Psalms comes to mind.
A text can raise awareness, or make people think. A text can be funny. A text can be a source of inspiration. And so forth.
I think a translation that captures the meaning but misses everything else gives people a very shallow understanding of the original text (though a translation that misrepresents the meaning is doing even worse).
Here’s a question: beyond any potential role in conveying the meaning of the original, is there any point to trying to translate each word?

To this, I think the first point that should be made is that translating the “meaning” means more than simply capturing the “rational” or discursive “message” of the text. Purely poetic elements and other aspects of a text are included in its “meaning.” For example, think about what would be required to translate “Jabberwocky” adequately into another language context, how one would need to be creative to translate the “meaning.” The way a text makes its point, the kind of language or imagery it uses—these things are fundamental to the text’s “message,” especially in a poetic passage.

Poetry and more plainly figurative language presents additional difficulty to the process of translation both for stylistic reasons and because of the “intentional fallacy,” which comes much more into play in these literary forms than in forms/genres more concerned with communicating a clear, rational message.

Finally, there is indeed some value in a word-for-word translation, especially in texts or collections of texts that tend to be heavily intertextual. Without preserving the similarity of language between passages, many of the connections between passages are “broken” inasmuch as they aren’t as clear to reader in translation. This negatively affects the capacity of the translation to communicate the “meaning,” which necessarily includes echoes, allusions, and other aspects of intertextuality.

The original text may rely on the reader’s ability to hear an intertextual echo to add another layer of meaning that anything less than a word-for-word equivalence may make difficult (or impossible), making the new reader deaf to a layer of meaning. This is part of my complaint with certain “dynamic” translations of especially important words (like the much-discussed “sarx”)—translating them inconsistently can remove a very important layer of meaning.

It’s a difficult problem, as the translator must walk the line (note the Johnny Cash reference, which might be missed in a translation of this paragraph) between attempts to make the translation as simple as possible and delivering a fuller range of meaning.


1 Comment. Leave new

  • goddidntsaythat
    September 16, 2009 2:16 pm

    Thanks for your support.

    The issue of intertextuality is an important and often overlooked one.

    As an English speaker in America, when I hear someone say, "well, a rose by any other name…." I know the reference is to Shakespeare, and that it has nothing to do with roses. But the seemingly similar, "well, no matter what you call a lily…." doesn't have the same impact.

    I think one of the hardest challenges of modern translation is when people already know the wrong translation. For example, if people already know about a "scapegoat," calling it "Azazel's goat," no matter how accurate, doesn't convey the right message. I ran into this issue translating a 1,500-year-old Hebrew liturgical poem. If I tell you it mentions a "thin whisper of a sound," you might think the line is an original invention of the poet. If I translate it as (the less accurate) "still small voice," you know right away that the poet was quoting I Kings.


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