Monday, November 14, 2005

I worked my way halfway through a bad translation of The Count of Monte Cristo once. One of the ways I knew it was a bad translation was that I could often improve it by translating it back to French and then back to English; the translator had been seemingly oblivious to a number of idioms. Thus "in effect" --> "en effet" --> "in fact", which made much more sense in the given context; similarly "How?" --> "Comment?" --> "What?!" or "Come again?!"

I was recently submitting to a coworker that the written and spoken languages of English are in fact in some sense different though related languages. (On some level — even a relevant one — the point is immaterial, as I'll set forth later.) I thought of this last night when reading a passage in which Larry Summers mentions "the extents of margin ..., as well as the intents of margin." I had trouble decoding this, until I realized it was from the allegedly edited transcript of a spoken (extemporaneous) answer to a question; translating from the written language and back, "the extensive margin ..., as well as the intensive margin," which seems much more plausible, at least if you're used to reading economics. Similarly, I once read, in a newspaper, a quote in which the then-coach of basketball at Illinois talked about having a "tough road to hoe"; at first I thought he screwed it up, but I'm pretty sure on further reflection that the supposed journalist had introduced the error.*

In each case an editor should have caught the error; editing has this in common with translation, that it is a process of taking something and making it more suitable for communication to a particular audience. I recently read some thoughts of Umberto Eco on translation, particularly of fiction; in places it is more important that the broad idea be carried over than the superficial meaning of the words. An example he gave was of War and Peace, in which passages were written in French; the fact of their being written in French was more significant to the arc of the story than anything that was actually said. How, he mused, would one translate the book into French? Perhaps the French passages would be translated to English. It would be a problem for the translator, in any case, to carry over the ideas as well as could be done; but, Eco notes, it's also the responsibility of the author to work with the translator. The creation of the story in the form the author gives it is itself an act of putting something abstract into a language, so nearly as the language can be made to accommodate it; the job of the novelist, the editor, the translator, even the stenographer, is to preserve something abstract as it changes concrete forms.

*Not that a road wouldn't be tough to hoe.

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