Unfashionable Nonsense: Lost in Translation

Opinion by and
March 1, 2010, 12:30 a.m.

Fact: not everyone speaks the same language. This was not always the case. Before there was English and before there was Old German and even before people spoke cuneiform or Indo-European, it was not so. Some people say we all spoke the same language until the Tower of Babel. Other people allege we all spoke the same language until the Rosetta Stone Company, subsidiary of Hallmark, invented other ones in order to open up a billion dollar market. Either way, the fact is still true.

This is why we translate things. We translate words and books, and also cuisine and cars and styles. We can take a book like Le Comte de Monte-Cristo and make it understandable for a student in a high school literature class in Ohio. We can make fettuccini in Boston. We can even negotiate the treacherous freeways of Tucson with a BMW. What was once impossible is actualized. We can take one thing – a word, a vehicle, a dish – and bring it somewhere else in order to be grasped.

This may or may not be a magnificent feat of human ingenuity. Is it incredible that ideas expressed 2,500 years ago in Greek can be read in plain English, or, better yet, summarized by SparkNotes in plainer English? Yes, it is. But, as any BabelFish user can tell you, sometimes translations go horribly awry. My word-for-word translation of a certain lotion they peddle in Italy is “body-milk-of-prettiness.” Is this an excellent product name that I have already copyrighted in major American markets? Probably. Is it what they meant? No. In fact, almost every language has these things called “idioms” which tend to translate poorly. And some phrases do not even translate from one person to another even when they speak the same language. This category includes inside jokes and family stories. Does “phosphate of lemmox” mean anything to you? I hope not.

Because of this, it is pretty imperative to understand the difference between meaning and meaning. Ah ha – that doesn’t make any sense! But take the inside joke as an example. Suppose you have an inside joke about Ke$ha with your friend. In fact, suppose your first name is Emily and you are now insisting on going by “Emily with a Euro sign.” So, you’re milling about your day with a couple of other friends, attempting to ingratiate yourself to the bookstore café employees – perhaps so they’ll give you the leftover and/or stale cookies – and you run across some dry looking book with a euro sign on the cover talking about the financial security of the Spanish seal pelt market. You point and say “it’s me” to one friend, who gets it, and another who does not. Do you make sense or not? Obviously it depends. Your words mean something to one person and nothing to the other. It did not make any sense for me to say “meaning” means something distinct from “meaning” at the beginning of this paragraph. But now, hopefully, it does mean something. And that is the whole point.

So, then, I have observed a few tricks of the trade for translation, and also learned this week how to use alliteration in order to emphasize a topic sentence. First of all, it’s easier to translate if you already know in your home language what the mystery text is going to say. For instance, I could probably do a sweet translation of Romeo e Giulietta. I bet they have families that are feuding and die at the end. This applies to life in general. Do you like food? I don’t even know you and I know the answer is yes. It is like I cheated and/or used statistics. If this doesn’t work out, you find someone else who already knows the answer and use them as your pocket dictionary. Keep adding people until you have a trail of pebbles to take you home.

In essence, picking out this route is all translation ever is. All translation is self-translation, just as, in the wise words of Patrick Kozey, all tanning is self tanning. Picking your trail then, is the difference between understanding and being lost in a nest of confusion, and probably Tusken Raiders. I’m pretty sure they go hand in hand.

Emily Hulme is, in fact, going by Emily with a Euro Sign. Please address her as such at [email protected].

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