Lost in translation

Translations can’t be identical to the original

Translated texts are everywhere – they’re some of our favourite books, movie scripts, and articles.  

But have you ever thought about the transformation a translated text had to undergo to land in your hands? 

It’s interesting how much pressure a translator is under. They’re responsible for taking the native words and text and transforming it into the text of another language that might have completely different syntax, vocabulary, and style than the original language. Translators play a massive, paramount role in the transformation of information and stories.  

For people who have as much power as they do, translators are often in the shadows. How many translators can you name off the top of your head? 

Stories are powerful. Depending on how the original is translated, the meaning of the story could completely change.  

Some translators change the very fabric of a story. Whether it’s intentional or not, this happens all the time.  

An interesting example of this is Korean author Han Kang’s The Vegetarian which came out in Korean in 2007. Its original publication saw some success, but nothing compared to the English translation by Deborah Smith that won both Smith and Kang the Man Booker Prize in 2016. This was a big deal. A Korean book had never been the recipient of this huge literary prize. 

Because of this, The Vegetarian was the talk of the Korean-literary community. But following the book’s success, there were complaints that Smith hadn’t translated the novel.  

Upon closer inspection of the translation, it was noted Smith had added many flourishes that weren’t present in the original. After the discrepancies were spotted in the translation, the validity of Kang’s success was questioned.  

It goes to show how much power a translator yields.  

Smith was able to completely change the very feel of the book through the translation process. This power manifests whether the changes are made intentionally or not.  

No one will interpret a book in the same way, and this shows in books like The Vegetarian. Kang’s Korean-speaking readers did not read the book as Smith did.  

The fact that there are infinite ways to interpret a book makes us wonder if a translation in the literal sense is even possible. We’re left with this question of: must something inevitably change in translation? 

Yes, something will always be lost or added.  

This is the nature of language. Nothing can be taken from one language and be completely carried across to another language.  

There are so many words that only exist in one language, like the Filipino “Gigil,” which roughly translates to the irresistible feeling to pinch or squeeze something cute. Words like these simply can’t be translated, only described. In this process, the words lose their context, connotations, and ultimately their meanings. 

That’s not to say that books shouldn’t be translated. Restricting books to their native language feels too close to censorship. But because of their inherent differences, translated books should be viewed in a different light than their original counterpart.  

The way to do this would be to have the translator’s name on the cover right alongside the author. After all, it’s a joint effort that delivers to the reader the translated text.  

This recognition of both author and translator would bring the necessary attention to the potential differences between the original and the translation. That way, if another situation arises like Han Kang, Deborah Smith, and The Vegetarian, people won’t be in outrage that the two are different. Outrage will be suppressed because we’ll know that they are different and that they must, in fact, be different. 

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Chiara Ferrero-Wong

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