Session 1


Robert Lane Greene

Ask linguists and psychologists about translatability and you get two very different kinds of answer. One is that everything can be translated; just because one language has a rare word that might require several words to translate it into another doesn’t mean that that word “can’t be translated.” People who tell you that their language has a word that can’t be translated usually then tell you what it means, proving themselves wrong.

On the other hand, languages handle different tasks in different ways. The Russian past tense tells you whether the subject of the verb is masculine or feminine, for example. The Amazon language Tuyuca forces speakers to add to a verb an ending that shows how they know what they’re saying to be true. The linguist Roman Jakobson split the difference between the two camps (“everything is translatable” versus “every language is unique”) by saying that while every language can express nearly everything, some languages force you to pay attention to things that another language would not.

The really interesting aspect of a language isn’t its store of individual words but the connections between them. Semantic links—where does the word fit in the wider mental map of meaning—are critical. Take the example of crusade, a generic word in modern English that people use to describe moral campaigns against drugs or obesity. It shows a hint of its etymology—the word cross in a Latinate form, à la crucifix. But most Anglophones don’t notice this aspect of it, so when George Bush used crusade to talk about the war in Afghanistan, Muslims, especially those who speak Arabic, heard very different things. The Arabic salibiya is a straightforward translation of crusade, but the presence of the word cross, as in the ones Christian Europeans carried emblazoned on them when they invaded the Middle East a thousand years ago, is far clearer to Arabs in salibiya than it is to Americans in crusade. You can translate the word, then, but not all of the connections that go with it.

So the answer to “Is true translation possible?” is a clear “Yes, but.” What lies in that “but” is the interesting bit. In how many other myriad ways is language a flawed and limited vessel for bringing thoughts from one mind to another? What about one culture to another? Protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square made use of a number of paralinguistic messages, with signs calling on Hosni Mubarak to quit appearing in hieroglyphics (he had been known as “the pharaoh”) and Hebrew (for his adherence to the unpopular peace treaty with Israel)—in addition to the many signs in English, a staple of international protests for decades to make sure messages get out easily to the world’s media. I look forward to hearing from my colleagues, with their varied perspectives, on this fascinating subject.


N. Katherine Hayles

As Lane suggests, the connections are what render translation problematic. Language works like a Velcro strip dragging along a weed-filled field; the strip still exists when imported into another context, but all the seed pods, grass stems, and other detritus have become so embedded in the fibers that they can never be totally removed. Language is not composed of self-contained signifiers operating independently but rather achieves meaning through networks of closely related terms, as the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure taught us nearly a century ago. Language embodies a cultural mindset, a way of looking at the world that we absorb intuitively when learning a language. When we give ourselves to language as infants, the rhythms, nuances, and connotations are absorbed along with mother’s milk. Language teachers often note a certain resistance as students struggle to learn a foreign language that comes when a student tries to “translate” in his head. When the student simply responds to what the new language will permit, progress usually increases rapidly.

A related question is whether translation between different media is possible. Again, the answer is “Of course,” but similar qualifications apply. Take, for example, a print book that is “translated” into an e-reader format. Is it the same work? The words, spaces, and punctuation may be the same, but the reader’s experience of the e-book differs significantly from the print version. For example, a sensory experience that changes dramatically in this translation is the reader’s interaction with the book as a volumetric object. With a book, one is always aware (at least subliminally) of how far “into” the book one is—three-quarters, one-half, barely started, almost done. This knowledge is registered visually, kinesthetically, and proprioceptively. It is simply not the same as viewing a bar at the top of an e-reader screen showing the amount of text remaining.

Many contemporary writers are playing with the media-specific qualities of the print book, as if confronting publishers with works impossible to convert to e-books. Mark Z. Danielewski’s long narrative print poem Only Revolutions, for example, uses complex topographic patterns as important components of its signifying strategy, including a design that requires readers constantly to turn the book upside down and backwards to continue reading. Jonathan Safran Foer’s recent print book Tree of Codes has extensive die-cut holes on every page, a construction that treats the book as a sculptural object.

A clever and determined person might devise strategies that aim for similar experiences in an e-book, but such attempts would simply create new—not identical—aesthetic experiences. This is not to say, of course, that print books are superior to e-books, only that the two media forms are different. It remains to be seen what talented writers and artists will do with the aesthetic possibilities of e-books. Artistic adventures in the field are still in their infancy, hampered perhaps by publishers’ assumption that an e-book is simply a print work in electronic form. It is not, but this is not to say that it cannot have a glorious future of its own.


Anthony Pym

“Is true translation possible?” asks Lane. The answer could be a clear, “Yes . . . but it doesn’t always matter.”

When we train translators and interpreters, one of the first things we get across to them is that things can be said differently within a given language. There is almost always an alternative expression. You can say things in many ways. The one idea has many possible expressions. The one basic content can fill many forms. Synonyms abound. And I’d better stop now.

Once you accept that variation operates within a language, there is nothing particularly scandalous about seeing it work in translation across languages. There might even be something liberating in it. The French critic Roland Barthes once complained that the French language was quite simply fascist, since it obliged him to describe himself as either a man or a woman almost every time he used an adjective to describe himself. Was it really so hard to be queer in French? Perhaps Barthes could have just stayed with the few French adjectives that don’t require a sexual ending. But then, how much easier it is to move one’s text into a non-Romance language, into blissfully asexual adjectives! If a language is fascist, then translation might be less so. A truth that is constrained in one language might be less concealed in another.

All words can be translated, given world enough and time. But there lies the rub: we don’t have unlimited space and time in which to translate—things have to fit into boxes, and on time. There is, unfortunately for translators, what’s called the iconic dimension of language, the physical dimensions that language fills: how much language, for how long, with what rhythms, in what particular place, at what particular time. It is that iconic dimension, certainly aesthetic, that resists displacement. You can tell Hosni Mubarak to leave in as many languages you like, and they might convey many meanings, but what ultimately counts is how many of you are in Tahrir Square when you say it, when you are there, for how long, with what international visibility, and with what latent fear. The force of the words comes from that complex iconic positioning, and that is what we do not translate, even when we can talk about it.

And then, the words themselves may ultimately not matter. When your first love first responded to your timid declaration (hopefully with a yes), or your father’s death reached your ears and electrified the room, the words themselves were not important. What counted was the moment, and all that hinged on the words in that particular time and space. Augustine posited that ideas are illuminations that erupt in the mind, then leave momentary traces, like the flashes you see when you close your eyes after looking at light. Words simply allow us to recall those traces, and since they are no more than that, they can be in any language at hand, then translated into any other language. Translation may or may not be possible, but it doesn’t always matter. What counts is the experience, in its full aesthetic ground.


Biljana Scott

I agree with Lane’s claim that the challenge of translation lies not in the words themselves but in the connections between them, in what’s between the lines. I would indeed argue that the foremost challenge facing translators lies in the unsaid, defined as a meaningful silence that is both created and constrained by what is said. The unsaid is not therefore an empty, open-ended silence but one framed by language and culture; it is a suggestion, innuendo, or implication, a meaning that is elicited, conjured, or implicitly understood. The example of the hieroglyphic and Hebrew scripts used on protest placards in Tahrir Square is an instance of the unsaid or, more specifically, of what need not be said, because the intended meaning is clearly enough communicated for those in the know.

There seems to be a community-building function associated with the unsaid, therefore. Understanding the unsaid confers in-group membership: you don’t need to have jargon, slang, jokes, euphemisms, or codes explained because you share the same frames of reference. What the expression “We speak the same language” really means is “We understand the unspoken in the same way.” People can, as George Bernard Shaw quipped, be divided by the same language: “not bad” is higher praise to a British English speaker than “quite good,” and “Perhaps you might like to start looking for another job” is a very British way of saying, “You’re fired.” As social creatures, we are constantly creating new in-groups and new language communities, whether professional, generational, regional, gender based, or other.

Translation goes beyond words to include the intended meanings behind words, the values, beliefs, connotations, and unspokens that are implicitly carried by words. The hardest thing to translate is the particular meaning of what has been understood without having been said. If you translate the words alone, you lose out on the implications. If, on the other hand, you explain the implications by providing a gloss (Mubarak as “pharaoh,” his treaty with Israel), you lose out on the sense of being in the know, of belonging.

And yet, it’s not all about loss. Although there is certainly a lot of truth in the claim that poetry is what is lost in translation, there is also incongruity, humour, irony, and serendipity to be found in translation, and surely these too are essential to creativity and art.


Yara Sofia wrote :

Something lost, something gained? The following is pure poetry:
Yara Sofia posted on 04/12/11
Rosemary Yeoland wrote :

Words can be translated but the sound or musicality--which is the very essence of a language--is lost. How successful can a translation of a poem from one language to another be, for example?
Rosemary Yeoland posted on 04/12/11
Jacqueline O'Malley-Satz wrote :

Using language is a means to an end: it is one of the most used forms for communicating between people. However, the physical gesture is primary. Both these 'forms' have roots in culture and practice. It is the culture of people that is being transmitted. Culture comes from many individual 'sets' . . . often organized into families (adults & children) and then other 'groups' such as peers, colleagues, members of teams, members of religious groups, etc. So, when we 'speak' we are trying to 'harmonize' cultural mores. When I ask my students "What is ART?" they sometimes respond saying: it is anything anyone says is art . . . and so on the discussion continues and everyone tries to connect to their cultural bias, knowledge and experience to answer the question according to what they individually 'think.'
Jacqueline O'Malley-Satz posted on 04/11/11
Pablo Garcia wrote :

Etymology is always a good starting point when translating, or at least a vital point of reference. I agree that we disregard our own etymologies, so to speak. For instance, the word "confidence" is often associated with bravado, zeal. If we look at the origin, from the Latin "fidere," "to trust," we see a more positive connotation, so that "self-confidence" is simply a matter of trusting oneself. Indeed, our interpretation of words often leads us astray.
Pablo Garcia posted on 04/11/11

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