Video of the day:
David Bellos is Director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton University, where he is also Professor of French and Comparative Literature. He is the author of Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything. A book that doesn’t tell you how to translate but to understand what translation does.
He addresses the following questions:
What is translation? What can we learn from translation? What does it teach us? What do actually know about translation? What is it about translation that we still need to find out?
What do people mean when they offer opinions and precepts about the best way to translate? Are all translations the same kind of thing, or are there different operations involved in different kinds of translating? Is translating fundamentally different from writing and speaking, or is it just another aspect of the unsolved mystery of how we come to know what someone else means?
What is a translation?
Douglas Hofstadter sent a copy of a poem by French Clément Marot to a great number of his friends and acquaintances and asked them to translate it into English. This cognitive scientist of Indiana University got dozens of responses.
By this simple device he demonstrated one of the most awkward and wonderful truths about translation. It is this: Any utterance of more than trivial length has no one translation. All utterances have innumerably many acceptable translations.
Is translation avoidable?
Translation is everywhere–at the United Nations, the European Union, the World Trade Organization and many other international bodies that regulate fundamental aspects of modern life. Tranlation is part and parcel of modern business, and there’s hardly a major industry that doesn’t use and produce translations for its own operations.
How could we do without translation?
It seems pointless to wonder what world we would live in if translation didn’t happen all the time at every level (…). But we could do without it, all the same. Instead of using translation, we could learn the languages of all the different communities we wish to engage with; or we could decide to speak the same language; or else adopt a single common language for communicating with other communities.
All three paths away from translation are historically attested.
One big truth about translation that is often kept under wraps is that many societies did just fine by doing without.