Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Fragile Art

Over at Superstition Free, we often get into interesting debates about what the Christian Bible might or might not say. It's not that host Robert Madewell generally posts about such a topic, but many Christian apologists frequent his blog and this type of conversation is instigated by them. Of course, I find it quite hilarious that even the apologists themselves can't seem to agree on which parts of their holy book are literal and which parts are figurative or symbolic!

I think many of these individuals simply do not recognize that the work of translating documents from one language to another is as much an art form as it is scientific.

Each culture views the world in unique ways and this perspective has a lot to do with how each language is constructed. Things that are viewed as a primary importance in one culture may be nothing more than a glib afterthought in another. Points of reference may be altogether different. Some languages place a central importance on gender and number, while others do not.

All these differences -- both large and small -- make it extremely difficult to capture the true essence of a thought when translated from one tongue to another. Yes, the general gist may be understood, but the layered meaning is lost. This is just as true for the Tao Te Ching as it is for the Bible.

To provide some examples, I found this site that illustrates the problem with trying to translate Spanish idioms into English.
SP: Comer frijoles y repetir pollo
TR: To eat beans and belch chicken
ENG: His bark is mightier than his bite.

SP: Después de atole
TR: After the atole (corn meal drink)
ENG: Hindsight is better that foresight.

SP: El campo fértil no descansado, tórnase estéril.
TR: The unrested fertile field turns sterile.
ENG: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

SP: Prietitos del mismo arroz.
TR: The little black one's of the same rice.
ENG: It's all in a day's work.
I have no way of knowing if the translations shown here are true (since my Spanish has grown very rusty with the years), but I think the point is made nonetheless: Translation is an art form and, while it attempts to convey the most understandable meaning possible, it almost always loses a bit in translation!

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