Essay: Thoughts on Translation

I’m way in over my head here, but these are some of the issues that, although I don’t fully understand, interest me very much and I wanted to collect my thoughts in one place in until such a time that I can do them justice!

Language is a lubricous concept and nothing illuminates that like the gaps, as well as the additions – the absences and presences – that are created when translating one language into another.  It is from here that many of the biggest questions asked by linguistics and language philosophy take flight.  Even when one is monolingual, translations still take place, such as the alchemy of selecting one word over another and the subtle differences created according to which is chosen.


In the novel, Leaving the Atocha Station – a book in part about the gaps between languages where meaning is recreated – the protagonist, Adam attends a poetry reading in Madrid where he expects to understand little of the Spanish poems to be read.  In fact, the opposite occurs:

To my surprise this poem was totally intelligible to me, an Esperanto of clichés: wave, heart, pain, moon, breasts, beach, emptiness, etc.; the delivery was so cloying the thought crossed my mind that his apparent earnestness might be parody.  But then he read his second poem, “Distance”: mountains, sky, heart, pain, stars, breasts, river, emptiness, etc.

The short phrase ‘an Esperanto of clichés’ succinctly and cleverly conveys a vast amount about the philosophy of language, namely that Adam does not need a masterful command of the Spanish language – or an English translation – to be able to understand the poems, as the subject matter – the thing created by the very arrangement of the words themselves – is so universally banal as to surpass the Otherness and become easy to comprehend.  This poses questions, amongst many others, about the arbitrary nature of language and whether words, as merely signs, convey any meaning on their own, or whether that meaning is imported by the listener.

In addition, the intangible idea of voice can often play a more important role than the actual language being employed to give life to that voice.  For example, for a native English speaker who speaks Spanish as a second language, an English or American voice can be easier to read in translation than an original text in Spanish.  This can apply in the reverse too, making an original text in Spanish translated into English harder to read than an original text written in English and translated into Spanish.   For example, a British/American reader may find the Postmodern school and the themes of anxiety and dislocation more relevant than the Magic Realism of Marquéz.  This places concepts such as national identity and cultural values above the actual language being used to express such concepts, meaning that whatever the reader brings to a novel potentially has more sway over the enjoyment and comprehension of the story, than does language.


Regarding the literal translation of a novel from one language to another, one would usually expect ‘like for like’ in terms of style, yet there is often unexpected, extra beauty to be found.  Unexpected in the sense that, for example, a celebrated author and her book would expect a translation of her work to be faithfully rendered, but sometimes the translation can surpass the original, as well as – more often than the latter – fall short. Two examples from Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides arguably illustrate this point.  A beautiful evocation of Eliot through the mouth of a detoxifying Trip Fontaine, yet recalling clearly and painfully years later, the unfathomable Lux Lisbon, reads in the original thus:

“She was the still point of the turning world.” he told us, quoting Eliot, whose Collected Poems he had found on the shelf of the detoxification centre.

It could be argued that the Spanish translation loses some of the beauty of Eliot and Eugenides’ words, feeling more dutifully descriptive than transcendent:

Fue el punto fijo de un mundo que giraba – nos dijo, citando a Eliot, cuyos Poemas completos había encontrado en la biblioteca del centro de desintoxicación.

In addition, Lux’s goodbye to Trip after their first clandestine encounter is snappy and full of meaning:

I gotta get back before bedcheck.

However, the Spanish equivalent translates very literally and in doing so loses some of the nuance of the original:

Tengo que volver antes de que se den cuenta de que no estoy en la cama.

I have to get back before they notice I’m not in bed.

However, during the same novel, it could be argued that the use of onomatopoeia and the musicality of the alliteration in the Spanish translation has something of the edge over the original:

Pertenecían al tipo de las que llevan pendientes de esos que tintinean, las puntas del cabello decoloradas y zapatos con tacón de corcho sujetos con tiras en los tobillas.

They were the jangly-earring type, with hair bleached at the fringes and cork-heeled shoes that tied around their ankles.


There is also the place where languages overlap and bleed into one another. This occurs regularly in the case of countries that have minority-majority languages, such as Spanish in North America.  Here, the two languages combine to create a hybrid where meaning and new ways of expression are replete.

For example, the requisition of an English verb (often slang, or a neologism) that is then remade for the Spanish tongue and language structure, such as the Spanish ‘Hanguear’ which takes the American-English, ‘to hang out’ and recreates it for Spanish using the verb root from the original and adding a Spanish verb ending to make the infinitive.  The ‘gue’ sound also ensures that it trips easily off a native Spanish tongue.  In the reverse, there are many examples of American-English being influenced by Spanish, such as the Spanish second person plural verb conjugation which doesn’t exist in English, used to refer to ‘you’ in the plural, which has been neatly appropriated by American-English to become, ‘y’all’:

Tomáis una copa? / Y’all want a drink?

Such innovations in language use illustrate why, as Marina Warner wrote in a newspaper article entitled, English That’s Good Enough, perhaps fluency in another language shouldn’t be a learner’s goal, as non-native speakers bring new and interesting perspectives and evolve language-use:

Many of my students are non-native English speakers.  Although they speak English well you couldn’t say they are fluent.  Most of them have more than a smattering, but the task of writing imaginatively in English demands that they push themselves hard to capture on the page what they are seeing in their mind’s eye.  But the results are often strikingly vivid.  There are gains from not knowing a language as one’s mother tongue – as Samuel Beckett realised when he set aside English and chose to write in French.


To conclude, language – being a living, fluid thing – will continue to proliferate and to generate questions as a result, especially in an increasingly globalised world where languages will naturally pollinate and thus create yet more questions that arguably go to the very heart of who we are and the world we live in.


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