Friday, September 11, 2015

Why Things Get Lost in Translation

I often get asked for the equivalent of bon appétit (or its equivalents in other languages) in English. It's a question that I always struggle to really answer. I can say "enjoy your meal", but it doesn't really sound right to me because that's just something that we do. Some families and friends say grace before their meal, while others just drop the plates on the table and start shovelling in the food. So even though the sentiment can be vaguely expressed, it might not be very natural for everyone.

This is where culture plays an important role in translation. While words can express something linguistically, the ways different cultures do different things means that you may only rarely be able to really express what one culture says to another.

For example, greetings throughout the day can vary wildly throughout languages. English appears to have an expression for almost every part of the day: "good morning", "good afternoon", "good evening", and "good night".

In other languages it may not be that easy. Some languages may have the same number of greetings, but the times that are considered morning, afternoon, evening, and night may be somewhat different. Others may just differentiate between day, when the sun is out and shining (which it rarely does in England, anyway) and when it's dark.

These differences between cultures, how people consider things, and how they see the world around them, can be awkward to navigate when translating. Especially when things are classified differently, or contain sub-classifications that do not exist in your language.

I'm fairly certain this would be hibou.
French natives have told me that there is a world of difference between a chouette and a hibou, but as an English speaker, they all look like owls to me. The main difference between the two is that one (hibou) features aigrettes, which are a sort of distinctive head plumage, while the other (chouette) does not.

This means that if the distinction being made in French is very important, you can't just say "owl", as the information pertaining to the head plumage is being lost. However, if this distinction is not particularly important, you would probably omit a description of whether or not this bird has plumage, meaning that some information has been lost in translation.

Of course, this is hardly a dire situation when speaking casually or in a text that has nothing to do with the birds themselves. However, my main point is that the act of translation always carries some degree of loss or degradation, because the amount of information contained in every word, even those that are very similar, may contain slightly less information in the target language.

However, the contrary can always be true. It's also possible that the source word contains less information than the closest equivalent in the target language. That means the translation can end up with connotations that were never there in the first place.

There's a difference between something getting lost in translation because the language is incapable of expressing something in an identical way to the source and a translation that is just bad because the translator misunderstood the source text or expressed it poorly due to not having a good understanding of the target language.

The best way to avoid these losses is to learn the language and experience the culture so that you never have to worry about it. Otherwise, just make sure you have a good translator!