Luck in Translation

In my example, the literal translation was very close to the more colloquial one, so the choice to use the literal one wasn’t very difficult.  But what if the translation wasn’t close?  What if the saying, once translated, got lost?  What is the author/translator to do?  Or, as in my example, the text was translated accurately and the over all intention was conveyed but somehow the spirit of the text was severed.  All of a sudden, the friendly and more personal How are you became a more formal and clinical Are you healthy.  The personality of the piece became flat like a recipe from a cookbook.  So the question remains: where is the balance between contextual accuracy and creative authenticity?

Itinerant Victorian writer George Burrow once wrote that translation is at best an echo.  There is much truth in this statement.  The goal of most translators is to capture the same intent and meaning of the original piece in the translation.  And if the writer is lucky, convey the same tone and spirit of the piece as well.

As I am writing about my family’s assimilation to the United States, I’ve had to translate my parent’s stories.  Since my parents’ English was limited, most of our interviews were conducted in Vietnamese.  The few times I asked them to describe their experiences in English, I received a litany of Dr. Seuss-style answers:

It was hot. We slept in a cot. It was all we got.

But comfortable in their own language, in their own skin, their descriptions became vivid and engaging.  The expressions on their faces changed as the mood of each story took root.  Their eyebrows arched high in their forehead when they spoke about something joyful.  The rushed staccato tempo of their voices was similar to the way excited children spoke.  The opposite was true as well when they spoke about fateful times.  They spoke in a slow and more deliberate manner and their animated eyes lost their luster.  They often used wonderful Vietnamese proverbs to highlight their descriptions.  Simple in structure, the proverbs packed a lot of meaning in succinct phrases, sort of like sophisticated fortune cookies.  As simple as these proverbs were, they also proved to be the most difficult to translate.

I took more of my notes in Vietnamese than in English.  I found it easier to record the stories just the way they were being told.  No cerebral filtering, no impromptu translations.  It was these moments that I was grateful for my parents for the foresight to enroll me in classes that taught me how to read and write in Vietnamese.

To outsiders, my notes looked like a hodgepodge of letters with various symbols that comprised of left and right slants, small question marks that sometimes lay sideways and upside down V’s.  However, these symbols denote a rise or fall in pitch, giving the word the correct inflection.  The wrong inflection can produce a different word.  This is how a How are you becomes a roast duck.

As I began the daunting task of translating my notes, I could feel my frustration stacking up like the cluttered pile of notes in front of me.  Etymologically, translation means to carry or bring across.  In the beginning, I thought this would be simple.  I would translate my parent’s stories line-by-line, word-by-word.  The story would unravel itself as I wrote.  It would all make sense.  How naive I was.

It was like assembling a puzzle that contained the pieces from a different puzzle.  I first had to separate and organize the pieces of my puzzle from the other one and only once that was completed could I begin to join my pieces together.  As I was translating, I had to figure out the exact meaning of what I was translating and then afterwards, find the appropriate corresponding words in English.  With all the words in place, I could then structure the words in meaningful sentences.

There were some phrases that were easy enough to translate like, Gan muc thi den, gan den thi sang. Near the ink, it’s dark, near the light, it’s bright.

Then, I came across phrases that lost all meaning with a literal translation, Lieu com gap mam, Choose rice get sauce.  The over all intent of this proverb was actually a warning for people to live within their means or within their abilities.  But, a reader reading only a literal translation would never get the warning.

A simple translation wasn’t sufficient to convey the significance of these phrases.  More attention had to paid, more descriptions and details had to be given.  In the end, lengthy paragraphs were devoted for just a couple of words.  It reminded me of the old Kung Fu movies where the actor would speak for a while and then the corresponding dubbed voice would utter just a few words.  The audience would laugh at the disproportionate translation.

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June 17, 2009

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