Translating his first text at only nine years old, Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges had an incredibly precocious start to his translation career. He also held a very controversial point of view; according to him, a translation need not only be faithful to the source but should also improve on the original, and therefore contribute to the wider field of literature as an artform.
More than simply relaying a message, or “copying” the original text, the art of translation has several implications:
Although many artists seek beauty, not all of them do. On the other hand, rare are those who do not wish to express an idea or convey a message. Contrary to what many might think, translation also has this ability!
Let’s take, for example, Homer’s Illiad. Historically, these epic adventures have been translated only by men. Translation is a discipline based on an interpretation of the source, and each translator brings with them their own sensibility, experiences and opinions. As a result, each translated piece has the potential to be thoroughly different from one another. Providing a new feminist point of view, Emily Wilson’s new take on the Illiad highlights aspects of the original text, such as slavery, which had so far been glossed over by previous translators. In the same way as a piece of art, a translated text is able to make its audience think about important issues, evoke feelings, or give rise to debate.
Skill and creativity.
It takes time to become a good translator and, not unlike an artist, a translator needs to study and practice their craft. A translator is not only required to convey the meaning of the source text, but also its nuance, feeling and symbolism into a different language, and sometimes a different culture. This is what we call “transcreation”.
A good example of the use of transcreation is in publicity, especially when it comes to slogans. You might know the confectionery brand Haribo, as well as its slogan:
“Kids and grown-ups love it so – the happy world of Haribo”.
Looking at the Spanish version of the slogan, it becomes clear that the translation is not a literal one:
“Vive un sabor mágico – ven al mundo Haribo”.
(Live a magical flavour – come to the world of Haribo.)
While keeping in mind the general meaning, the slogan has been adapted to suit a Spanish-speaking audience without losing the rhythm or rhyme of the original.
In translation, and especially in the literary field, the beauty of the written word is as important as the content. Compare it to journalism: journalism has a main goal of transmitting a message. In most cases, the form is of lesser importance. In translation, the manner in which the message is being transmitted is as important as the message itself. The choice of words, puns and underlying cultural connotations all contribute to the beauty of the work.
Some translations are even superior – either in terms of style and artistic sensitivity, or in terms of the feelings they generate in the reader – than the original work itself. Although far from perfect, there are those who believe that Baudelaire’s version of Poe’s work constitutes as better examples of writing!
In some instances, the beauty of the text is more important than the precision of the translation. For example, it is interesting to see the approach Disney has chosen for translating its songs. Disney’s songs tend to stray far from the original, in order to keep the original poetic feeling of the song. For instance, in The Little Mermaid’s “Part of Your World (Reprise)”:
Where would we walk?
Where would we run?
If we could stay all day in the sun?
Just you and me
And I could be
Part of your world
Loin de la mer (Far from the sea)
Et pour toujours (And forever)
Vivons sur Terre (Let’s live on Earth)
Rêvons au grand jour (Let’s dream in the open)
Ne m'oublie pas (Don’t forget me)
L'amour est là, pour toi et moi (Love is here, for you and me)
Translation is not always an easy exercise. The work must be able to stand on its own while remaining faithful to the source, and a good translator will need to make the most of their skills and instincts in order to strike the correct balance. It is only by achieving said balance that the translation becomes a real piece of art.