Lost and found: The art of translation

For faculty in the School of Arts & Sciences, translation is an art that allows us to communicate across cultural difference.

For speakers of multiple languages, the idea that an object and its verbal representation are distinct from one another is no provocation. To use Magritte’s 1929 painting, La Trahison des Images (The Treachery of Images) as an example: this is not a pipe, nor מקטרת, nor ቧንቧ, nor غليون. These words for pipe, in Hebrew, Amharic, and Arabic, respectively, are verbal and written representations of the same thing, but they are different sounds with different cultural connotations and traditions of use. And of course, in cultures without traditions of smoking, like Ancient Greece, there is simply no such word and no such thing.

Abstract painting of books, writing utensils, flowers, and decorative brush strokes.

Multilingual speakers and writers hold these representations, connotations, traditions, and absences in their heads at once. Nili Gold says this ability is a double-edged sword.

“I think that for people who don’t know other languages, there is some sense of security. If a child only knows ‘table,’ they may think that the table was created as a table—that the word and the thing are the same,” Gold, professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, comments. “When you have more than one language, you know that the signified is disconnected from the signifier. And that it’s all arbitrary. Meaning is arbitrary. But at the same time, knowing multiple languages gives you some sense of empathy, because you know that there are other ways of saying things and of looking at things.”

Because of the varied, culturally dependent ways of signifying meaning, people who want to translate a text from one language recognize that they cannot create an exact analog of the original. There can be a sense of loss in that recognition. Huda Fakhreddine, associate professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, puts it like this: “Translation places you face-to-face with the feeling that what you really set out to say is not going to be said. You really inhabit the loss, and you have to reconcile with that and channel it into making the translation more urgent.”

Emily Wilson, College for Women Class of 1963 Term Professor in the Humanities, expands on the power and danger of loss, joking that, “There can be a tendency for translators of ancient texts to fall into thinking like, ‘I feel so intense in the sense of loss. I feel that English is somehow inferior. So, I’m going to write a weird kind of English that will somehow make me feel better about the fact that this isn’t Greek.’”

This story is by Lauren Rebecca Thacker. Read more at Omnia.