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Language Barrier or Barter: The Story of Translation

“If you want to talk about something new, you have to make up a new kind of language”

-Haruki Murakami.

Language has always been considered a barrier to cultural unity. To express something in a language that is not your own has been heavily criticized by readers and scholars alike, but at the same time, translation is a necessity. It is essentially a ‘can’t live with-can’t live without’ situation, but where do we find common ground?

00: The Need for translation

Manual translation began with the advent of formal religious scriptures, and the need to propagate them outside the local land. The earliest known translation is that of the Old Testament from Hebrew to Greek, titled ‘Septuagint’ because it took 70 scholars to translate the entire text. When the Catholic-Protestant schism formed, the need to translate the Bible into European languages grew, and so did the popularity of translators. Religion played such a prominent role in translation that the church even appointed St. Jerome as The Patron Saint of Translation.

Translation further grew with various liberal movements across the globe when it became crucial to broadcast colonial struggles. Marginalized literature was translated primarily into English and other European languages. Poems like ‘Where the Mind is without Fear’ by poet Rabindranath Tagore perfectly fits this category.

Translation, however, was not limited to works of non-fiction. Classics like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Murder on the Orient Express, and the Famous Five anthology got translated out of the sheer popularity in the response they received from readers. With fiction, a new emphasis was placed on capturing the essence of the novel, on not only portraying the correct story but also in maintaining the ambiance the language creates for the reader. Words that seamlessly intertwine to suit the mood of the scene in a certain language don't create the same effect when grammatically translated to another language. A translation must read like an original, but at the same time, it must retain the original context and dialogue as presented by the author.

01: The Method of Translation

Logically, all Urdu poets are not gay. However, many ghazals, poetry, and even song lyrics often gender the artist's beloved with male pronouns. So one of two outcomes is possible - either the statement mentioned above is false, or what we are witnessing is a build-up of translation stemming from relatively western ideas and enthusiasm, inadvertently encroaching on a cultural system that prioritizes Allah even over romantic affections. Most Urdu poets traditionally impose an image of their God over their feelings for their ‘beloved’, which is often misinterpreted and celebrated as being queer.

Translation in itself becomes a paradox because it offers a window into a cultural context alien to us, however, translations are open to personal biases held by translators who are influenced by cultural stereotypes. As mentioned before, translators can’t be methodical and objective in translation, but at the same time, they cannot credibly reframe the original as their own. Each translator brings their own beliefs, skills, and stylistic sensibilities when interpreting a language. This begs the question - can any translation be authentic if it’s first viewed from a tinted lens?

As hard as one may try, it is impossible to completely eradicate the ‘human error’ or interference in translation. This can be analyzed further when we compare translations of The Odyssey written by male and female authors. The Odyssey is definitely not a feminist text, and neither is it a unidimensional heroic fable of a fair and moral protagonist, Odysseus. Yet both these versions exist in translations adapted for an American demographic. Some deviate from the actual text and instead choose to analyze the motivations and situations of characters like Penelope, Circe, and Eurymedusa. Others completely center the focus on Odysseus and his adventures, adding to his hinted heroism with admirable and rhetorical language. This can be seen in the excerpt from Robert Fitzgerald’s 1986 version -

“Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story / of that man skilled in all ways of contending.”

The use of indirect and glorified language in this case not only clouds the harsh reality of slavery, sexism, and other social injustices but also completely misdirects the readers into a falsely crafted “perfect” protagonist. In both these cases, the translator’s desire to redefine the text can be clearly noticed - a forced feminist perspective or an ignorant and egotistical perspective. It becomes imperative for a translator to be neutral if they are to recreate a classic in another language, even when it comes to including details that make them personally uncomfortable. Going back to the example of the Odyssey, translators can be seen avoiding classifying some of the characters as ‘slaves’. They are alternatively introduced as ‘chambermaids’ or ‘domestic servants’, implying they are free and thereby changing the premise entirely.

In the words of Yifeng Sun, the purpose of reading a translation is to learn what is unfamiliar, and embedded in a foreign language as opposed to reaffirming what we already know by distorting it into a prototype. A common difficulty in most translations is the establishment of a middle ground, something that can showcase the original text in all its authenticity while simultaneously capturing the interest of the intended audience. Makt Myrkranna, the Icelandic version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula written by Valdimar Ásmundsson shows clear differences in the pacing of the novel, where the entire novel is considerably more sensuous and thrilling than the original. The climax and ending of the translation is also completely different from the original, although it is considered to be better.

02: The Growth of Translation

Translation is more than a rewrite. It transports a diverse and interpersonal experience to a population isolated from a cultural identity. This is not just limited to literature, but relevant to art as a whole. From the beginning, the aim of translation has been to allow for the dissipation of cultural and geographical boundaries through the spread of information and seeing as media content is on the rise, translation has expanded to include dubbing scripts, subtitles, music covers, and so on. In the twenty-first century, translation is not only linking people separated by geographical boundaries but also through time. Translating classics or books written before socio-political movements risk becoming problematic if not handled in a sensitive manner. Similarly, literature originating from conservative and non-individualistic cultures can also be mislabelled as ‘anti-freedom’ or ‘sexist’ if the cultural context is not clear. However, interest in translated text and even translated media has garnered a significant amount of attention. While audiences still appreciate their own art, they are now more inclusive and open to other cultures.

“Once you overcome the 1-inch barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to many more amazing films.”

-Bong Joon-Ho.

Netflix shows like Money Heist and Squid Games received more popularity among international audiences than those that actually spoke the language. Parasite became the first ever non-English movie to receive the Best Film award at the 2020 Oscars and Jallikattu became India’s first ever non-Hindi official entry for the 93rd Academy Awards. Japanese authors like Haruki Murakami, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Kotaro Isaka are now critically acclaimed and receive enormous benefits such as movie adaptations, magazine features, thematic merchandise, etc.

As individuals expand their framework of society, the translation industry becomes a necessity that cannot be avoided. This becomes a unique give-and-take situation where the audience demands a certain need and is accurately catered to.

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