Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Lost in Translation

There are times when you are reading the translated work from a writer who has originally published in another language where you are bounced out of the story and its narrative voice by a single word.

A recent example came when you were reading a crime writer, first published in one of the Scandinavian countries.  Things were going well.  You were inside the unfolding story, comfortable in the new country, meeting agreeable primary and secondary characters, until one of them, an upper-echelon police official, spoke to a group of detectives, working at their desks.
"Would one of you chaps," this police official said, "mind bringing me some coffee."

One word, "chaps," and you were out for the most stretched logic imaginable.  English writers might call a group of men "chaps," your reason told you, but not American writers.  You were making the jump from Scandinavian to American English.  One perfectly understandable non-American English word shouldn't make that much of a difference.  But it did.

The translator may have not been English, yet versed in English to the point of getting most of the idiomatic and contemporary English.  Of course, the translator may have had English as his or her first language.  No matter.  The grand irony of an otherwise effective translation stopping dead in its tracks because of an inappropriate English word is a story in itself.

The story in effect begins with this:  Language is the filter through which the dramatic activity must pass.  With increased regularity, thanks to non-network television sources, story has become more influenced by emphasis on action; the language of story is some kind of action.  Although action can be described with some accuracy, emotions and ideas require more action-based prompts.

In its most ideal state, story can be transmitted with no explanation, no footnotes or backstory.  Through the use of characters performing actions which convey much of their intent, the viewer or reader interprets the elements of the story. In actuality, the reader contributes an intelligent and critical presence that has a direct correlation to the degree of enjoyment the reader will get.

To a large extent, particularly in the early draft stages of story, the writer is trying to visualize what the characters will do, why they do it, and what the consequences of these why and wherefore aspects will lead.  The writer is, in fact, trying to translate visual strands of information and motivation.

An Italian phrase, "Traditutore, traitore," is either a warning or a judgment.  A translation of the original idea will in one way or another, or even several other ways, lose something in the translation from visualization of the original what-if situation.

What if a successful military man, fresh from battle--"So well thy words become thee, as thy wounds:  They smack of honor both."--as King Duncan tells Macbeth, hears three witches predicting he will be king?  What if?  In some form or other, Shakespeare had that thought, developed it into one of his mightiest of plays, in effect translated it from his visual what if question. 

Could Shakespeare have done any better than what was done so far as his translation was concerned?  For over four hundred years, his play seems to have held not only together as an artistic unity but as a remarkable metaphor for ambition run wild, power corrupting, man's dark side in triumph over his better nature.

We look to this vibrant, four-hundred-year-old artifact as inspiration to translate our own visions of the awakening of our dark side.  In so doing, we enter the world of dialectic, looking over our shoulder to see if we have come any closer to the integrity of Shakespeare's vision by seeking our own Instagram photos of our own imagination.  

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