Lost in translation

Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultan’s Turret in a Noose of Light.

There has been some discussion on actKM about language translation.  It has been suggested that it is possible to decide that a particular translation can be said to be “correct”, or that one translation can be actually measured and rated as “better” than another.

The argument has variously referred to single words or whole texts; poetry has also been referred to.

Is it possible to say that even a precise, simple, factual statement is accurately translated?  Maybe, but I am not convinced.  However, when it comes to translating “knowledge” – any piece of text that is in any way context-dependent, then I must side with David Snowden’s view that “knowledge is closer to poetry than a factual statement.”

Poetry tends to be strongly context-dependent.  There is no way that a translation of a poem can be judged to be “correct” in any completely objective or absolute way (or thus, by the above argument, knowledge).

To be specific, I find Fitzgerald’s First Edition of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam far superior (poetically) to later editions I have read.  (Although there are apparently many that I haven’t read!)

Fitzgerald himself apparently admitted that it was not an “accurate” translation – but accuracy is not always poetic.  Is it more important for a translation to be “accurate” textually, or is it more important to convey Khayyam’s thoughts, his philosophy, the sights and sounds of his world, or even the sounds of his words?

Another interesting example is the translation of Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” (from Through the Looking-Glass) into another language.  How do you translate “nonsense” words?  You pay attention to the fact that Carroll carefully designed his words to have particularly evocative sounds: “uffish thought” or “galumphing”.  In this case, an accurate translation conveys sounds and meanings that will inspire similar concepts in the mind of the reader.  (There are translations following this model in at least French and German.)

Some translations may be more or less helpful to individual people – but beauty will always be in the eye of the beholder.


  1. Alan –

    Thanks – very insightful. It sounds like you guys are having a tough time over there! 🙂 As I am about to head over for a few days’ holiday in New Caledonia, I must once again dust of my high school French – should be fun!

  2. Keith,

    I’ve just scanned your posting on translation and it resounded strongly with me, as I’m currently learning the French language in an intensive course at a French language school in Montpellier, in the South of France.

    It’s hard, very hard, and it makes me think about the issues we face in translation; how much of it is in the syntax and construction of the languages and how much of it resides within us. For example, I learnt to conjugate verbs in English when I was too young to be introduced to the word “conjugation” let alone the concept of what it does. Consequently, it was learnt by rote, I don’t remember learning it and I just do it automatically without thinking (much).

    Now I’m trying to do it in French for the first time in my life and it is a totally different experience. Some of the problems result in trying to translate everything into English, re-construct it into another syntax, dredge up the words I need, and then actually speak an answer that makes sense to someone who did all this in French as a child!!!

    I will read your blog in detail when I’ve completed my homework.

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