Translation: Quirks and Perks

On writing as translation from thought-speak to human-speak, and on the equivalence of meaning.

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All novels are translations, even in their original languages.

— Michael Cunningham, Introduction to Michael Henry Heim’s translation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice

Therefore, if you write, you translate. How’s that for being fluent in a foreign language without ever opening a dictionary?

What Cunningham means is that most of the problems that translators face were faced by the authors themselves.

Every writer of course works differently, but I suspect that most novels begin in their writers’ minds as confusions of images, impulses, scattered meanings, devotions, grudges, fixations, and some vague sort of plot, to name just a few.

This week was marked by two posts on synonymia, Synonyms to Spare and One Word is Not Enough, so it’s unsurprising that I’m primed to consider lists and how conceptually distinct their content really is. What did you think of: confusions of images, impulses, scattered meanings, devotions, grudges, fixations, and some vague sort of plot? Are devotions the same as fixations in this context? Is a confusion of images the same as some vague sort of plot?

For me the answer is yes in both cases: devotions are fixations in writing because I don’t do things by halves; and I draw a vague sort of plot from a confusion of images and a vague sort of plot is what I’d call a confusion of images.

You probably disagree, and that’s alright.

Equivalence of meaning sits at the heart of synonymia: no two different word fragments are interpreted identically across all writers and readers, across all time. People may be more flexible or more pedantic, but what will be called a creative, meaningful variation in one instance, is likely to be considered redundant repetition in another.

Equivalence of meaning also sits at the heart of translation. The novels in writers’ minds may or may not be synonymous with the novels on the shelves; two official translations of a novel into another language may or may not be synonymous with the original novel, or with each other, depending on who’s reading and to what end. But the mere existence of novels (as translations from thought-speak to human-speak) and of their translations in the standard sense (from one human-speak to another) proves that we believe equivalence of meaning is worth seeking out. Even if what we find is only a good approximation.

Approximations are all we have time for in this life.

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of

10 thoughts on “Translation: Quirks and Perks”

  1. Is it serendipity or not? I was thinking about this as I walked around the Zoo today and listened to all the visitors speaking in a great variety of languages, but every child said the same thing about the meerkats or the lemurs. Even toddlers who had no command of words and the old grandparents. What words were they using I had never heard but they all said the same.. And how well that quote at the top sums up the time it sometimes takes to get the right word.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha, that’s interesting. I’m curious, what was it about the meerkats and lemurs?

      Oh and the bit about all writing being a translation (to paraphrase)—it struck such a strong note with me that I read the novel itself, Death in Venice, because of the introduction …

      And here’s something to ponder: when you can’t think of a word but you know what you mean, what language are you thinking in?


      1. Oh, and about the lemurs and meercats. At one stage there were three little boys all looking at one little meercat and each mother was talking a different language to the boys and each child was reacting the same and the three boys forgot their mother and they started running around together, And I was quite taken by that.


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