Monday, May 16, 2011

Lost in Translation

St. Jerome, patron saint of translators
Years ago, in graduate school, a professor offered a piece of advice that has remained with me throughout my translation career: “We don’t translate words,” she said. “We translate the ideas behind the words.”

This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s easier said than done because it implies that the translator can always identify those sometimes elusive ideas. Any writer who’s ever been in a critique group has probably heard herself say: “But what I meant was…” Right. What we want to express isn’t always what ends up on the page. It’s all too easy to get lost in the words.

People often say that language reflects culture, and the way we express ourselves in our native tongues shows how we think and relate to the world around us. Extrapolated onto the translator’s work, this means that it’s not enough to know grammar and vocabulary. We need to have a thorough understanding of both the source and target cultures to do justice to our text.

As a translator, I like to think that there is no such thing as an untranslatable word, phrase, or concept. Sometimes the ideas behind the words are not immediately apparent and you have to dig deep to understand these notions and find a way to convey them in another language. Often this involves a lot of reflection, discussion with other translators, or asking native speakers, “what does this mean to you?” But in the end, we are all human and can connect on some level, right? Put two people without a common language in a room and they will eventually find some way to communicate, even on a very basic, non-verbal level.

Yet I have to acknowledge that some things do get lost in translation. Not so much the ideas themselves but rather their emotional impact.

Case in point: A few months ago, I translated a short story by the German crime novelist, Nina George. “The Light in the West” (published this month in World Literature Today) tells the tale of an East German man who attempts to flee to the west with his girlfriend, but something goes wrong and he is forced to leave her behind.

The German word that gave me the greatest trouble in the story was a seemingly simple and innocuous one: drüben. On the surface of things, this word means “over there” as in across the room, across the street, or on the other side of a vaguely defined space.

But to any German who lived through the Cold War, drüben also has a very specific and highly emotional connotation. It means “on the other side of the Wall,” that ideological and political barrier that divided a nation, a culture, and entire families.

So how do I convey that emotion to an English-speaking readership, especially those who haven’t a clue what it feels like to grow up in a physically divided country?

The short answer is that I didn’t even try. Drüben occurs three times in the story, and each time I translated it a little differently. Or, more accurately, I didn’t translate the word at all but the meaning behind it, using selected phrasings like “east-west” and “divide.” Not once did I translate it as “over there.”

In the end, the emotional impact of drüben wasn’t entirely lost in translation, thanks to Nina George’s powerful storytelling. You can’t come away from this story without feeling the trauma that crossing this divide exacted on the people who attempted it—and especially on those they left behind.

Do you sometimes translate from another language? What words or emotional connotations get lost in translation?


  1. Good post, Heidi! I enjoyed reading it... I'm trying to drum up motivation for the 2,600 words I took on for today while I'm waiting for them to arrive!

  2. Heather, keep that deadline firmly in mind. It will help motivate you. Especially if, like most deadlines, it's way too short!

  3. Translators and linguists both sound like dream jobs to me for just the example you described. You deal not just in words but in the way an entire culture thinks or feels. Fascinating stuff.

  4. I love that "translate the ideas behind the words". I never thought of translating that way, but yes, that makes total sense. So translating really isn't just words, it's translating the culture of the people. So interesting, Heidi! It must make your work a challenge at times.