David Bellos subtitled his book “Translation and the Meaning of Everything” and meant it. It’s a brisk, occasionally head-spinning, always interesting survey of the nature of Language as the tool of human expression and communication and of the inherent challenges of understanding each other across the boundaries of particular languages.
I can’t say for certain that it was the first work in translation that I read, but I distinctly remember one Saturday morning pausing in my assigned chores to pull The Three Musketeers from the family bookcase – just to see what it was like – and losing myself for hours in the thrilling world of Dumas. I did have to finish the dusting, but the world had suddenly become larger, more glamorous and variable than I had known.
As I’ve continued to read the literature and watch movies/tv from as many countries as I can, the work of translation has become interesting in itself. An early awakening to the difficulties of that work came with my discovery of Hong Kong movies, whose subtitles in the early years were rendered into astonishingly poor English. My book group years ago read Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo and found ourselves more than usually divided in opinion. In discussion we realized that members had read two different translations. We definitely preferred one over the other but had to wonder if one was “truer” to the source or if you can even evaluate that. I recently read a delightful book One Hundred Frogs by Hiroaki Sato in which he compiles more than a hundred translations of the poem Old Pond by the haiku poet Basho. It reminded me that language always carries multiple meanings. The translator tries to carry as much of that multiplicity into the new language as possible.
There are more than five thousand languages in use today, certainly more “major” ones than anyone can master. Even linguists depend on translation. So what is it? how is it done? what makes a “good” translation? And more questions, what is language? how does one differ from another? what kinds of meanings are carried in structure? even, what is wordness? Bellos explores these and many more with a wealth of historical anecdotes and contemporary statistics.
A particularly interesting chapter discusses the different structural qualities of languages and their implications for thinking and expression. These create what the linguist Edward Sapir called mind grooves or habitual patterns of thought. But this doesn’t mean that the meaning of one language cannot be expressed in another or that a language is “primitive” if structured differently from ones own.
Different languages, because they are structured in different ways, make their speakers pay attention to different aspects of the world.
The mind grooves laid down by the forms of a language are not prison walls but the hills and valleys of a mental landscape where some paths are easier to follow than others.
To expand our minds and to become more fully civilized members of the human race, we should learn as many different languages as we can. The diversity of tongues is a treasure and a resource for thinking new thoughts.