Translating with the right words

It’s the first Wednesday of the month again, time for a post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.
OPTIONAL QUESTION: What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

MY ANSWER: When I was a schoolgirl and still lived in Russia, I read a lot of poetry. Of course, every poem of a foreign author was in translation. Once I read a lovely poem by Theophile Gautier, something about a pretty gypsy dancer. I liked it and noted the translator, and even recorded it in my poetry journal. Then I forgot about it.

A couple years later, I read a poem by Theophile Gauthier again. It was also about a dancer, and it reminded me about that poem I read before and liked so much, but it was totally different. I didn’t like it as much. It didn’t touch my heartstrings the way the first one did.

I started leafing through my journal, trying to find the first poem. When I found and re-read it, I recognized it as the same poem, translated by a different translator. They had the same meter, the same theme, the exact same source, but not nearly the same impact. Not nearly the same beauty.

That was when it dawned in me how important it was to select the right words, the right turn of phrase, the right adjectives, both for translations and for the original writing as well. That was when I realized that every word counted. I’m a long way now from that young, poetry-loving girl, and I write fiction myself, but that youthful realization is still with me.

This entry was posted in Insecure Writer's Support Group, Olga Godim, Writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to Translating with the right words

  1. Yes indeed, translating any work of literature is a challenge. But translating poetry, capturing the rhythm, connotations, evocations? That’s gotta be tough. So much rests on the choice of a single word.

  2. That’s fascinating about the translations. I always try to find the best word, especially in flash fiction where the word count is so limited.

  3. emaginette says:

    You’re right. Every word does count. 🙂

    Anna from elements of emaginette

  4. pjcolando says:

    Language is Beauty – words, rhythm, turns of phrase. Language is deathless – once written, it can be seen forever, uncensored like thoughts and spoken words. Language has a beat and singers sing to it, drummers drum to it, audiences enjoy it. Few other critters in this world are as alive as language can be.

  5. Lee Lowery says:

    Translations are so tricky. Word for word translation miss for all the reasons you state, plus the problem of words not having the same meaning or nuance in another language. In college we translated Beowulf from old English to modern English and without doubt, the translation loses the power and passion of the original in many ways.

  6. Two different interpretations. Obviously one translator really got the message and the other didn’t.

  7. Translations are definitely tricky. Although I enjoy Tolkien, I actually like Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight more – translated from 1300s English to modern English, but translated just the same.

  8. ChrysFey says:

    Who the translator is and how they interpret it can make or break a poem/story.

  9. Yvonne V says:

    That certainly highlights the importance of translation! Wow!

  10. Every word does count, especially with poetry and picture books. There is more wiggle room with novels.

  11. Word choice matters. One of my books was translated to Turkish and I really with I knew someone who could read it and see what was changed in the translation.

    • Olga Godim says:

      No, Alex, you don’t. You really don’t. I suspect no writer ever would like his translations, even if he could read them. But the fact that your story has been translated to another language is wonderful by itself.

  12. Each word should cut. Absolutely. I’ve found multi-lingual writers have the advantage. I don’t possess this talent, but I know just enough to appreciate it. Great post. Happy IWSG Day!

  13. rolandclarke says:

    That is such a good observation about translators. Some catch the magic in the words and some mess up the essence. I glimpsed that when I was attempting to read early English translated texts.

  14. Interesting. I’ve read some translations that used words that really didn’t fit. I try not to be critical because that must be a tough job. It would be cool to compare two people translating the same work.

  15. cleemckenzie says:

    What a great story. The same poem translated by different people with one translation so appealing to you and the other not. This is such a powerful message about communication of ideas and feelings. Thanks Olga. Beautiful.

  16. Denise Covey says:

    I think poets are the cleverest writers in the world. How they sweat over every word, every phrase, until it is loaded with power. A translation is often a poor representation. I only have to look at the modern translation of Shakespeare’s plays which pall compared to the original language. They certainly lack power.

  17. Ronel Janse van Vuuren says:

    Truth! A lot can get lost in translation if the wrong words are chosen to convey the tale.

    Ronel visiting for #IWSG day: Help Me, Please!

  18. Widdershins says:

    The difference between Google Translate and a person doing it. 🙂

  19. Carrie-Anne says:

    The right translation makes so much difference! The difference between the first Decameron translation I read and the much fresher ones I now own are like night and day. The first was so concerned with being prim and proper, it left out a lot of dirty puns and wordplay.

  20. Loni Townsend says:

    I love how words have that kind of impact, and those who are good enough with words are able to pass along inspiration across the language barrier. 🙂

  21. Language is a double edged sword. I like it. Thanks for visiting me.


  22. Juneta says:

    Great story. That is interesting about translations I had never thought of that, most unfortunate for me, I only know English, lol.

  23. It’s neat how only a word or two in a paragraph or an average size poem can make all the difference how it impacts the reader. Now that you’ve mentioned it, it makes me want to double- check the wording in my stories!

  24. Diane Burton says:

    I never appreciated poets until I joined a writers’ group with one. I so admire his word choices, how tight a poet has to write then conveys so much.

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