towers & translations

I still haven’t explored all the functions of my new digital camera, which means that I occasionally press the wrong button and change the settings by mistake. Suddenly, for example, I find I’ve taken a whole series of pictures of a stationary subject, like this set of the Houses of Parliament.

Frustrating as this is, it has made me start thinking again about the different versions of a poem that arise from the translation process.

We can see each translation as points on a map scattered around the exact location of the source, or as photos taken from different perspectives. Perhaps, then, by comparing them, we can build up a more complete – and more accurate – idea of the original, in the way that a panoramic view or a 3D model can be built up from a series of images.

Sometimes, just like the three photos above, the different translations are all very similar to each other. It’s possible that this may indicate that they are close to the original – that the source and target languages and cultures are sufficiently close to each other that what was being expressed in the original has been successfully transferred and expressed in the translation.

Post Office Tower, London
Sometimes, though, one translation is quite different from another: where one translator offers a picture of the Houses of Parliament, another shows us the Post Office Tower (or the BT Tower as I think it’s now called).

Surely they can’t both be right? What was the translator thinking of?

Further consideration of those two images, shows us that they are both towers which are architectural icons of London: despite the difference, there’s a clear overlap of some kind.

It’s impossible to translate every single element of a poem, so, as translators, we choose which elements to focus on.

Palacio de Comunicaciones, Madrid
Imagine our source text was the Palacio de Cibeles in Madrid: we can view it as an architectural classic, a seat of government, an iconic building located in a capital city etc.

This might lead us to translate it into English as the Houses of Parliament. We’d have blurred the idea of ‘government’ from local to national, but many of the important elements and connotations would be preserved in the translation.

Then again, the same building is also the Palacio de Comunicaciones – the erstwhile centre of the Spanish postal and telecommunications service: if that is the element the translator chooses to focus on, it might well explain their choosing the BT Tower. Other translators may see other elements as essential and so choose other “equivalents” that reflect their understanding or interpretation of the original.

As translators ourselves we may argue that our vision is more correct than the others, but whatever we write, we are probably going to lose something, and, quite possibly, to add something else. Readers who cannot understand the original would be wise not to rely on any single translation, but to consider as many versions as possible if they want anything like a complete view.

Author: don't confuse the narrator

Exploring the boundary between writer and narrator through first person poetry, prose and opinion

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