I’ve been thinking a lot about translation recently. In particular I’ve been considering what happens to a poem that changes form or other details in transposition to another language, and when it ceases to be a translation and instead should be considered an original work: the point at which it becomes a poem inspired by another work, rather than an attempt to render the source in a different language.
This is a complex question, but not the only complex question to occur when considering translation. In a recent discussion with some translator colleagues, we considered the problems arising when a central symbol means little in the target culture.
The example we considered was that of the Lamb of God, and how the phrase has been translated into Inuit as the Seal (or seal pup) of God. While I understand that there are few flocks of sheep wandering the Arctic ice, I do wonder how the translators handled the extended conceit: what of the lamb as a sacrifice? And what of the Good Shepherd?
I was reminded of this discussion yesterday, when I went to an exhibition of nativity scenes. I have always understood the central scene to include five or six key figures: Mary, Joseph, the Baby, the ox and the ass, and an angel; but these were nativities brought together from around the world, and many had slight variations. I wasn’t too perturbed to see sheep and goats included, nor camels – especially when the Wise Men were present. (In my own nativity scene, the Kings’ caravan includes a white horse, a camel and an elephant.)
But the photo shows a Zambian nativity scene where the traditional animals have been replaced by something a little more local. Now I want to see an inter-cultural version with hippos worshipping the Seal of God.