December 14, 2018

The Impossible Art of Translation

“Some 40 years ago, like many of my fellow undergraduates, I read One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) by Gabriel García Márquez. While plenty of my recollections of the novel have sadly faded since then, one remains indelible: the feeling of disorientation, of complete immersion in the book’s atmosphere, that lasted for nearly half an hour after I’d turned the final page. It was García Márquez I had been reading, of course, but more immediately, it was the English words, rhythms and sonorities of his translator, Gregory Rabassa. Even had I been able to appreciate the original Spanish, I didn’t need to compare the two to know that what Rabassa had created was indisputably right.

What makes a translation ‘good’ or ‘bad’? The question has been with us since saints Jerome and Augustine first wrangled over the most orthodox way to render the Bible – with Augustine pushing for obeisance to the canon, and Jerome striving for ‘the grace of something well said’ – and despite centuries of scholarship since then, we are no closer to a definitive answer. In the age of Google Translate and artificial intelligence, we might even be tempted to abandon the question altogether, and let our smartphones do the talking.

Indeed, there is something to be said for the speed and impartiality with which computers can process certain translations, whether we’re enlisting Google’s help to buy aspirin in Seoul or spitting out foreign-language drafts of a multinational contract. Moreover, as the need for global communication grows by proverbial leaps, the efficiency of machine-based translation starts looking rather attractive. In this regard, a ‘good’ translation might simply be one that conveys the requisite bytes of information in the shortest time.”

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