Umberto Eco defined translation as “the art of failure.” Boris Pasternak, on the other hand, said, “Translation is very much like copying paintings.” I’ve done very little translating and interpreting while in Poland. I’m a teacher by trade, and my Polish is relatively horrid. Still, I’ve been asked a few times during my time here to translate or interpret.
I’ve done just enough to realize Ecoand Pasternak are right, and that I hate it.
Interpreting is in some ways the worst of the two, because as a barrage of words is constantly coming at you. I’ve never done simultaneous translation, for my Polish is not fluent and so I don’t really usually “think” in the language as it’s coming at me.
There have been some strange interpreting situations, though. Once I was called out of class and hustled to the mayor’s office to translate for “some Japanese woman” who was there. A Japanese woman? In little Lipnica Wielka (Polish speakers, no pun intended)? It turned out that she was working on a dissertation and wanted some information about traditional views of land and forest in the area. The local folklore expert was there, and I sat translating from Polish to English for the woman, then she scribbled notes in Japanese.
Translating is less stressful — you can do it with a cup of coffee and a few breaks. But I still don’t like it, at all. It’s all made doubly hard by the fact that I’ve never had any formal training in the theory of translation. Robert Frost once said that “Poetry is what gets lost in translation,” and I can readily understand that now, for it is simply impossible to “translate” something to another language — it’s re-creation in another language. It is, as Pasternak said, copying paintings: you’ll never get the brush-strokes identical, and the pigments won’t completely blend in the same way, but looking at it from five meters, you won’t see much difference.
I recently had to translate a description of a folk group for an application to perform in a folk festival in June, somewhere outside of Vienna. One would think, “Description of a folk group — that doesn’t sound difficult at all,” and truth be told, it wasn’t. There were perhaps three words in the text I didn’t immediately recognize. I knew from the context what they were (names of dances and such) but I wasn’t sure if the name had an equivalent in English. It was then that I was reminded: understanding a text is one thing; making it readable in another language is something entirely different.
Some of the sentences just gave me fits.
Often, it was because the words used in Polish are not used in the same way in English. An example of this was the sentence, Znawcy szczególnie podkreślają udane połączenie autentyzmu z estradowymi sceny. This would literally be translated, “Connoisseurs especially stress the successful combination of authenticity with entertaining skits.” That makes absolutely no sense, though. First of all, “connoisseurs” doesn’t apply to folk groups. To wine, to cigars, but not to folk groups. Second, without any context, you can’t say these connoisseurs/judges “stress” (literally “podkreślać” is “underline”) the successful combination. Stress to whom? For what? My version: “Judges have especially noted the group’s skits, which are both authentic and entertaining.”
Often, I simply had to write my own English version of the text. For example: Ponadto można zwrócić uwagę na używanie przez część członków zespołu, tradycyjnych instrumentów ludowych m. in. fujarek, czy listka. W obecnej chwili instrument ten jest już rzadko spotykany w klasycznym instrumentarium ludowym. An absolutely literal translation: “Moreover, it’s possible to pay attention to the used by parts of the members of the group traditional folk instruments such as the fife and leaf. Presently this instrument is already rarely met in classical folk instrumentation.” Again, this is absolutely unreadable, and the sentence is both straight-forward and troublesome.
First, it highlights a couple of the idiosycricies about Polish: subjectless, verbless sentences. The first portion, Ponadto można zwrócić uwagę, uses “można” – technically, this is not a verb. But it’s used as a verb, with an understood subject. In this context, I would tarnslate it, “one can” or “you can.” The sentence is idiosyncratic with it’s use of “zwrócić uwagę,” which means “pay attention.” In such a context, an English speaker would probably use “one can notice.”
Second, there’s some inexactness in the literal tarnslation of “fujarek” as “fife,” because in it’s not simply a wooden flute, but a unique, single-hole wooden flute. In other words, it’s a thin wooden pipe which is made to whistle by placing the forefinger over the bottom hole, with changes in pitch accomplished by varying the size of hole with said forefinger. That’s horribly clumsy, and not entirely necessary.
A third problem is stylistic. In English, I think the sentence would sound better in active voice and not passive, something like, “Several members of the band play uniquely traditional instruments.” But since I was translating it and not editing it, I left it in passive.
My final version: “In addition, one should pay particular attention to the traditional folk instruments played by some of the group members, such as the ‘fujarek’ (a single-hole fife) and the rarely-played ‘listka’ (a beech tree leaf).”
This touches on the problems I always have when translating: When has an individual stopped translating and started editing? What’s the border between the two?
This question is most acute when I read bilingual editions of poetry. Kinga and I received a bilingual eition of Wisława Szymporska’s Chwila (Moment). I read the Polish, then sometimes ask myself, “How would I translate that?” I glance over at the English side and find something completely different. The sense is there, but none of the words.
And it doesn’t even have to be poetry. It can be simply the title of a book. For ages I’ve been reading Agata Tuszyńska’s impressionistic biography of the Polish-born Yiddish writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer. In Polish the title is Pejzaże Pamięci. I read that in the bookstore and thought, “Landscapes of Memory. Singer. Sounds interesting.” The English version of the book is published under the title, Lost Landscapes: In Search of Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Jews of Poland (“Amazon). “Lost” does not really mean the same as “of memory,” but poetically speaking, it does. I wouldn’t have had the guts to translate it that way, though.
Which is why I’m a teacher, not a translator.
Translation as a Teaching Method
Language teaching used to be simply a matter of teaching grammar and vocabulary, then requiring students to translate sentences from their target language to their native language and back. Theories of pedagogy now of course state that such a method is less than ideally effective, and besides, it’s terribly boring. Still, from time to time, it’s necessary and even useful.
Very often, when asknig a student to translate a sentence to Polish, I don’t ask, “How would you translate this?” but rather, “How can we understand this.” It’s a reinforcement of a pet theory and method of mine: teach students that knowing the exact meaning of every word is not necessary to understanding the text as a whole. Context provides hints clues that can help students understand the general sense of the word (i.e., it’s clearly an adjective, probably with a negative connotation) so that they don’t go running to the dictionary continually.