We sometimes take comfort in knowing that we’ll forever be misunderstood by outsiders.
One of the first essays that really turned me on to translation–not as a practice, but as a kind of ‘genre’ of literary critique–was Borges’ essay on the translation of 1001 Arabian Nights.
Of course, the evocative and elusive essay by Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” came soon thereafter.
While translation promises the noble pursuit of universal communication, more often we are such tribal, provincial, territorial creatures that our language resists transcendence–sometimes intentionally so.
We sometimes take comfort in knowing that we’ll forever be misunderstood by outsiders. And this applies not only to languages of nations, but to languages of different professions, languages of different races, and even language differences between generations.
One thing that has become clear to me, both from reading these essays and from living abroad and trying my own hand at translation, is that mistranslation is inevitable. Delightfully so!
For those with the necessary insider knowledge, mistranslations are a joy to unravel for the humor that arises from discovering the latent boundaries between different languages. I even find discussions on mistranslation entertaining to read. That’s why I’ve created a list of articles that take a stab at identifying and decoding mistranslations in some capacity.
Here they are, in no particular order:
- On the mistranslations of Chinese T-Shirts “The Shanzhai Lyric” in the New Inquiry
- On the most mistranslated aphorism of Karl Kraus in English “Karl Kraus: artists, solutions, and riddles” in a bit of pitch
- “Computer Mistranslation” in Snopes
- On the mistranslation of the Tao Te Ching “Aphorisms = wisdom?” in qituttugaujara
- “Lost in translation: five common English phrases you may be using incorrectly” in The Conversation
- “Benjamin’s ‘Afterlife’: A Productive (?) Mistranslation in Memoriam Daniel Simeoni” in Erudit
- “Misreading and Mistranslating: Boredom and Bombast” in Bookbread
- “The Erasure of Islam from the poetry of Rumi” in the New Yorker
- “Five Ways your Bible Translation Distorts the Original Meaning of the Text” in Huffpost
- “Lost in translation: when Disney lyrics turn Italian” in Den of Geek!
Admittedly, this is just meant as fodder for nerdy amusement. I do realize, though, that such discussions are capable of starting holy wars when sacred texts are involved. I also know from editing translated book quotations that it is very easy to mince/distort the words of non-native speakers, who are often very important people (such as when people assumed that JFK made the err of saying “I’m a jelly doughnut” in German). This is when the humor turns sour. But, alas, that’s for another post/author/blog to discuss. I hope you’ve enjoyed my list. Add your own links in the comments, if you feel inspired.