I’ve often heard, “It’s not as good in the translation,” and “It loses a lot in the translation.” I used to think, say, believe that, too. Now I’m not so sure. Certainly some things do — the great, immortal Chinese poem, “水,山,云,天” for example, is really stupid in English. It’s the relation between the ideograms and the words they represent and the natural landscape that makes the poem. In English it’s just, “Water. Mountain. Cloud. Heaven.” God’s to-do list?

Goethe, as an old man, received a book of poetry in French and gave it to his assistant to read in the evenings. Goethe was very impressed by the poetry. His assistant said to him, “You don’t recognize it as your own?” Goethe was surprised, then said that it was changed by the other language, but not in any way diminished by it.

Goethe wrote a poem about translation, too. It essentially says that he picked a flower from the field while he was on a walk. The flower wilted in his hand, but when he got home, and put it in a glass of water, the flower was refreshed looked again as it had in the field. The flower was his work, the glass of water represented a different language.

I’m sorry I cannot put quotations here — I don’t have the books in which I read these things, and no one who’s posting their private Goethe online seems to have shared these interests.

3 thoughts on “Morphed

  1. I translated everything, part of my job, but into english and not the other way round which would really have been a challenge. It is often difficult to find the rights words. When I am writing my blogs I spend time in the english-german LEO online to find the english words often, because I can only think of the german word.

    • There are some ideas that don’t have words in some languages. I think that’s where things get rough and the meaning really does get lost. And then, as with that Chinese poem, there’s a lot of cultural background that can’t be translated.

Comments are closed.