Meaning and translation – When I first launched this site, I boldly claimed that I would be able to write at least two journal entries a week. After all, I thought, that’s only one entry every three or four days. Once I was actually faced with the task of writing those entries, though, I realized that two a week was far too ambitious. Once a week seemed far more reasonable.
This past week, though, I wasn’t even able to stick to even that very flexible schedule. I must admit I have been swamped with work lately: my first semester as a doctoral student is now well underway, and I seem to be buried in translation work. And since translation seems to have been my nemesis this week, I might as well make the best of it and see if I can’t squeeze a journal entry out of the subject.
Whether it is the stress of the heavy load or the nature of the work itself, I do not know, but translating this past week has been quite a chore. There are times when the words flow effortlessly like water, and I can’t help but smile as they splash out onto the page and pool into beautiful, well-formed sentences. And then there are times when translation is not unlike being constipated: you expend a tremendous amount of energy, but in the end the best you can hope for is a piece of crap. Unfortunately, this past week has been mostly the latter.
The word “translate” literally means “to carry across.” In Korean the vernacular word sometimes used for translation is olmgida, which literally means “to move” or “to transfer.” Thus we are led to believe that translation involves moving something from one place to another. That something, of course, is meaning, and we are moving it from the source language to the target language—in my case, from Korean to English.
This was how I thought of translation up until the point where I actually started doing it. Before that, I was sure it was a fairly simple process: you simply took the meaning from one language and expressed it in another. Among the memories I took with me from my university years, there is one scene that sticks in my mind, probably because of how radically my views have changed since then. I was with a Japanese friend of mine, and we were looking at some Japanese exhibits in the fine arts school. Next to one exhibit was a placard with a description on it, but it was written in Japanese. I asked my friend if she could translate it, and to my surprise she said no. “What do you mean?” I asked. “You speak Japanese and you speak English. Can’t you just tell me what it means in English?” But she just shrugged and shook her head. She tried to explain it to me, but I just could not understand how something like simply moving meaning could be so difficult.
I have since learned that translation is not that easy, and you can’t just move meaning from one language to another. Meaning is not like a benign tumor, conveniently sealed off from its host, that can be removed whole with little damage to the host. Instead, meaning is a malignant tumor, burying it’s roots deep into the host so that one cannot remove the entire tumor and leave the host intact. In other words, meaning is intertwined with language, just as language as intertwined with culture, and translation is never a simple matter of scooping out the meaning and transplanting it into a new language. In fact, due to this interconnection of meaning, language and culture, not only is it impossible to simply move meaning, it is impossible to ever achieve a perfect translation. There will always be something left behind.
It would be best, actually, to entirely discard the idea of “moving.” This is because, while much of the meaning may be similar, content always changes in the process of translation. In other words, translation is not the old meaning moved into a new context—it is, in fact, new meaning. The meaning may take one form in the source language, but in order to be expressed in the target language it must change its form. Things may be added, and other things may be taken away. And what we have at the end is a new creation. Yes, it is a translation, but it is just as much a creative work of the translator as the original was of its author.
It is something like a builder who sees a house made of logs. He tears down the house to see just how it was built, and then he rebuilds the house using bricks. Due to the differences in the building materials, though, one cannot build a brick house in exactly the same way as one builds a log house. The builder may try to capture the spirit and style of the log house, but the brick house will have its own characteristics, and it will also show the marks of the builder’s particular style. In the end, although the builder may have “copied” the design, the house he built is his creation.
When viewed in this light, the translator’s burden suddenly becomes much heavier. He is no longer merely responsible for moving something from one place to another—a courier, if you will—he is now a creator in his own right, with all the contingent responsibilities. He has, of course, a responsibility to the original text, but he also has a responsibility to his audience to create a readable, effective text.
Unfortunately, while all translation is an exercise in seeking a balance between these two responsibilities, the translator must ultimately take one side against the other—you just can’t have both. The more accurate the translation—the more “faithful” it is to the original—the less fluent it will probably be, and the more fluent the translation the more likely it is that it will depart from the original. In the end, it comes down to where your allegiances lie: with the original text and author or with your target audience.
To some extent, the text itself dictates toward which pole the translator will lean. Translating thesis abstracts, newspaper articles and special reports requires accuracy first and foremost. Literature, on the other hand, requires the finished product to be a work of art in its own right, and places faithfulness to the original second. But even within this general framework, the translator must still make a myriad of individual decisions.
On the most basic level, of course, it may be possible to have both fluency and accuracy. For example, if I translate “oneuleun hakgyoe ganda” as “I’m going to school today,” most translators would agree that I have both a fluent and accurate translation. Once the translator ventures beyond this most basic and universal level, though, things are usually not as simple.
This is the burden that I bear when I translate—the burden that any translator bears. I struggle to find that balance, shying away from a literal translation that has no regard for how it sounds in the target language, and at the same time bound by a sense of loyalty to the source text and author. I am pushed and pulled, and somewhere amidst the noise I seek an impossible harmony of source and target. I honestly do not know if I have ever succeeded in finding a perfect harmony, or if I ever will, but that does not mean I will stop searching.
There is some comfort in all of this, though, and that is my firm belief that computers—unless they become as advanced as the human brain itself—will never truly be able to translate. They may be able to do literal translations, where translation is indeed more like moving and less like creating, but literary translation will forever be out of reach of the machines. The day that a machine can truly translate a literary work is the day that humanity becomes obsolete, and if that ever happens none of this will really matter that much anymore. So as long as there are people and culture and language, there will be a demand for what I do, and that is indeed a comforting thought.
And so I will continue to strive with myself, often frustrated, as I find myself now, but taking comfort in the knowledge that I am not a mere courier, but a creator in my own right, and hoping that someday I will be able to create a true masterpiece.