Tuesday, May 27, 2008

on language and translation

my ponderings on kitsch and reading murakami have me thinking about language. and its connection to culture. do specific languages express something about their culture? can things be more precisely expressed in certain cultures/languages than in others? what does it do to the meaning behind a word to translate it? can translation at all capture the essense that's there in the original.

a word like kitsch, english has taken wholesale from german, so although without the cultural context, you may not understand it in the same way, the essence must, for the most part, still be there in the word. that is, if meaning adheres itself to words at all, which is probably a debatable question as well.

i'm, of course, reading the murakami in english translation and have a number of times along the way wondered if i'm missing something, not being able to read it in the original japanese. however, even in translation, it seems to me to be full of fresh ways of expressing things, which i have felt must come from the japanese words themselves. the translator, jay rubin, must surely have made word choices based on what he knew of both languages, since that's what the job of translation is all about. this has, for me at least in my reading, resulted in new and interesting ways of looking at things, even in english.

some examples:

"There is a kind of gap between what I think is real and what's really real."

"The best way to think about reality, I had decided, was to get as far away from it as possible..."

"Here in this darkness, with its strange sense of significance, my memories began to take on a power they had never had before. The fragmentary images they called up inside me were mysteriously vivid in every detail, to the point where I felt I could grasp them in my hands."

"Memories and thoughts age, just as people do. But certain thoughts can never age, and certain memories can never fade."

looking at these passages i've selected, i get the feeling that these are ways of expressing thoughts i've often had on reality and memories, but couldn't actually GET to the right words to convey them. the words themselves seem simple and logical. the first one is arguably what Plato was getting at with the allegory of the cave, so it's not really a matter of the thought never having been expressed previously, it's more, for me a question of capturing it more powerfully through linguistic means. because thoughts are so fleeting and elusive, it's difficult to wrestle them into words and sentences.

in all of my travels, i am struck again and again that globalization isn't all it's cracked up to be. although we may all have access to blue jeans, we are not all the same, but i do wonder what it will do to the world that everyone increasingly speaks english? will there be a resulting poverty of meaning and expression as people muddle their own language with english? i definitely hope not.

i guess i shouldn't worry that much. most everyone in denmark speaks english and while there are many loan words--computer, business and the like, there are some things that are just expressed better in danish.
  • numse - the very best danish word. it's a cute word for bum.
  • skumfiduser - marshmallows.
  • -agtig - a great suffix. the closest english equivalent is -ish, but that doesn't do it like -agtig does.
  • offentlige - "public," as in public sector, but there's SO much more in the word than there is in the word public in english. it encompasses an entire way of dressing and decorating and behaving and even a certain kind of haircut as well. a very powerful word meaning-wise. and a word that could only have ended up so loaded with meaning in its cultural context.

oh well. who knows, perhaps my musings are all for nothing...maybe in ten years we'll all be speaking chinese or even hindi. imagine what we'll be expressing then!


Jaime said...

The questions you ask at the beginning of this post...I have asked myself similar questions. I wonder how much "meaning" or essence of things I am missing because I only know one language. English seems to me to be a very limiting language...sometimes I wish we had more words to describe things, thoughts, feelings etc.

skumfiduser!!!! LOVE IT!!! haha!

Phyllis Hunt McGowan said...

These two posts about language- I've been reading them and pondering, as I do often when you write something so careful and thought provoking.
I'm most fascinated by your thoughts about meaning, the meaning behind what we say.
"because thoughts are so fleeting and elusive, it's difficult to wrestle them into words and sentences." Absolutely- it's a miracle, for example, that people can express their musical thoughts into a beautiful song. It's all connected. I don't know how they do it.
"if meaning adheres itself to words at all, which is probably a debatable question as well." That's a good point. Maybe language is more fluid than we think or than we can imagine. Words are invented after all, while thoughts are as natural as breathing.
This is interesting...I need to think about this.

julochka said...

this question of meaning has preoccupied me for years...and its link with memory. i have the same feeling about memories that i have about meaning--that they might not be accurate. but then i wonder, why should they be accurate? everything is what we make it, right?

it's reading the murakami that has brought all these thoughts to the surface again. i'm so enthralled by his writing!

Prashansa said...

You are right about ' some meaning lost' in translation.I have read many translated books before reading original english books and I find them totally different!I also think that language is related with culture.Even the thoughts and personality of translator gets reflected in the translation...