By Lucy Farcnik
If you’ve ever moved to Montreal from an English-speaking province, you’ve probably been in this situation: you’re at the register in the grocery store, and the cashier starts talking your ear off in French, which they assume you speak because you returned their introductory bonjour. You stand there, berating the mask-wearing world we live in because they obviously can’t see the confusion on your poor Anglo face, until eventually, they end their sentence in a tone you can tell is meant to be a question. You stop, breathe, and think about hedging your bets and just nodding back. After a pause a second too long, you say something along the lines of je suis désolé, je ne parle plus fort en français. You then get a look of “well, then why didn’t you say so?” either followed by a silence that implies they’re tempted to say idiot, or an air of bilingual pity, depending on who you get. After they switch to English to ask if I want a bag, I’m always left wondering if that was what that thirty-second spiel in French was all about. Could they really have just been asking if I wanted a bag?
The phrase lost in translation isn’t a new one. It implies the loss of some kind of subtlety, detail or cultural association that comes with translating something from one language to another. And it applies to far more interesting language uses than my conversations at the grocery store.
At the word level, the ones that stand for larger ideas are often harder to translate into English. For example, the German fernweh is translated to wanderlust in English, but directly translates into ‘farsickness,’ an idea of longing to be or go somewhere else. It acts as a direct opposite to the word heimweh, which is the German word for ‘homesickness.’ Just calling fernweh wanderlust loses the nuance of the concept of ‘farsickness,’ which is different than that of the English wanderlust. Even words as simple as the French contente don’t quite have the same feeling as their English counterparts, ‘satisfied’ or ‘content.’ When you translate them, you are losing something that they mean implicitly to those in-the-know.
I’ve been assigned many times, as a one-and-a-half-ual in a bilingual city, assignments that require me to translate from one language to another. I’ve taken Spanish lessons for several years, and I consider myself to be a decent reader in the language, but when it comes to poetry or literature, I feel like I mis out on the deeper meanings that the author is trying to convey. The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s poem El Monte y El Rio was one that I chose to translate for a poetry assignment, because the language seemed simple; I could read the whole thing without being confused by the vocabulary, or the verb tenses. Yet, when I compared my translated version to official translations, one thing stuck out to me. There is a line, in Spanish, that reads “Y me dicen: ‘Tu pueblo, tu pueblo desdichado, entre el monte y el río.’” The translation of this line is “And they say to me: ‘Your people, your unlucky people, between the mountain and the river.”’ If you continue on, the poem details such beautiful sentiment about overcoming struggle, but what caught me is the translation of the word pueblo. In the official translation, pueblo is translated as people, but I had only ever known pueblo to mean ‘town,’ or ‘village.’ I was suitably confused.
I asked my Spanish teacher about this, to see if there was some secret way that I should have been able to tell that it was meant to be translated to ‘people’ instead of ‘town.’ She read the poem over, and then said something along the lines of “No, you just know.” This is what I struggle with, as someone learning a language and trying to read poetry in it, is that I don’t just know. Poetry is figurative, imaginative, and even with fluency, I question if I will ever be able to escape the literal translations that largely make up my understanding of poetry in other language
I get frustrated when I can’t understand things that seem simple and, until very recently, I had only viewed my inability to read perfectly in other languages as a disadvantage. However, upon reading Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges’ essay titled Blindness, I came across an entirely new way of thinking about it. He says, reflecting on reading poetry in an old Anglo-Saxon dialect:
What always happens, when one studies a new language, happened. Each of the words stood out as
though it had been carved, as though it was a talisman. For that reason the poems of a foreign
language have a prestige they do not enjoy in their own language, for one hears, one sees, each one
of the words individually. We think of the beauty, of the power, or simply the strangeness of
In a lot of my everyday life, from stumbling through a coffee ordering French to fumbling over Spanish verse, something always gets lost in translation. What I’d never thought about, however, was that something might be gained. In translating pueblo incorrectly, I wasn’t necessarily wrong so much as I was getting something different out of the poem. I then spent so much time focusing and understanding why it had been translated that way, it lost its magic. Poetry, in my opinion, is so much about how it feels, not what is written. When I could have been thinking perhaps about the beauty of both translations, or the fascination of word choice, I just got angry. What I forgot is that translation is a game of personal choices, and each translator may have a slightly different version than the next. That obviously doesn’t mean I should start translating poetry incorrectly just because I’m kind of right, but it made me consider that being right wasn’t the whole point.
There are benefits to reading poetry slower. Have you ever sat down to read a book of poetry in a language you’re fluent in, and had to put it down because you were reading so fast that all the poems got muddled together? Not only does the forced close reading of poetry in a second language impart more meaning on the reader, but it can teach us about the value of close reading in general. There is so much to be gained by going slow. You gain a deeper appreciation for word choice, structure, intentionality. As someone who has to put so much focus into going word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence, I am ultimately getting more out of tripping up and looking up words I don’t know than I would reading poems I breeze through in English. I hope to apply the lessons of reading in translation to all the poetry I read. It is inevitable that something will get lost in translation. But now, I think something can be added too.
Borges, Jorge Luis. “Blindness.” The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to
the Present, Anchor Books, Doubleday, New York, 1995.