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Monday, April 07, 2008

Words on Words and Translation

"Words are the voice of the heart."
Chinese philosopher Confucius

"Words are alive; cut them and they bleed."
American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson

"When languages are formed upon different principles, it is impossible that the same modes of expression should always be elegant in both. While they run together, the closest translation may be considered as the best; but when they [do not], each must take its natural course. Where correspondence cannot be obtained, it is necessary to be content with something equivalent."
Samuel Johnson on John Dryden
(Lives of the Poets series, published in 3 volumes, 1779-1781)

"It seems to me that translation from one language into another, if it be not from the queens of languages, the Greek and the Latin, is like looking at Flemish tapestries on the wrong side; for though the figures are visible, they are full of threads that make them indistinct, and they do not show with the smoothness and brightness of the right side."
Miguel de Cervantes
Translated from El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha, (1615) bk. 4, ch. 62

"It is often said that we have no satisfactory translation of "Don Quixote." To those who are familiar with the original, ... in truth there can be no thoroughly satisfactory translation of "Don Quixote" into English or any other language. It is not that the Spanish idioms are so utterly unmanageable, or that the untranslatable words, numerous enough no doubt, are so superabundant, but rather that ... the humour of the book ... is peculiar to Spanish, and can at best be only distantly imitated in any other tongue."
John Ormsby, Translator's Preface to Don Quixote in English (1885)

Rumours have it that early translation computer programmes for English to Russian have mistranslated some idioms with amusing results. Translating the phrase "The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak" to Russian and back to English resulted in: "The vodka was good, but the meat was bad." Likewise "out of sight, out of mind" reportedly yielded the phrase "blind and insane."
A traditional joke or urban legend told about the failures of mechanical translation

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