16 December 2006

The many ways that meaning gets lost in translation

Genealogists frequently talk about translation and transliteration problems and how certain languages are particularly problematic.

Many individuals mention the problems of transliterating complicated Polish names of towns into Hebrew, which isn't a problem if you can pronounce the Polish name properly. The problem arises when someone tries to translate names from Hebrew back into proper Polish spelling. This is very difficult due to Polish spelling conventions utilizing Ss, Zs and Cs sounds and combinations thereof.

My friend Ingrid Rockberger of Ra'anana is reading Outwitting History by Aaron Lansky, founder of the National Yiddish Book Center). The book describes his 25-year quest to rescue Yiddish books, and the author discusses the pitfalls of translation in general and Yiddish in particular.

At a lecture given by Isaac Bashevis Singer which Lansky attended, Singer told of his own problems:

"There was a line in one of my books," Singer related, "in which I said that a woman 'hot oysgeshrign azoy vi a froy in kimpet.' In English, this was translated as, 'she cried out like a woman in labor,' meaning like a woman about to give birth. When the book was translated into Hebrew, the Hebrew translator didn't know Yiddish, so he had to work from the English translation. In Hebrew the line became, 'She cried out like a woman in the Histadrut,' - like a woman in the Labor movement."

In a book I read by Dorit Rabinyan about Persian Jews, the translator had no clue about common Farsi expressions, and obviously didn't ask the author or anyone who was a native speaker. Additionally, the translator (from Hebrew to English) translated an English B for the Hebrew V.

As a Farsi speaker, I thought the book was rather funny, even though it wasn't meant to be. My copy is marked throughout with many of the errors.

On every page, the expression, "voy! voy!," an expression used in Farsi to indicate troubles (sort of like the Yiddish "oy vey"), was translated as "bah! bah!" which in Farsi is an expression of joy, of something very good. You can imagine how this could complicate a story line, as the fluent reader laughs at the reversals of meaning.

Those who translate from one language to another need to know how languages are really used. The Hebrew-English translator of the Rabinyan book should have known Farsi, or at least asked someone who did.

No comments:

Post a Comment