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Tuesday, 1 September 2015
This is Incommensurable

Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything,
David Bellos, Penguin, 2011, page 320

The Oxford Dictionary of English tells me that "incommensurable" means: not able to be judged by the same standards; having no common standard of measurement. I other words: apples and oranges; not the same thing. So Bellos suggests that no one reader can give an independent measure of the effects made on her by two language versions of the same text. You hear something on French, you her it in Hebrew - they will have a different effect on you. According to Bellos, this is because a reading of a text always happens in a language - not in between.

Now, we may go along with that at a literary level - after all, an Italian ,ove song may simply not work in English or Russian. But Bellos generalises:

The truth of literary translation is that translated works are icommensurable with their source, just as literary works are icommensurable with each other, just as individual readings of novels and poems and plays can onlty be 'measured' in discussion with other readers. What translators do is find matches, not equivalences, for the units of which a work is made, in the hope and expectation that their sum will produce a new work that can serve overall as a substitute for the source.

Although himself a published translator, Bellos seems to take a dim view.

What couns as a satisfactory match is a judgement call, and is never fixed. The only certainty is that a match cannot be the same as the thing that it matches. If you want the same thing, that's quite all right. You can read the original.

And here we are, back again discussing original language reading because no translation is a fixed thing. Is this an indictment of Bible translations and a claim that everyone should try to acquire some original language skills?

But if we step away from that emotive topic and consider another implication. If literature is so hard to translate, how do we handle translating people? Can we translate mood, culture, gestures, intonation? Even within the same culture, mistranslation and misunderstandings can all to easily happen. But think about translating not only between cultures but also between times. How can we effect a meaningful translation, for example, between the Jewish world of the 19th century, in the yeshivot and shtetls of Eastern Europe and the modern Western culture?

Posted By Jonathan, 8:00am Comment Comments: 0