Translation is the Other Side of the Tapestry

Henri Parisot translated Jabberwocky into French three times. The translations are similar but for a few details, most important among them being the name of the eponymonster itself. He chose Jabberwock, Jabberwoc and lastly, Bredoulochs (as well as changing le fatal bandersnatch to pinçmacaque). Forgetting any illustrations you have seen, do the words Jabberwock, Jabberwoc and Bredoulochs conjure the same image? While none are a match for either the glaive vorpalin or the vorpaline épée, which one would win in a fight? And how would the winner fare against the Romanian Traxncaxvici?

In Ranier Maria Rilke’s poem Klage, he says: “Ich glaube, im Boot, /das vorüberfuhr, / hörte ich etwas Banges sagen.” Stephen Mitchell translates this as follows: “I think there were tears / in the car I heard pass/ and something terrible was said.”

Mitchell’s choice of translating boot into car rather than the more likely boat has always puzzled me. This changes not only the word but also the location of the action. In one poem, the narrator is near a body of water. Rilke wrote it in Berlin so I presume this means a river, which could then mean the argument happened in a small punt. I see a romantic afternoon gone wrong. In Mitchell’s version, a car. The narrator could be walking along any street. The poem was written in 1900. How common were cars in Berlin at that point, anyhow? (Perhaps Mitchell is a fan of They Might Be Giants.)

My understanding of German is negligible. I’m not bringing this up to criticize Mitchell as a translator but rather to show how a slight change in translation can have a significant effect.

All of which has me thinking, of course, about alternate universes.

Alternate universes in science fiction and fantasy—and I think it safe to say this is a concept that blurs the distinction—are commonplace. Sometimes simply exist in parallel (as with Fringe*) or are part of a long chain of dimensions with slight, possibly progressive differences (Roger Zelazny’s Amber novels among many others). Sometimes they occur in response to a cataclysmic event (Lost) or a profound choice is made. The choice concept interests me most. In the last few years both Doctor Who* and The Sarah Jane Adventures have used this idea several times. The Twilight Zone and Star Trek probably used every possible variation of alternate or parallel universe concept (though perhaps there are alternate universes in which these shows never wrote alternate universe stories, and others in which the writers used them even more frequently than here).

* Fringe and fairly recent Doctor Who would have it that alternate universes must have zeppelins. This is, I believe, the transportation equivalent of the Star Trek goatee. I have a goatee myself, a fondness for airships and a long-standing feeling of displacement. Coincidence? Hmm?

Here’s my thought: if a choice can create a schism in reality, or if every choice creates a new reality, then perhaps translation can be thought of as a portal to a new, slightly different world. Maybe Stephen Mitchell, in altering that one word, created an alternate 1900 Berlin, full of cars, arguments and a lonely roadside poet. And perhaps in that dimension, the other Mitchell translated wagen into boat.

Translation isn’t simply taking a word and finding its counterpart in another language, because the closer you look, the more you find that because of myriad built-in connotations, words almost never have exact parallels. Look at “excuse me,” “je m’excuse” and “sumimasen.” They are used in similar circumstances and have similar surface meanings, but the inherent meaning is not the same. The English seeks the pardon of the offended. In French, the offender literally pardons him or herself (French has lots of such self-directed phrases that would be externalized or neutral in English). Lastly, sumimasen can be read incomplete or unfinished. I’ve even heard it described (by a translator; I don’t speak much Japanese) as “I don’t exist.” (Please note: I’m not looking to project any cultural value judgments on these differences, but I think it is fair to say that each variant in meaning connotes a subtly different view of reality. So, if translation is a shift between views of reality, why not between realities themselves?)

Every translation, no matter how simple or complex, changes the meaning. I began this post with an example from Jabberwocky. The main difference between Henri Parisot’s Jabberwocheux and Bredoulocheaux is in translating Carroll’s pseudo-nonsense words into a phonetic equivalent or attempting an equal feeling. Consider also the name Severus Snape. It implies severe, snide, snipe, etc. If a translator chose to keep the name as-is, it doesn’t retain the inherent wordplay but may resonate with the reader of the other language in some other, unintended way, much like the word Bredoulochs might make an English speaker think of bread instead of jabbering.

Translation is powerful. It can, and does, alter the course of religions. That is huge. All that said, I don’t actually believe in alternate dimensions (though if there are any, I want to be in the one where Battlestar Galactica had a great last season). I’m too much a structuralist to think that words have inherent—let alone world-creating—meaning. But when you change the words you shift the context and the next thing you know, you’re thinking different thoughts. And from new thoughts to new ways of seeing the world—as close as we are likely to come to seeing new worlds—isn’t so big a leap, is it?

Jason Henninger is assistant managing editor for Living Buddhism magazine in Santa Monica, CA. He knows that no matter how brainy he can possibly get, Borges has already outdone him.


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