As a kid, I enjoyed playing the game of ‘telephone’, where a message was passed around a circle, whispered into each person’s ear. What interested me was tracing back the path of the message, seeing step by step how the message had changed as it progressed. More recently, I have played ‘telephone’ with Google Translate, taking a text through sequential languages and back to English to see how it turned out. Usually the result is pretty garbled. I often wondered how much of the garbling was due to the failures of computer translation and how much was due to the inherent limitations of translation itself In other words, what would happen if you played the same game with human translators?
So I was quite excited when I picked up a copy of McSweeney’s Quarterly #42 and discovered that it is devoted to a game of translation telephone. It contains eleven short stories, each of which was translated between English and other languages multiple times in sequence- ie a Franz Kafka story originally in German, translated to English-> Hebrew -> English -> Spanish -> English. Many of the translators (each of whom is a well-known author) also added some commentary about their experience in doing the translation.
At their best, the sequences of translations themselves tell a story as sentences shift over time. The Kafka story is about a strange bluish-green creature, the size of a weasel, living inside a synagogue. Or at least, it appears bluish-green. In the first English translation we are told:
“One is tempted to claim that the true color of its fur is unknown, and that the apparent color may stem from the mortar and plaster of the synagogue’s interior, which is only slightly darker in hue”.
I don’t know what happens in the Hebrew, but when the story gets back to English, it reads:
“And I’m still sort of tempted to tell you that the true color of his fur is as yet unknown and the color we perceive it to be is some sort of refracted spectrum bouncing off the plaster of the synagogue’s walls- only the walls are a darker hue than what you see on him.”
Now, I was intrigued, how would this plot line resolve? how would the next author deal with this puzzling sentence that no longer quite made sense? Would he come up with an explanation for the fur cover that made sense? Or would he remain as close as possible to what was written, regardless of whether it made sense? Sadly, but perhaps wisely, the Spanish version just drops the explanation of the creature’s color altogether, leaving the plot line tantalizingly unresolved.*
You may notice that I haven’t mentioned the final English translation of the Kafka story. That’s because Dave Eggers decided to just rewrite the whole thing into an entirely different story, much to my irritation. He’s like the kid playing telephone who intentionally garbles the message. I was always really annoyed with that kid. To me, it destroys the whole point of the game. Unfortunately, Dave Eggers was not alone and many of the translation sequences are distrupted by such rewritings. In part that may be a hazard of using authors as translators; many of them can’t resist making it into their own story. McSweeny’s also seems to have muddied the waters deliberately by sometimes assigning authors who have almost no knowledge of the language they were translating from and also by actually encouraging some authors to rewrite the material.
If I leave out the cases that aren’t really serious attempts at translation, I am overall impressed with the effectiveness of translation. Some sentences remain word-for-word identical even after having been translated from English to another language and back again twice. Most often the exact wording varies, but the meaning and the style are quite consistent. In cases where the meaning does change, like the source of the creature’s color above, it’s often clear that a professional translator would have done better, either by knowing the language better or by further investigating passages that don’t make sense.
It’s probably better though not to take the book too seriously and just have fun flipping back and forth between the pages.
* If you’re curious, here’s what Google Translate does with this sentence. Not too bad actually:
One is tempted to claim that the true color of its fur is unknown, and that the apparent color may stem from the mortar and plaster of the synagogue’s interior, which is only slightly darker in hue
Tempting to argue that the true color of the skin is not known, and the visible color may be due to the face of mortar and plaster of income, which is only slightly darker shade