Posted by: biblioglobal | March 21, 2013

Playing translation ‘telephone’

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.

McSweeny's42At 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

מפתה לטעון שאת הצבע האמיתי של פרוותו אינו ידוע, ושהצבע הנראה לעין יכול לנבוע מהטיט וטיח הפנים של בית ההכנסה, שהוא רק קצת יותר כהה בגוון

Tempting to argue that the true color of the fur is not known, and visible color can be due to mortar and plaster the face of the income, which is just a little darker shade

Tentador argumentar que el verdadero color de la piel no se conoce, y el color visible puede ser debido a la cara de mortero y yeso de la renta, que es sólo un poco de sombra más oscura

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



  1. This whole issue is fascinating to me, since I read a lot of great literature in translation and have some concern about what happens to the original in that process. I also read a novel where there is a character who is a translator and comments on the translation process. I read it in translation and wondered how doing that translation felt to the person doing it. Did it make her self conscious and make the task harder? I know Kazuo Ishiguro does a lot of translating of English novels into Japanese and have heard commentary talking about how doing that affects the nature of his writing in Japanese, and I find myself frustrated that I can’t really tell about that, since I read his stuff translated back in to English… The whole thing sometimes feels like a hall of mirrors, but I guess the question is whether they are “normal” mirrors or more like funhouse ones… (like where Google seems to have shifted synagogue interior into income somehow…).

    • I really like your analogy to normal and funhouse mirrors! Any degree of distortion in between is possible too. My sense after reading this McSweeney’s issue is that the degree of distortion is not too bad. Or at least it is at a level I find acceptable. I suppose other people might be more demanding than I am.

      The novel with the translator sounds quite intriguing. Do you remember the title?

      If you’re interested in thinking about translation, you might enjoy “Is that a Fish in your Ear?” by translator David Bellos. It is an interesting discussion of both philosophical and practical challenges of translation.

  2. I have been trying to remember. I think it might have been The Bad GIrl by Mario Vargas Llosa, but I’m not positive and gave away the book, so I can’t check…

  3. Years ago I never used to pay attention to translated copies. I would go to the shop and buy the cheapest book (I still do that with most books), but now I’m starting to realize that this whole translation business is hard work. This is an interesting example. And it really makes one wonder how ancient texts have stayed true (if they have) to the original intent. Is The Odyssey a completely different tale?

  4. […] few weeks ago I wrote about McSweeney’s 42 in which stories were sequentially translated between English and another language and back again. […]

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