Translating Chinese Whispers

We all know the hackneyed expression “lost in translation”. Yet, some seem to expect translation to work like an exact science.

I was recently working on an exhibition catalogue and one of the texts, written by a German artist, had been translated into English for me to translate into French. Not having been offered to see the German text, and my German being limited anyway, I had to work from this English translation and hope it was good and close enough to the original so that my French version would still correspond to it.

After I submitted my French translation of the English translation of the German original – like a game of Chinese whispers – a gallerist in France (working as the German artist’s agent?) complained that my translation was not quite right. When I contacted him to discuss, I first asked whether he was comparing it to the German or the English version. “Well, the German one, of course!” – “Ah, so you have discrepancies between the two, presumably?” He seemed to realise at this point that this was predictable. When I enquired about the English text, he admitted, with a hint of embarrassment in his voice, that there were some errors in there too. (Why the English translation had not been checked before being sent to me is anyone’s guess.) So the gallerist edited my French text, and the German artist the English one. Comparing the two final texts, the two texts ended up being somewhat different in places, but there were no mistranslations as such: it was more a matter of variations around concepts rather than contrasts in meaning.

What the gallerist and the artist did not seem to appreciate is that each language has its own ways of formulating similar ideas, so translators regularly have to make choices as to which words or idiomatic expressions will best render the original. It usually is a fairly quick decision, but some cases require a level of interpretation to avoid a clumsy literal translation. If you asked several translators to work on the same text, you would have as many different versions as participants. The story will remain the same, but the wording and nuances will vary.

Consequently, you cannot expect a translation – let alone a translation of a translation – to be 100% the same as the original; in the great majority of cases, there will be “losses”, however minor. This is the subjective nature of translation. And changing one synonym for another doesn’t fix a loss; it’s merely a stylistic preference.

whispering children

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