LUCKY GARVIN: Lost in Translation

Lucky Garvin

As I have previously written, as a lad I had but two ambitions for later life. One was medicine. But, prior to that, I yearned to be a pirate.  My Christmas list that year – I was aged eleven – included three items: a cutlass, a black eye patch, and a peg leg [the last two in case something went amiss during a sea-battle.] But, as you may recall, I was too short in those days, so my application to ravish the seven seas was rejected.

All that true, one thing I never wanted to be was a translator. I must confess, I find it hard to believe any child, asked what profession they might want to pursue, would answer, “Dusty archives written in a forgotten tongue! That’s for me!” Yeah; good times…

What convinced me of the perils of interpreting ancient tongues was a brief study of those men who hazarded to translate The Holy Bible from Aramaic, Greek and Hebrew into Middle English. I suppose I thought at first that a fella just had to learn a language or two – his own, plus the one he was adapting to his native tongue. But it seems the demands are far steeper than that. Much must be known of the society’s culture and values.

Beyond that, a mistake in translation may have profound effects. A story I cannot verify states that 16th Century translators found an error in the works of St. Jerome, the 4th Century translator whose work, The Vulgate Bible, held sway over Christianity for a millennium.

The later scholars claimed Jerome had said the only way to Heaven was through penance, while they maintained the original text accurately translated was repentance.

Repentance suggested such contrition as to never to commit the sin again. Penance suggested atonement followed by absolution; and as a result of reparation i.e.,that for the right price in lands or gold, you essentially purchased a Get-Out-of-Hell free card. This, critics say, inaugurated a huge retail business in Christianity that lasted [at least] a thousand years. All because of one word…

Setting that aside, can you imagine a translator five hundred years from now trying to understand our culture? He would read with amazement: in those days, people who wanted to travel, entered a metal container. [“What did they call it? Oh, yes, a car.] Then they had to steer it themselves! And for the whole trip, they never left the ground; they had to remain on something called roads! My glory, how primitive can you get! How did these poor people survive? [Poor, antediluvian us!]

Let’s also not forget the number of linguistic snares which occur in our language, i.e., tear, tear, tear, tear, etc – all with different meanings depending on the context or sentence in which the word finds itself. Tear – rip. Tear – rant. Tear – wetness creeping down a cheek. Tear – to speed along, etc. Then there’s this: What’s the difference between excuse and forgive? Passed and past?

If we wish to make a most difficult undertaking nearly impossible, add slang/idiom as well as the techno-jargon that enters our vocabulary each year.

Idiom is a fascinating aspect of our tongue because it means something totally unrelated to what the words say, yet everyone understands it. Suppose in a yellowing journal from our day, our translator reads the following: Up the creek without a paddle, The cat’s out of the bag; So hungry I could eat a horse.

Reframing our speech to his epoch, he might interpret: In 2017, there was a terrible famine in Roanoke. People had to eat their horses to survive. There were a lot of loose cats running all over town. And there was a shortage of paddles. We can forgive him this error, because hey! it’s right there; black and white.

I am presently unemployed. But, given the choice again, I would stick with medicine, or perform a senior citizen high-wire act, for both, it seems to me, are far less challenging than translating.

Lucky Garvin

Latest Articles

Latest Articles

Related Articles