The art of translation dates back to the second millennium BCE, and yet it we still struggle with it today. Language is as wide as it is deep — it has created just as many problems as solutions. It allows for communication and international unity, but quite frankly, is undeniably difficult.
My experience with translation is limited to my own biliteracy, which exists across the span of my mother tongue, Marathi, and English. I am constantly mentally translating between the two languages when I speak with my family and feel the depths of frustration when a word fails to transfer over. Often, I realize that a word can be directly translated, but it doesn’t hold the same meaning or intensity. The difficulty I feel in these minor translations pales in comparison to the endeavor of translating an entire novel. First, one has to understand said novel in its entirety. Then comes the great responsibility of being trusted with an author’s life work, burdened with the expectation of both accuracy and emotional mimicry.
If I could write the job description of a translator, I would, ironically enough, use a Greek word that fails to be directly translated into English: Meraki. The word is defined as doing something with intense creativity and soul. To feel a piece of literature with such intensity and recreate it on a blank page is truly a huge feat and a skill that is hard to come by.
Whenever a piece of translated literature makes me feel deep emotions, I am hesitant to credit the author before I do the translation. The plot, of course, must be written, but the feeling is in the essence of each word. One of the few novels I have found that has discussed this in detail is R.F. Kuang’s “Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution.” This piece of speculative fiction creates a historical fantasy landscape around the importance of translation in colonial Britain. Though the work itself is fiction, it elucidates real issues, including the exploitation of language and colonialism. The magic system involves using translated words etched onto silver bars to uphold the entirety of Britain, thus addressing the grave importance of translators.
Robin, our protagonist of Chinese heritage, learns about magic while feeling the weight of existing between two different languages. In an interview with Eichborn Verlag, Kuang discussed Robin’s character, stating that “his relationship with Chinese is modeled off of my relationship with Chinese.” This personal understanding of language thrown into the novel truly works to mimic the reality of biliteracy and how it can feel both limiting and freeing at the same time. Being able to use multiple languages for description can open up your world, but when you are among people who only know one of those languages, your ability is dulled. In my personal experience of Marathi and English, there are few situations when I can use both, especially living in a predominantly English-speaking country. I identified with the protagonist of Kuang’s novel as I understand the struggle of having multiple languages at my disposal, and yet no place to apply them.
In the novel, we witness Britain gaining immense industrial power, paralleling true history, though Kuang takes the opportunity to explore how language can so easily become an exchangeable good rather than an art. The underlying conclusion throughout the novel is one that has plagued my mind since learning about translation: true, genuine translation is impossible.
Since reading Kuang’s depiction of the art of translation, I’ve had a new appreciation for the translated works I’ve read. The expanse of the intellectual world is broad, spanning across languages, countries and eras. Within this expanse, Robin recognizes the frustrating truth that plagues many readers and academics: Humans are finite beings, while knowledge is infinite. This captures the way I feel about language. There is so much to know and read, and translation allows this to grow by providing access to many otherwise-hidden masterpieces.
Without Francis Riddle, Claudia Piñeiro’s beautiful novel “Elena Knows” wouldn’t have seen great success outside of the Spanish-speaking world. The novel discusses a mother’s chronic illness and her desperate attempt to connect with her daughter in a journey that the mother takes after her daughter’s death. Han Kang quickly gained popularity in the Western world when her novel “The Vegetarian” was translated from Korean by Deborah Smith. The translation offers insight into how people in South Korea view mental health and depicts women in a way that differs from the perspective we may be used to. Cho Nam-Joo’s “Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982” refocuses the lens on feminism, taking into consideration the unique form of gender inequality that has persisted in different parts of the world. Such an important concept would be unknown to English speakers without Jamie Chang’s translation. The common thread between these novels is that they discuss concepts and cultural issues pertaining to their respective regions. The translation offers so much more than just words — it offers insight into worlds that we would otherwise be ignorant of. In this way, they might be even more valuable in languages differing from the original, connecting intellectual thought from across the world.
Whenever I feel that ache in my chest associated with a good book, I am in awe that these aren’t the original words. I feel this sentiment even more when looking at some works of classic literature. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “White Nights,” another recent favorite of mine, inspired a deep emotional reaction through its relatability. I had always appreciated classics, but I didn’t know how deeply they could affect me. Reading Russian-translated classic literature, I was bewildered to discover I could feel the same way as our protagonist and even go as far as to relate to his struggle. Translation, in this way, made me realize that even when people are separated by time, country and language, we are all fundamentally similar in our humanity.
Along with the similarities come the differences, which should be celebrated. Languages vary from culture to culture. A glimpse into other worlds through literature can help readers grow into more compassionate and educated individuals. As we move forward, it is important that we admire the accessibility that translation provides. Great novelists from around the world can be celebrated, and the livelihoods of authors have a wider reach than ever before thanks to translation and technology. Translation is an underappreciated and fundamental part of the publishing industry, and the accolades of a novel cannot be sung without the long, hefty process it takes to get into print.
Daily Arts Contributor Archisha Pathak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: The fifth paragraph was added back after accidentally being deleted.