Lost in Translation is a very funny film in which Bill Murray plays a hapless Hollywood has-been reduced to starring in a whisky advert shot in Tokyo, where he finds himself at odds with the local culture and at the mercy of an incompetent interpreter – in fact, a 100-minute argument for the importance of localisation and cross-cultural training.

It is also a popular cliché which non-translators like to use when talking about the work we do. The implication is, of course, that translation invariably impoverishes the original, that the result is less than what the author of the source text intended: Something important gets “lost” in the process of bringing or carrying words over from one language to another, which is the literal meaning of the Latin word transferre, the etymological root of the English verb “to translate”.

The fact that the phrase itself proves more or less untranslatable in many languages seems to reinforce this assumption – Lost in Translation was released under alternative titles such as Zwischen den Welten in Germany, Encontros e Desencontros in Brasil, O Amor é um Lugar Estranho in Portugal, L’amore tradotto in Italy, Między słowami in Poland.

This attitude isn’t very helpful to translators, to say the least. Why should we bother with something that will always be considered inferior, not quite good enough? Granted, trying to find exactly the right word, an equivalent which simply may not exist in the target language, can be very frustrating at times, as we all know. But isn’t there another, less frustrating and far more interesting, way to think about this problem? Can things not be found, or even gained, in translation? Does translation not in fact add another dimension, a new layer of meaning to a text?

I think this is certainly true for the translator’s own experience of language(s). As translators, we inhabit and explore the spaces between languages – personally, I can hardly imagine a more exciting place to spend my working hours! We are seldom “lost for words”, as another popular cliché has it, but rather full of ideas: so many different options to choose from, so many surprising discoveries everywhere we turn. Dead metaphors come back to life; images which have lost their original beauty through everyday use become shiny and vibrant again; the overly familiar suddenly seems strange and new.

With infinite care, we carry these precious objects over to the other side and try as hard as we can not to spill or drop even the tiniest bit of meaning. I remember looking at the German word “Augenlicht”, a very common term which simply means “eyesight” or “vision”, and for the first time realising how poetic it is: the light of (or in?) one’s eyes. Sadly, that poetry did get lost in the English text, but for me that was the moment when I decided I wanted to be a translator.

by Silke on Oct 06, 2010