A short note on translation . . .

The vast majority of those with an interest in Welsh myth will only ever read source texts in translation and with no prior exposure to Welsh language or culture. This is important to bare in mind because on occasion the more subtle ideas contained in a text can be mangled beyond recognition by the translating process. Meaning can become fuzzy as sentences are deconstructed, broken down and then rebuilt in the language of a very different culture and world view. No matter how accurately individual words are translated, all of the meanings implied in a sentence won’t necessarily make it through to the other side.

This is why translation is as much art as it is technique; it should never be a simple process of referring to dictionary definitions (even though that’s where it inevitably begins). Doubtless this is why we trust only cherished poets and accomplished scholars to attempt this most difficult of diplomacies. The translation of one nation’s ancient treasures into the language of another is a great responsibility. Its an attempt to report accurately what is often only half-heard across the crackling wireless of the ages. To fail in that task, to misunderstand another’s words and instead hear nothing but our own assumptions about what is said is a constant danger. It is also, regrettably, unavoidable at times.

Through the focussed lens of one individual’s translation, others may attempt to understand the essence of a whole culture. Those of us who find ourselves attempting to build bridges across such divides, not only linguistic but also historical, are intimately aware of the limitations of that process, so much so that to ignore those limitations and not draw attention to them would be in many ways to betray the trust of those reliant upon our work. That is why the best translations always come with copious notes and commentary, this being the only way to reliably fill in the gaps in meaning. If a translation you’re reading doesn’t give an account of its reasoning, you must take it at face value. You must ask yourself whether you trust the translator or not. Even the best of translators and editors will make sweeping, unilateral decisions regarding context and meaning, for that is the nature of their work; that is the responsibility they have taken on.

Thankfully, by today we have some very good translations of Welsh texts, but even those will not always reflect the meaning of the original, sometimes because the original meaning can no longer be grasped, never mind translated.

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