"we were framed to fail and die—/ One spell and well that one. There, ah thereby/ Is comfort’s carol of all or woe’s worst smart."

- Gerard Manley Hopkins, "To His Watch"
Lost sheep in translation



If I were really professional, I’d probably have postponed beginning my translation of Norge i Vikingtid until I had a signed contract, but phooey. Most of my novels were written before I had a contract, or even the promise of one. And I’m excited about this project. It vitalizes me.

Translation can be a disorienting process. I suspect it’s extremely complex, neurologically. There’s a sort of mental dance that goes on between the original text and the translator’s thoughts. You can get a semi-passable (sometimes) translation of a text by running it through something like Babelfish, but the results testify to the very complex and subtle nature of language. There are nuances in the text that have to be caught, music you need to transpose. Sometimes an accurate translation takes you a moderate distance from the precise words of the original, because the original language is accustomed to taking different paths to the meaning than English is.

I read somewhere that the Italians have a joke, based on the fact that the words “translator” and “traitor” are very similar in that language. I think it’s also the Italians who say (my apologies to anyone who might be offended), “A translation is like a wife. If she is faithful, she is probably not beautiful, and if she is beautiful, she is probably not faithful.”

I have an ambition – and I don’t think it’s entirely arrogant – to make this translation both beautiful and faithful. I honestly think I can do that, or something pretty close.

One of the weird aspects of the process, at least for me, is what I think of as “losing my English.” I’m reading along in the Norwegian, and understanding it just fine, and then when I turn to my laptop to render it my native language, I can’t for the life of me remember the English word I want. It’s there, I know, but I just can’t put my hand on it. It’s very similar to the experience we’ve all had where we search for a word we know perfectly well, but temporarily can’t find it for some reason. Only when I’m translating this happens constantly, again and again. I generally put in a not-as-good word, highlight it, and move on. If I ignore it, it’ll come wandering back eventually, like Little Bo Peep’s flock.

I suspect (I haven’t researched it) that different languages occupy different parts of the brain, and that I’m in the process of running new data lines from the Norwegian section to the English. Perhaps the problem will diminish as I spend time at it.

I bet you I’ll still stink at understanding spoken Norwegian, though.

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Comments on "Lost sheep in translation":
1. Greybeard - 11/20/2012 10:20 pm EST

Lars, maybe you need to work on developing parallel language tracks in your brain. I know I am great at multitasking if the two tasks are disparate. I can listen to my wife reading stories to the kids while I'm solving five-star sudoku puzzles or playing solitaire on the computer. But I lose focus on what she's saying if I try to read an online article or email. In other words, I can do a word task and a number task simultaneously, but I cannot do two word tasks at the same time. Could it be that you're running into similar issues.

On the other hand, you may just need more RAM so you can keep both processes in memory at the same time without dumping English down to the pagefile while reading Norwegian. Open the little panel behind your left ear to see which chipset is compatible.

2. Lars Walker - 11/20/2012 11:03 pm EST

Thanks so much. I'll contact customer support.

3. Frank Luke - 11/21/2012 9:45 am EST

Yep. The translator's dilemma is "Can you be faithful without seeming to be?" I was thinking about this very thing just last night regarding LotR. This is an issue with the movie, not the books.

At Helmsdeep, Aragorn says to the elven archers, "Prepare to fire," then later "release arrows." "Release" is a proper synonym for "loose," but fire would still not have been used in a time without gunpowder (which the orcs use for the first time at that battle to blow open the wall). The king then tells his men "release a volley." His lieutenant passes the order on as "Fire!"

It's an understandable problem that we run into in Biblical studies all the time. When we come to a figure of speech, should it be translated with the English equivalent words or should we try to find an English idiom. Both choices have been made in translations. In fact, phrases such as "apple of my eye" and "skin of my teeth" came into English from Hebrew idioms thanks to the King James Version. For an example of the other choice, Acts 8:20 contains a Greek phrase often translated as "may your money perish with you." The Greek is "may you take your silver with you into destruction." Some newer translations make that "to Hell with you and your money!" I can understand both options.

4. Carmen Belanger - 11/25/2012 7:21 pm EST

Lars, I find the same thing happening to me when trying to translate Spanish to English (or vice versa) for long periods of time. I start thinking in Spanish, then have trouble "switching" to English. Don't know if it's a matter of fluency or what.

5. ChestertonianRambler - 11/27/2012 12:28 pm EST

Brain scans have shown not only that languages are stored and processed in different areas of the brain, but that there is a distinctly different location for first-language processing and second-language processing. One can have two first languages (confusing though that sounds) if, for instance, one's mother only speaks one language and one's father speaks another. The theory I read is that second languages piggyback on first languages--which is why people who don't learn any language as a child can learn vocabulary, but not grammar.

Not sure what this has to do with your situation, but it's interesting to note. Maybe your grammar systems are all geared up to connect with Norwegian vocabulary, making it harder to adapt back to English? Does the problem persist even when dealing with those few words in English that come from Norse roots?

6. Lars Walker - 11/27/2012 12:59 pm EST

I haven't analyzed it that closely. I don't think word roots affect the matter at all.

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