Recently I stumbled upon an English to Pirate Translator which briefly amused me, then somewhat predictably had me wasting my time searching for other novelty translation sites like the Yoda Speak Generator and so forth.It wasn’t a completely wasted half hour though, as it got me thinking about the art of translation and how the new cloud based translating systems like Smartling – for example – are helping businesses get the word out into new territories.
The joys of globalisation indeed! But now imagine if you will, a world where books remained in the country or language group that they were written in and were not translated or spoken about to outsiders. Translators would not be needed or at best extremely marginalised and there would be only basic contact between groups of people. The result would be an insular reading world without the cultural references of other places, books or eras, where new thoughts were sparse and the richness of the world with its strange traditions from far off would be virtually unknown
You could argue that there would be good and bad to such a world. Plato’s works wouldn’t have influenced the West, there would be no world religions, new ideas and technological breakthroughs would take a lot longer to occur, Tolkien wouldn’t have written The Lord of the Rings and we wouldn’t have the wholly underwhelming Hobbit films, there would have been no Renaissance and the stories of Herodotus would never have fascinated countless readers the world over. I could go on but you get the point.
We would be a cultural wasteland coveting what we had jealously and missing out on so much. It makes one wonder how writers would approach their master works without the inspiration from strange and wonderful works of fiction and fact, or if it would have been possible in most instances. Our entire moral system would be different without the rich melting pot of influences we enjoy today without even thinking about it but the mysteries of such foreign civilisations would definitely be as appealing as they were inaccessible.
Back to the real world though, the gift we have of understanding a new culture in our own language is truly phenomenal, reading great and beloved colossi that makes whole countries proud and have them talking of the virtues of their book like it not only defines their national character but almost as if they themselves wrote it. Literature is the most powerful thing we have ever invented – my obvious bias notwithstanding – but the power of language cannot be understated, it has the power to change world views for good or evil and is as complex a thing as you could wish for.
Picking up a translated book, is so much more than the words or ideas contained therein, it is the conscious effort taken to understand the book’s original language and intent whilst adapting to the sensitivities of another language without falling into an ethnocentric trap. The trust we take in the translator to give us the same appreciation as the natives of said language is a mammoth task and one that is all to easy to take for granted as we greedily grab a book from the shelf and set to devouring it.