Wednesday, 19 February 2014

On translation- and what to do with ancient Greek and Latin

 I do not like translations. Whenever possible, I try to read books in the original language. As most of what I read was originally written in English, that usually presents no difficulty. I noticed a long time ago that something is lost in translation, and that something is actually very often quite a lot. There are peculiarities in each language that cannot be transferred to others, and that is what makes a language unique. That is also what makes the job of translation so fiendishly difficult, at times. But I have found several awesome books become completely unpalatable upon translation into Dutch.

So what makes for a good translation and what will turn it into a bad one? It helps tremendously if a translator has an affinity with the text he or she is translating, otherwise what will come out is nothing better than what Google Translate produces: mechanical, inflexible and methodical word-for-word, with hopefully a semblance of good grammar. Harbouring preconceptions is also deadly; that is why many translated fantasy or scifi novels are found to possess a rather childish tone to the language, as if the translator cannot bring him- or herself to take the subject seriously.

It is actually killing if a translator does not understand the subject of the text at all. Translation means a continuous search for the best possible words to describe as accurately as possible what the original is saying. Very often, words have multiple meanings in other languages and a wrong choice completely distorts the meaning of a text. A grueling example from ancient spiritual texts is the categorical translation of the Greek word ‘δαιμων’ into “demon”, whereas the usual meaning of this word is “non-corporeal being, spirit”. It is also noticeable in translations from for instance Greek, Latin or Arabic alchemical texts, which are notoriously obscure and opaque anyway, and which are usually unreadable and completely incomprehensible when translated.

Fortunately, I have studied Greek and Latin in my –somewhat remote- past and I feel it is time to dust that off, brush it up and start putting it to good use. I am currently looking for original texts that I can study in this way. Working that closely with a text really lets you dig into it and ponder its meaning, word by word sometimes. The first one to tackle will probably be Iamblichus’ De Mysteriis in the Greek version. This will be an interesting –and time consuming- project!

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