On the power of translation

It’s not actually my first blog post. I’ve had a blog since 2004 and in fact still have several. Not on WordPress though– I’m still learning that, as you can see. But they’re anonymous (I’ll tell you if you really want to know) so that doesn’t do me any good, does it? Who wants to be a “distrest poet”? Much better to have an online presence. Of your real self.

It’s hard for me to choose what I like most: writing or translating. Today, I’m talking about translation.6a00d8341c82d353ef01bb07eb92e0970d-200wi

Confucius called himself a transmitter of the past; I like to think of translators as transmitters of other countries. It’s daunting to think that everything we know about other cultures came through translators of one kind or another– especially when you realise that no two translators will come up with the same translation for anything longer than a sentence or two. For example, here are 50 translations, all basically acceptable, of one of the most famous poems in China, by Du Fu. Like Goethe, Du Fu probably be more popular if he had a better name in English.

Unless you yourself know the language the translation comes from, you can’t really know how reliable a translation is. A little frightening, isn’t it? Everything from the Bible, the Koran, the Upanishads to Plato, from the history of Egypt, Rome, Germany, or Mexico to Japanese manga, is secondhand if you are reading it in English.

A translator has power.

So don’t get a tattoo in a language you don’t understand! The results can be dire. There are so many bad Chinese tattoos that there’s even a Tumblr blog dedicated to them.

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