Why Translation is So Hard

It isn’t the literal meanings of the words that make it difficult.  It’s the connotations — all those associated ideas that hang around a word like shadows of other meanings.  It’s connotation that makes house different from  home, and makes scheme into something shadier in American English than it is in British English.

A good translator, accordingly, will try to convey the connotative as well as the literal meanings in the text; but sometimes that can be a whole bundle of meanings at once, and trying to fit all of them into the space available can be like trying to stuff a down sleeping bag back into its sack.

A couple of my favorite examples, from Old English because that’s what I studied:

“Cold” in Old English (and in the older Scandinavian languages in general) has, in addition to its literal meaning, connotations of “fated” — usually “ill-fated,” because nobody in the old Germanic literature ever had good luck — and “unlucky.”

So in the Old English poem “The Battle of Maldon,” when the poet says, Ongan ceallian þa ofer cald wæter Byrhtelmes bearn (“Then Bryhthelm’s son began to call out over the cold water”), the listener/reader knows that bad stuff is about to go down . . . as indeed it does, because what happens next is that the raiding Vikings wade across the ford — the cold, unlucky water — to engage with the Essex fyrd (the militia, more or less), and heroic disaster ensues.

Another of my favorites comes in the closing lines of Beowulf, after the hero is dead and everybody is explaining to everybody else just how bad things are going to get now that he’s gone (this is known as the Old English elegaic mode, and J. R. R. Tolkien stole large chunks of it outright for the poetry of the Rohirrim):   Forðon sceall gar wesan monig, morgenceald, mundum bewunden, hæfen on handa… (“Therefore shall many a morning-cold spear be grasped in the fingers, hefted in the hand…”)  That passage gives us the ill-fated “cold” again, and adds “morning” to it — morning, in Old English epic poetry, was a bad time of day, the time for surprise attacks and general low spirits.

All you need after that are two ravens flying past, and the wolves howling.

3 thoughts on “Why Translation is So Hard

  1. From this, I infer that they spent their lives wishing they were warmer than they were. (I could also infer that from their clothing, which was like wearing an overcoat indoors.) To the normal miseries of morning, add that they were waking up cold.

    I now want someone to write a time travel story in which the marooned traveler is granted a comfortable living for providing something hot to drink first thing every morning to the king and his troops while they’re in the field.

    1. Also — the Anglo-Saxons had another lovely word, uhtceare — loosely translated as “the care that comes in the hours just before dawn.”

      Or, in more modern shrinkspeak, “pre-dawn anxiety.”

  2. They heated with wood. Of course they were always cold. Voice of experience, me. (Q: How warm can you keep a nine room house with a full basement in deep snow country. A: Never quite warm enough.)

    There have been days in February when I’ve sat at my computer wearing enough layers to to look like a National Geographic illustration for an article on “Daily Life in a Changing Siberia.” A chest full of Anglo-Saxon woollens would have been gratefully received.

    (I’ve got an entire rant on Fire in Fantasy, but I’m saving it for when winter actually hits.)

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