Thursday, 21 May 2015

Literature and Translation - What would the world be without it?

What is the most translated book in the world? This far, I've never heard any dispute concerning The Bible as the most translated book ever in human history. Reaching a staggering number of more than 2800 languages in whole or in part, the Bible has no competitor in this regard. In fact, no book even get close to half of that number when it comes to translation.

Fragment of Septuagint, translation of Hebrew
Old Testament into Greek

Translating books is not something new. Take the Bible again. Even before A.D., the first portion of it had been translated into Greek for the sake of those who spoke the language better than Hebrew. The practice continued to our age. Here's an infographic by 7Brands containing 50 World's Most Translated Books.

But why? Why does it matter?

A very good reason is that not everybody speaks every language. Not everybody speaks good enough Russian to read Anna Karenina or enough French to enjoy Les Miserables. (To be honest, nobody enjoys Les Mis, it's too sad.) Even if someone speaks a language good enough to understand what it says, mother tongue usually speaks better to the heart.

Some people say, "I don't read translations." I'd like to say, I'm one of them. As long as I understand a language good enough to understand, I'd be happier reading it in its original language than in translation. Bad news is, I only speak my mother tongue and English good enough to read. So, when reading some of my favourite authors, I need to rely on translation. None of us can enjoy the rich variety of literature world without accepting translation.

The second reason is that we are the same species all over the world no matter what language we speak. We experience the same feelings of happiness, joy, sadness, disappointment, and pain. Sad to say, but we suffer the same problems: diseases, economical hardships, injustice, and so on. As much as language is no barrier to our being human, it shouldn't be a barrier to our literature that authentically portrays these things. As Victor Hugo said in his letter regarding Les Miserables translation to Italian: "books must cease to be exclusively French, Italian, German, Spanish, or English, and  become  European,  I  say  more,  human,  if  they  are  to correspond to the enlargement of civilization." Of course he gave his permission for the translation.

The world was glad he did. Can we even imagine what the world would be without translation of some of the best literature in human history?

For one, we wouldn't have Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus by William Shakespeare, because, although he had Latin education, he loved English so much he almost wouldn't touch anything but translation. Thanks to Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Lives, we have them now. What would the world be without it? I wouldn't be able to insult people who 'speak Greek', and we wouldn't have a Japanese manga called "Salad Days".

Odysseus and the Sirens from Homer's Odyssey,
has been an inspiration for many other great works
Without translation of Homer's Odyssey, no man would imagine his ordinary life as a parallel of Odysseus's adventures as in James Joyce's Ulysses, nor can Tennyson motivate the elderly to try doing something great instead of wasting their time in their comfort zone. Besides, who would we call that submarine captain in Verne's 20000 Leagues under the Sea? Captain Nemo sounds a lot better than Captain Nobody.

If nobody translated Ovid and Homer, Shaw wouldn't write Pygmalion, and we won't have Audrey Hepburn singing My Fair Lady on the big screen. It's even possible that we'd lost some of the best films in the world. I mean, Disney's Hercules and its cute Hades, Troy with Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom in it, and of course, Percy Jackson.

Can we even think about a world without Grimm's Fairy Tales and Hans Christian Andersen's Stories? Half of Disney animations would be gone.

The world won't be the same place without literature translation. And I'm pretty sure, it won't be a better place without it.

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