Project Proposal: Lost in Translation (a working title)

As someone who is officially qualified as bilingual (I speak both French and English fluently), who also has a relatively advanced knowledge of Latin, I have always been fascinated with language and how it functions; in particular how words are translated from one language to another. Much of my education in languages has been surrounded by the act of translating from one language to another, whether that be through the act of thinking in my native English and translating that into French in my head before speaking, or sitting down with a passage written in Latin or French and attempting to put it into proper, idiomatic English. This process is slow, tedious, and also flawed. There have been times (and there always will be) where the translation I, or others in my position, come up with seems to lack a certain je ne sais quoi, that is, some element of the text in its original language has been “Lost in Translation”.

When faced with a text in another language, the translator must always make a choice: whether to perform a literal, word for word, translation of the text before them, or whether to take some creative liberties in order to preserve some sense of artistry in the new translated text. This choice alone leads to the production of countless different translations of texts like Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey for example. But that choice aside, the translator is faced with another problem: that is, that some words in Latin, for example, have several different meanings in English (or other languages); and further, some words just don’t have perfect translations in other languages. Take the term Dasein, coined by Heidegger in German to elucidate a certain state of ideal being in the world. Translated literally into English this term is “There being” but most Heidegger scholars don’t feel that this is an accurate translation of the term. In fact, in translation, many people leave Dasein as it is, in its original German so as not to take its full meaning away.

All of this is to say that, simply put, translation is an imperfect art. When one reads a translation of a text, one is not reading the text, but the translator’s interpretation of the text. This leads to a question of authorship, which has tremendous implications for those reading and looking to interpret a text.

Looking at several examples of widely translated texts like Homer’s epics, and Virgil’s Aneid, several smaller scale translations like Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot published originally in French (En Attendant Godot) and then translated by Beckett himself into english, and some less literary sources like packaging and government documents and releases, I aim to tackle this issue of translation and the imperfect way in which languages intersect and cross over. I will also seek to discuss some of the larger scholarly, and sometimes political implications of this breakdown of language that occurs in translation.



2 thoughts on “Project Proposal: Lost in Translation (a working title)

  1. This is a great project idea! I just read a book called “Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World” by Ella Frances Sanders that talked about this very idea! It’s basically a very short and beautifully illustrated dictionary of words that don’t have English equivalents – it was wonderful getting to see ideas and concepts that I’ve experienced but have never been able to name.


  2. There’s a big body of scholarship and theory related to translation, Adam, as you’ll discover very this week as you embark on the research in earnest. So the biggest challenge with this topic is going to be to narrow it down to something that is feasible within the space of the project. You are wanting to talk about way too many texts here (although if you do want to work on translation in relation to Canadian package, I believe that Kevin James in history has done some work on that. Perhaps if you can come up with a more precise sense of what it is that you want to explore in your project,that would help, since your pitch nicely indicates how interesting the general area of inquiry would be by doesn’t really indicate what in particularly you want to gain from. Are there particular questions you want to ask? Do you have a glimmer of a position or hypothesis that you want to assert and then test? Alternatively, you could just choose one or two sets of texts and start producing some writing about what you find interesting about them in relation to the broad topic, and see if you can narrow it down that way. A third strategy is to get and read in a focused way some scholarly discussions of translation to see if there’s any area you want to extend further and any aspects of current understanding that you think need to be challenged.


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