The Trouble with Translation

You’re watching a movie translated from Hindi.

Two young men stand timidly in a kitchen, looking on speechlessly at a beautiful woman in their doorway. Finally, one of them whispers to the other, and subtitles flash on the screen below him:

Dude, she got away.”

What do you mean she got away?” he responds. “She’s right there, check your glasses.”

Not her, your pants! Put on your pants!


 At this point, you’re probably going to rewind the movie a bit to hear the punchline again.

Truth is, unless the translator of the movie included a parenthetical explaining that the word for “pants” is a feminine noun in Hindi, you’d never catch the joke. Then again, if you had to pause the movie just to read the back story on this second-long quip, you still probably wouldn’t be as quick to chuckle as a native speaker of the language. 

This is what I like to call the “Translator’s Dilemma”. Take a second to consider the translator’s thinking in writing the subtitles for this particular scene. Should I include the parenthetical in order to clue in those unfamiliar with the context of the joke, or bypass the explanation altogether for the sake of timing and fluidity? Would it be that bad if non-native speakers missed this one joke? Should I assume that viewers of the film would be watching with native speakers, who could quickly whisper the meaning of the punchline to those who don’t understand? To what extent do I care that the viewer gets that particular joke?

In my experience with a Translation Theory and Practice course taught at my university, these questions were all but suffocating. I translated one non-fiction piece, one literary work, and one three-minute long video clip from Mandarin Chinese to English. The course also introduced many renowned translators and interpreters who had developed their own philosophies on translation as an art form. With so many of these influences, I found myself stumbling between the many radical edges that make up translation theory.

Many believe that one of the foundational thinkers in translation theory was a man named Walter Benjamin. A philosopher, radio broadcaster, Marxist, and of course, translator, Benjamin’s ideas were mostly radical and, according to some, highly illogical. In any case, his essay, “The Task of the Translator” (1923), introduced a few key tenets of translation theory that both built upon previous ideas on the topic and helped sparked debate and conversation for those in the profession.

For instance, Benjamin believed that any form of art is not meant for its observer, and that considering the audience is “never fruitful” in a true work of art. What does this mean for translation theory? Let’s revisit our hypothetical translator. Was it a good idea to exclude the parenthetical for the joke in the Hindi film, or should I have considered the audience?

It is entirely logical that a translator would choose to bypass an explanation for a cultural joke, as was the case in this particular film. It gives the viewer an opportunity to experience the movie as it was meant to be experienced, without any interruptions or notes in the margin. After all, translation is, for many people, simply a means to transport the same ideas from one vessel to another, similar to pouring water from a pitcher into a cup. As you may know, the word ‘translate’ itself comes from a Latin root which means “to carry across”. The word 翻译, or fan yi, is the Chinese word for ‘translate’, the first character of which literally means “turn over”. In both languages, and in many others, this would imply that the same object is simply being manipulated to be seen from another side or moved to another place.

Of course, the opposite sentiment is also common amongst the translator community. Once an idea is manipulated in any way, many argue, it becomes different. It belongs to a new context, and it takes a new shape. Language, in its most simplistic state, is pliable and adapts to whichever situation it encounters. Therefore, the parenthetical in the Hindi film suddenly becomes necessary, whether or not the joke remains funny. The loss of a punchline is simply a result of the shifting of language.

 These two arguments played a constant game of tug and war for me and everyone else in my Translation Theory and Practice class. When I wrote my literary translation, it seemed natural that the original shape, in terms of sentence structure, paragraph length, and word complexity, would reflect that of the original. This made for 500 words of nonsensical dialogue, odd imagery, and awkward idiomatic translations. Still, it seemed clear to me that the context of the original was a part of its beauty, something that made the work unique to its language.

My non-fiction translation turned out to be the reverse of my literary translation. Every idea in the article I translated had to be intact in its English form. Coming across an idiom was almost terrifying, because it seemed as if I would have to craft an entirely new concept in English to match the Chinese phrase. As opposed to respecting the beauty of the original work, I felt as though I was slicing away at the Chinese words and stacking them back up in English.

Figuring out which philosophy was appropriate in any given situation proved to be the most difficult challenge of my Translation Theory and Practice course. It also happens to be an issue many translators grapple with, even well into their career. Deciding whether or not to honor the original structure of a work or to recreate it to better accommodate speakers of one’s native language can depend on the original text, the personality of the translator, or even the translator’s mood that day. As a result, translators have learned to craft different translations of the same original work that are unique in their own rights.

With tools such as Google Translate and Babelfish taking the legwork out of translation and interpretation, it would seem as if translation were becoming less of an art, and more of a mechanical tool. However, through my own experience translating for the first time, there are still many stylistic conflicts and challenges to consider. While a translator may be able to glean the original meaning of a word using these resources, the connotations of each word as well as the structure of the sentence is still up to the translator’s personal choice.

Furthermore, what I refer to as the “Translator’s Dilemma” encompasses a wide number of moral conflicts. Each of these conflicts are the responsibility of the translator to resolve, or to grapple with until a satisfactory conclusion is reached. For instance, some translators work with heavily biased, controversial, nationalistic, or otherwise heavily subjective writing which the translator might or might not find necessary to illuminate in its translation. They must also handle the consequences that follow publishing works of this sort, such as criticism or censorship. The diversity of ideological standpoints only further complicate the role of the translator in interpreting original works.

 One may choose craft a piece of art as pleasing to the audience as the original, or, one may have an approach similar to that of Walter Benjamin, disregarding the audience entirely. In some cases, both ends of the spectrum might be useful in one piece. The complexity of translation theory is still fairly opaque, however as the practice continues to develop, it will bring about more fascinating forms of “carrying” art from one language to another.




Nia is a sophomore at Tufts University studying as an International Relations/Anthropology major with a concentration in the Eastern Asia region.


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