Word Magic – reposted from the New Yorker


In a pleasant piece in the New Yorker, which I just received today, Adam Gopnik discusses the power of translation and untranslatability. Having just covered this topic two days ago in a post on fidelity, I was intrigued. For instance, Gopnik quotes Bellos (author of Is That a Fish in Your Ear?) as saying,

“despite the endless insistence that the real thing is lost in translation, we readily translate everything, and all the time.”

Well, I’m not sure Bellos is right. After all, the US book market is made up of a merely 3% translations, while the number in any other country reaches well into double digits. Nonetheless, I agree with the point: we all believe translation to be lacking something, even though we often use translations all the time.

The article also has a nice critique of Whorf’s hypothesis, that language determines what we are able and unable to say.

In all, great article. And it reminds me that if you look, you can always find near stuff on language and interpreting all over the place.

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3 thoughts on “Word Magic – reposted from the New Yorker”

  1. Hi – I’ve read “A Fish In Your Ear” but don’t remember much about it. I think the point there is that even monolingual non-interpreters and non-translators are actually in a process of constant translation. We all instinctively know that what I mean by “bread” and what you mean by “bread” are not necessarily the same, and might well be slightly different again next week. This is why you will hear people on London streets constantly punctuating their speech with things like “D’ya get me?” It’s part of convergence, co-constructing meaning, here and now.

    So information loss is inevitable even between users of the “same” language. But I expect what you are saying to be relevant: I “translate” what you say, based on what I know about you, in order to predict what I think you must have meant.

    I find these “10 Untranslatable Things” website posts very funny – every single one of them goes on to explain in some detail and with total adequacy what the “untranslatable” things mean.

  2. I love language. I am crossing Babel doing something unorthodox with language. Well, why not? It seems to hold, when you listen hard to words, deconstruct them, and treat them like building blocks, exactly like DNA, splicing together, slicing them up, and I believe this ability, this total alchemy of what we do with words, is not random. For example an antique store called Room with a Vieux, taking advantage of the French old and crossing over to View.

    Shall OM

    I can do this, endlessly. It’s all a Coming Attraction. As amaze is to a maze. Walk the labyrinth with me. The Coeur of the Matter is getting to the core, and heart of the “apple”. It’s surely a Garden story. The road snakes.

    Cheers,
    Ruth Housman/Marshfield Hills, MA

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