Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Translation vs. Interpretation


s a student of mine reminded me in a comment in the previous post, all translation is ultimately interpretation. Anything we translate is a product of the readers interpretation of the original piece. This is why I am such a proponent of reading works in the original. I teach a literature in translation course, because Japanese literature--as in all world literatures--should reach as wide an audience as possible. But to truly appreciate the work itself, it should be read in the original.

But the point I want to make here is that all translation is interpretation. Even if we interpret a single word, context will dictate how it is interpreted. Think of the word "dog." I can be a four-legged mammal, but on a hot afternoon, it could refer to the weather. It can also refer to a scoundrel or as a descriptor a person's looks. The point, of course, is that I will tranlsate the word into Japanese depending on how I interpret the word, and the interpretation is based on my reading of a given context.

The following is a famous poem by the poet Basho. I think many of you may have heard of it.

Furu ike ya kawazu tobi komu mizu no oto
old pond (exclamation) frog jump enter water 's sound

The English words are more or less the literal translations of each individual word. But of course, each word can be slightly altered in meaning depending on the context and how the reader "interprets" Basho's poem. Below are some translations by well-known translators and poets.

The ancient pond

A frog leaps in

The sound of the water.

Donald Keene

An old pond--
The sound
Of a diving frog.

Kenneth Rexroth

Into the ancient pond

A frog jumps

Water's sound!

D.T. Suzuki

Old pond--frogs jumped in--sound of water.

Lafcadio Hearn

The old pond

A frog leaps in,

And a splash.

Makoto Ueda

The old pond

A frog jumped in,


Allen Ginsberg

As you can see, each poem provides a slightly different rendition of the exact same poem, because each person has a different interpretation. Even the use of "The" or "An" can lend a different flavor to the poem. "The old pond" indicates specificity, whereas "An old pond" suggests an arbitrary "any old" pond. Does a frog "jump" in, or does it "leap" in? Is there a difference between these two words to you? And of course, the "sound of water" is rather open ended, as I think Basho intended--that is if I am privileged guess his intentions--and is a far cry from the specific "splash" or "kerplunk" of different authors.

Another interesting point is lineation. Most Japanese poems are composed in a single line. The poems are recongnized by the syllable count in each section. In a Haiku--as in Senryu--the count is 5 syllable-7-5. Since many translators do not apply an artificial syllable count in a translation, they will lineate the poems into three lines, thereby making it "look" like a poem. I think we can all agree that lineation is one of the hallmarks of English poetry. Indeed, if we leaf through a book quickly, we can probably recognize a poem without reading a single word. All we need to do is look at the lines and borders and margins. The above translators--with the exception of Hearn--have imposed their Western bias on a Japanese poetic form. That is certainly an interpretation rather than a translation, no?

Anyway, I usually provide this caveat to my students before we begin reading J-Lit in translation. They should know that any language translated can never be exact, and can never convey precisely what the original does. We may approach it, but it can never be absloutely the same.

Then what of the Bible? My old pastor told me that the Bible is the Word of God. Ignoring the fact that I am skeptical that man can ever know God's language, the Word in the Bible is a human language written by humans. Parts are in Aramaic, others in proto-Hebrew. Written right to left, these languages are very distant from us today. And they have been through the translation mill of many different human languages, including different English versions.

So the question is: Did the men who wrote the Bible receive Divine inspiration? And how can we be sure, really sure--if we believe the Word of the Bible to be Absolute--that the translated words are a true and exact representation of the Word of God? Or can we say that the writers were inspired by their belief in and of the Divine?

Please, don't think of my as some kind of aetheist or agnostic. I was born and raised a Catholic, but I have always believed that God gave me a brain so I may use it freely, even if it were to question my faith.


This is one of my favorite psuedo/ad hoc translations of Basho's poem. It was apparently found in a newspaper somewhere, the specfics of which are now lost for eternity.


Dere wasa dis frogg

Gone jumpa offa da logg

Now he inna bogg.


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