Translations Under a Mango Tree

Photo by flickr user ewen and donabel

I first read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” in the novel’s original Spanish. Marquez’s rhetoric transported me into a world that I didn’t suspect I would ever again inhabit—a world in which pleasure is glorified and sought, where women have the temperament of a bull and the heart of a dove, in which men are the fighters, the lovers, and the providers, and where nature is as integral a component of daily life as are the activities of eating and dancing. Marquez’s words are so tangible, so perceptive and genuine that I envisaged myself in my native country of Venezuela, flipping through the pages of his book as I sipped guava juice under the shade of a mango tree. His descriptions of the gluttonous military men, the corrupt government officials, the confused political aficionados, and the people of the Colombian town of Macondo’s persistence on enjoying themselves in spite of the country’s political and economic chaos, were so remarkably insightful and tangible that they simultaneously delighted and depressed me.

It was with skepticism and reluctance I assented to read Marquez’s aesthetic masterpiece in its English translation. Indisputably, the richness of the Colombian author’s prose and his depiction of the local vernacular, flavor, texture, and even the scent of a South American mountainous town, vanished like the opponents of a Latin American tyrant in a political rally. It’s not easy to describe the aesthetic differences between the experience of reading the novel in Spanish and reading it in English, and I imagine it must be an even more challenging task to translate the text. Nevertheless, there is a texture and a sensuality in Garcia Marquez’s employment of the Castilian language that is virtually impossible to express in any other tongue.

The Cuban-American writer, Gustavo Perez Firmat, astutely articulates the conflict of translation in one of his poems:

The fact that I

am writing to you

in English

already falsifies what I

wanted to tell you.

My subject:

how to explain to you that I

don’t belong to English

though I belong nowhere else.

The poet’s words not only express the challenge of communicating a particular message in a foreign language, but they also present the ambiguous universe of idiom in which most multilingual people inhabit. How can one articulate a sensation that has no comparable word in any other language? Is it possible to depict a proverb that originates from an obscure national superstition? These are the dilemmas that the multilingual encounter daily, and which make the work of translators of literary text such a challenging endeavor.

“I can’t identify exactly what it is, but I know that something is definitely lost in translation,” says Brittany Parker, a French major who has read texts in French and in their English translations.

Professor Rosanna Warren, who is the Director of the Translation Seminar in BU’s University Professors Program, has translated works from Ancient Greek, Latin, French and Italian. She asserts that it is impossible to duplicate an author’s creation. A translator’s work, she says, is about “translating a mode of meaning from the original and capturing its spirit.”

It is, after all, the “spirit” of a literary text—not the verbatim words that the author utilizes—that eternally lingers within the mind of the reader.

No matter how poignant a work is, however, it is indisputable that the effect would be even more inspirational if the text were read in its original language. Meaghan Beatley (CAS ’12) is originally from Belgium, but moved to the U.S. with her family at a young age. Last semester, she read Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” in English for a literature class, and out of curiosity decided to read the original version in French.

“I was surprised to note that there were entire passages that had been omitted in the English version,” she says, “But what I noticed the most was the fact that some words are much more powerful in French than they are in English.”

Cartoon by Evan Caughey

Case in point: the Spanish word, “empalagazo,” which indicates a sensation in your mouth of something that is excessively sweet. There is no analogous word in English to describe this sensation, which not only expresses a surplus of sweet, but also conveys a syrupy, sugary texture. This particular word demonstrates the significance of not just the background of a word’s meaning, but the impact of the diction as well. Each language carries its own particular singularities in diction, which, when translated, are inescapably lost.

Professor Warren recognizes this discrepancy in translation and says that translators break their hearts once they reach a point in which the power of a word or a passage in its original language must be compromised because it simply does not have a parallel in any other tongue.

“Comparing a translation to the original text is like looking into a literary kaleidoscope,” said Mehlman.

Both Professor Mehlman and Professor Warren agree that the most effective way to capture the “essence” of an original work is to read several of the work’s translations. But Professor Warren affirms that she isn’t familiar with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in the way that a Russian reader would be, and yet she says the words of these authors are “in [her] soul.”

I hesitate to believe that if I had initially read “One Hundred Years of Solitude” in English, I would have been transported to the tropics of my childhood. Nevertheless, like Professor Warren and many others who read translated literature, I have been as inspired by the works of Kafka, Dante, Goethe, and of course, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, as I have been touched by Garcia Marquez’s prose. These authors do not write in my native tongue or share a similar background to my own, yet their “extraordinary aesthetic imaginative force,” as Professor Warren calls it, has managed to cross the language barrier, and—through the translator’s talent—capture the essence of these exceptional minds.

Perhaps something is lost and remains mysterious when one reads a literary work in translation, but no factor is more important than the interpretation that each individual reader brings into the work; and it is the combination of these two contributions that ultimately provide a valuable experience. Besides, there’s nothing more fascinating than the prospect of a literary mystery.

About Patricia Ball

Patricia Ball (CAS '11) is a literature writer for the Quad.

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