Talk to anyone who knows more than one language and they will almost surely tell you that the hardest phrases to translate into another language are found in comedies. Jokes tend to be incredibly hard to carry over from one language into another, and not just incredibly hard but sometimes just downright impossible. What would be an example of things impossible to carry over in language? Take this scenario that I have translated directly from Japanese into English without consideration of the preservation of the joke:
There are two people on a boat. One looks up into the sky and yells to his comrade, “There are so many clouds!” The second man begins to panic and yells, “SPIDERS!? WHERE!?”
The problem with this joke is that the word “CLOUD” in English sounds nothing like the word “SPIDERS” whereas in Japanese 雲 (kumo) means cloud and 蜘蛛 (kumo) means spider. They are homonyms and thus perfect for a play on words…in Japanese. English as well as many if not all other languages are filled with examples just like this one that make it nearly impossible to preserve the original humor and translate at the same time. They are beautiful inside jokes available only to those who speak the language and outside of that language they sound nonsensical and awkward.
But it is not just to jokes that such translation problems are confined, many idioms and set phrases in language are (perhaps) best left in that original language. Why? Take this other example from Korean: A student wishes to express gratitude to their teacher for being caring and always giving her the time of day. This is what results from her trying to directly translate a Korean expression into English:
You always gave ear to me
Reading it a couple times is all it takes to fully understand the meaning within the sentence but the phrase sounds odd. Yet, upon inquiring about the sentence with native Korean speakers I found, as anticipated, that an expression of the same exact wording exists in Korean and is a perfectly natural and common saying. When trying to think of some similar expression in English, the Beatles song “With a little help from my friends” comes to mind: “Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song…”
Yes these expressions are plentiful in any language: French, Portuguese, German, Spanish, English, Japanese, and many many others of course. Language is literally spotted with idioms and expressions which, if translated word for word will be odd and awkward to the native speaker. It is a problem that translators must face and overcome every day: Should the phrase be translated directly but with an explanation or should a similar but different idiom be chosen in the target language as a substitute?
As is the case with many things, it should be neither one nor the other all the time. The phrase may do well to be directly translated when it comes to the German phrase “dumm wie Bohnenstroh sein” or “to be as dumb as a bundle of bean straw” because the readers should be able to infer the meaning regardless of the fact that they may never have heard the expression before in their lives. However, when a Japanese speaker says “猫も杓子も (neko mo shakushi mo)” or “Even cats and rice ladles” it is almost impossible to gather the meaning behind the phrase. In this case it would be preferable to use a similar phrase that is found in English in place of the direct translation: “Everyone and their mother” (i.e. everyone came, even the cats and rice ladles!)
No matter what, the true meaning, depth, and even culture behind the phrase can not be understood until you take the first steps to understand the language. These idioms and phrases, jokes and plays on words are bound to the language; they are inseparable. No matter how similar they may sound it is these elements of language that I believe are most tied to the culture of the nation from which they were born. Is language a product of culture or culture of language? As many times as I have thought of that question alone and with my peers is as many times as I have come to the conclusion that I have no idea. What seems certain though, after many of these conversations, is that if there is one place to start looking for the answers it is in these elements of language that have been mentioned above. Within these elements are the ties, the fine points, of the culture in which they brew.
One can read about Spain, China, or Italy, know the Great Wall, Tower of Pisa, or the entire life story of Pablo Picasso, but he will not begin to hear the real heartbeat of that nation until the language has been tasted. Language is the lifeblood of culture as it the culture the body for the language and gives it meaning. Have you ever studied another language? How long after you stopped studying the language did you forget what you learned? For many it takes only a few months and all but the basics are gone. This is what makes language fluid and ephemeral, always changing and so utterly difficult to translate at times. It is for this reason that studying a language in its home country is so invigorating! The hot, changing, lifeblood of language is in its element when it is joined together with the muscle of the culture and the bones of ancient tradition and the whole mechanism comes to life… and when this happens we can start to truly come to understand our neighbors and laugh heartily at their jokes.
Please feel free to comment! I’m all ears~
Other useful and interesting websites:
- A Brief Overview on Idiomatic Translation
- Idioms in English: A Pragmatic Analysis (a bit dry but very thorough!)