lost in translation

Is it possible to express the same feeling in two different languages and mean exactly the same thing? I was reading a bit of translation last week and was thinking how distorted it gets. Book translates a polite but strong, formal but bit sensitive writing in English to Malayalam – I happened to see the English version also and there is noticeable difference. Also I read something this week that messages conveyed by human beings has the context info or meta message (message about the message) also embedded in it, we are able to understand the metamessages with a lot of experience. Variety of information is required to fully understand the meaning of something that is written – we would need some cultural background, syntax of language and local usage and even some idea about geography. Translation of a Malayalam novel like “Chemmeen” by Thakazhi, a complex story set in coastal kerala, might look very odd in English. Somebody who hasn’t seen fishermen in Kerala coasts or walked those beaches may not be able to construct the mental image necessary to go through the novel.

I think authors give enough descriptions of landscape, stage, characters and features to help the readers form the idea, but I think we can construct images only with what we have seen, heard or felt. For example, I had my own image of the location and people for a book like “To Kill a Mockingbird” while reading it (now I have image from the movie). Given that nobody can learn enough to enjoy a classic in a new language and anyway we internally translate the characters and stage to what we already know, translations are not that bad. But I can’t help but feel that translations are distorted material.

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