Learning two languages (Spanish and Catalan) while I was in the field was frustrating, but rewarding. I ran a trilingual online forum (Catalan, Spanish, English) and blogged in both Spanish and Catalan while I was doing my research. I often ran into situations where I was sure that I simply was not capturing what I wanted to say when moving from English to Catalan, so I used Spanish as an intermediary (my Spanish is stronger. Or at least it used to be. Is it really 1 year and 8 months since I left the field?). In the early months of my fieldwork, this was a laborious process. Oddly, I now write Catalan more fluidly than I speak it.
98% of all written materials I encountered in the city were solely in Catalan, from libraries and bookstores to public notices (and operating systems). I saw Catalan texts as a personal challenge for myself, but, like most avid readers, only rarely thought about how all the world's best selling titles and classic literature ended up on the shelves in Catalan or any other language other than the original: translators. Unlike texts originally written by native speakers, foreign literature is not only a loan from one language into another, it has to time-travel from the country-specific past of its author to the present bookshop climate of its potential readers. It is doubtlessly for this reason that we often insist that most books are 'better in the original' language. Where do translators and linguists begin? Do anthropologists need to be both? This swiftly brings up deeper issues of language and culture (see Ingold 1996).
Some might argue that a full-text translation of certain English passages into Catalan can never truly be complete or entirely convey the sentiment of the original. I'm not sure about this argument, but when it comes down to it, working out direct translations can be a mess, especially for those just learning. Do linguists, multi-linguals and professional translators fare better?
Take for instance, Edgar Allan Poe's opening stanza to The Raven in the original English compared with two different versions in Catalan (the latter are from Mansell (2006: 56)):
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore —
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door —
''Tis some visiter,' I muttered, 'tapping at my chamber door —
Only this and nothing more.'
Temps ha, una nit desolada, feble, cansat, l'oblidada
saviesa meditava d'uns llibres rars, primicers,
i quan la son m'abaltia, em va semblar que sentia
un truc suau que colpia al portal del meu recés.
«Serà algú», vaig dir, «que truca al portal del meu recés—
tan sols deu ser això i res més.»
Una trista mitja nit, que vetlava entenebrit,
fullejant amb greu fadiga llibres vells i antics papers
i em dormia a poc a poc, vaig sentir a la porta un toc.
I sens moure'm del meu lloc: «Qualcú ve a cercar recés
—vaig pensar— en aquesta hora, qualcú ve a cercar recés.»
Això sols i no res més.
The two Catalan versions are quite distinct, not only in rhyme and meter, but word choice, pace ... and, therefore, conveyed sentiment/meaning? Linguists should read Mansell's entire article for the technical explanations and analysis. Some obvious things stand out. For instance, part of the power of the original prose is in its use of repetition. Can the same 'feeling' be transferred into another language without this? What about word choice? Are 'old books and papers' the same as quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore? Is 'saying' something the same as muttering it?
In my PhD thesis, I rely on written comments from online discussion forums that I need to put into English from the original Catalan (or sometimes Catalan/Spanish hybrids), with the added challenge internet slang. It is easy to get it wrong, especially reviewing older conversations that have taken place a year or so ago and have lost some of their context along the way. Even reading old conversations in English is subject to some loss of nuance over time. To make a translation flow within my own analysis while approximating the speaker or author's intentions (out of context from the original conversation) is tricky. Throw in idiomatic expressions, slang and webspeak, and the several hundred pages worth of Facebook transcripts I've collected could become a lifelong endeavor. The complicated part of translation is keeping the meaning intact for the speaker (or Facebook participant), the author (myself) and the reader of the final text.
Contemporaneous text written by people I can still contact is challenging enough, but I am certainly pleased that none of it will be in trochaic octameter.
Ingold, T. 1996. Key Debates in Anthropology. London: Routledge
Mansell, R. 2006. 'The Tale of Two Translations: Or The Role of Space in Translation', Journal of Catalan Studies 9:48-64.