Thorac cardiovasc Surg 2014; 62(06): 459-460
DOI: 10.1055/s-0034-1390068
Georg Thieme Verlag KG Stuttgart · New York

Lost in Translation

Markus K. Heinemann
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Publication History

Publication Date:
19 September 2014 (online)

Human language has come a long way in evolution from the warning signals and wooing melodies of the animal kingdom to the highly sophisticated instrument our species has come to use and now depends upon for survival. Fish, being proverbially mute, have a clear communication disadvantage—with dolphins and whales showing off their evolutionary advance in the same habitat.

Within human language, there is a very disparate differentiation between individual idioms. For instance, vast structural differences are responsible for the profound and universal learning difficulties in acquiring a real knowledge of Chinese or Japanese as a European and vice versa. But even in apparently closely related languages such as English and German, seemingly subtle variations may become extremely important. This regularly becomes evident in the efforts of translation that is, converting one language into another.

Let us look at, for example, two short English words, six characters in all: “on site,” in German generally thought to mean “am Platz, am Ort, am Standort.” The popular internet dictionary LEO[1] gives the meaning as: “auf der Baustelle, vor Ort, hauseigen, bauseits.” Referring to the Oxford English Dictionary,[2] calling itself “The definitive record of the English language,” for a definition of “on site,” one gets “situated or occurring on a particular site.”

In the strife to translate these six characters into German, academically trained people of two learned societies have been debating for months on end.[3] It is all about the surgical back-up during transcatheter aortic valve implantation (TAVI) procedures. Whereas many (predominantly surgeons) do agree that what is meant is actually a “Fachabteilung für Herzchirurgie” in which any emergency however complex can be dealt with under optimal circumstances, some (predominantly cardiologists) consider a different meaning to suffice: that a (hired) surgeon with a heart–lung machine sits in the corner, hoping he will not be needed, but if he is, all hell will break loose in an environment unfamiliar with such a scenario. It is quite apparent that these settings are completely different, but both can theoretically be described as having heart surgery “on site.”

The ongoing intellectual enigma is: Can there ever be something like “correctness” of a translation, because every translation must be an interpretation? “Good” translations are supposed to grasp the original meaning in the particular circumstances, very much like apparently identical Japanese words/expressions have to be seen against their context to be understood.

To insist on verbatim versus synonymous (“wortgemäß” versus “sinngemäß”) is not really a sensible differentiation. The former can lead to grotesque results, as can be witnessed regularly in the instructions for Asian goods where “translations” have obviously been computer generated: “If you are satisfied to our goods and services, we will be very grateful to you give us positive feedback with five stars.” Politicians have also become famous for their verbatim efforts. Take, for instance, the alleged quote by the former German president Heinrich Lübke: “Equal goes it loose” for: “Gleich geht es los.”

A constantly and knowingly undersold achievement is that of translators of works of fiction. Good publishers spend lots of time and money to reach as optimal a result as possible. This can be particularly tricky when the author is already dead and cannot be consulted. Hans Wollschläger needed several years for James Joyce's Ulysses.[4] Ulrich Blumenbach is another “literary translator” who tackled David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest.[5] The title alone (“Unendlicher Spaß”) could have sounded differently.

Every now and then new translations of classics enter the market (Don Quijote by Susanne Lange, 2008)[6] with the publisher reasoning that ongoing research has helped to better understand the author in the original and that the new translation takes these insights into account. This should definitely not be confused with suddenly using a more modern language, which may make things easier for a teenage reader but must be considered an overachievement needing a commentary, because then the original would also have to be “updated.” One of the most recent examples for a truly literary “new” translation into German, said to have taken 10 years, is that of Marcel Proust's “À la recherche du temps perdu” by Bernd-Jürgen Fischer.[7] The abundance of annotations exemplifies that “no text study can be as informative as the attempt at its translation.”[8]

An extremely interesting book, at the same time highly intelligent and a wealth of information on this intellectual problem, is Adam Thirlwell's Miss Herbert (in the United Kingdom), also known as The Delighted States (in the United States).[9] This, in turn, was recently translated into German by Hannah Arnold—and just look at what she did to the title(s) alone[10]—definitely not “verbatim”! Thirlwell reminds us that a literary giant such as Vladimir Nabokov had difficulties to translate his own novel Lolita, written by him in English, into his native (!) Russian. As a culmination and as an addendum, “[Thirlwell] gives us his own translation of [Nabokov's] short story “Mademoiselle O,” first published in French in 1936, translated into English in 1943, then to Russian, then back to English (ending up as a chapter in “Speak, Memory”), and revised continually by Nabokov.”[11]

Switching languages has repeatedly confused an author's own mind: Samuel Beckett, after having turned his literary language from native English to French, eventually also felt unable to translate himself back into English appropriately.

With scores of learned scholars debating such complex issues involved, it is quite obviously a tremendous task for doctors of medicine to come to terms about what is meant by a translation. It is, however, fair to say that in the humanities, there is at least a general agreement that the intention should be that an author's thinking is reflected by rather than lost in translation.