In my senior literature class we’re finishing up The Stranger, by Albert Camus. Believe it or not, but before this summer I’d never read the novel (there’s a lot of literature out there!). And I am absolutely loving it. Our copy was translated by Matthew Ward, which is a point worth noting—Camus wrote in French, and depending on what translation you pick up the text can be wildly different. Most people have heard the novel’s notable opening lines: “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure.” Yet, our copy’s more recent translation is different: “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.”
Small difference, right? Yet in the preface Ward makes the argument that these different words mean the world, and he’s convincing. Despite always loving literature, I didn’t give the art of translating a lot of thought until I first moved to Korea back in 2009. Then, of course, language differences permeated my life. Note on that subject: know how you occasionally see people walking around with tattoos in non-English scripts? They may look fancy, but due to the number of poorly translated English phrases I’ve seen on non-American shoulders and calves and torsos … well generally not a good idea, folks.
But anyway, to drive home points about the art of translation, I took to the board in class with the standard Korean “hello,” which is annyeonghaseyo. Yet this doesn’t really exactly mean what I just said it means —its literal translation is more like “are you at peace?” Then my seniors came up with ways we could translate that phrase into English, and we analyzed the different “problems” that came with each choices: “hi” is too short, “what’s up” too informal, “yo” way too informal, “peace be with you” seems religious, “greetings” seems robotic, “howdy, y’all” seems too cowboy, “top of the morning to you” too Irish, “good day, mate” too Australian, and “salutations” is just weird in general.
It was a fun activity, and think they got the point—all words and phrases, in all languages, have connotations we have to deal with, and if you don’t want your speech to be super dated or super regional you’re going to struggle. Hopefully that helps my students appreciate The Stranger a bit more, which by-the-way, is a thoroughly FANTASTIC novel, and I can’t hardly believe I made it to my 30s without having read it. I’ll have to post more thoughts when we finish up on Friday. Until then, “Aloha!”
–Jeff and Leah