May 27, 2016

Lost in translation, still


Those of us who are bilingual or even multilingual are blessed. We have the ability to live in two or more worlds through each language. Depending upon which language we’re speaking, our thoughts come out differently, because each language is so different in philosophy and grammar. The national character subtly comes through.

The vocabularies, the synonyms are not always equivalent in the languages. While the dictionary may give some exact translations, there are words where the essence of the meaning is just off the mark in the other language. The basis may be there, but the word does not convey the true meaning.

“Slava Ukraini – Heroyam Slava” has become the Ukrainian patriotic slogan and greeting. In Ukrainian, “slava” is basically glory, fame, reputation and, in a negative sense, rumor or ill-repute. So “Slava Ukraini” is “Glory to Ukraine.” But in English, glory to God is acceptable, yet glory to a nation has a tinge of that totalitarian repute, not at all implied in the Ukrainian “slava” to one’s nation. But I have no idea how else it could be phrased. One other case of conflicting synonyms is “patriotic” vs “nationalistic.” In the United States, the former is perfectly all right, while the latter raises red flags. “God Bless America” is OK, but “Slava Ukraini” is not.

A caption in an album on Ukrainian folk architecture describes the Ukrainian “khata” as a “hut.” In one edition of Taras Shevchenko’s poems, a “khata” is also translated as a “hut.” Long ago, someone inserted that translation of “khata” into a bilingual dictionary, and it remains there, distorting the sense of future translations. A hut is a “shopa” or “buda” in Ukrainian. In English, perhaps a village “cottage” (as in England) would be one of the terms, but “house” would still be the basic translation for “khata.”

The newest inadvertent miss in translating from Ukrainian into English happened recently. The excellent art exhibition from Ukraine traveling across North America is called “Ukraine Exists.” I’m guessing that the well-meaning curators looked up “isnuye” in the dictionary and saw “exists.” Perfectly valid. But the two words are not always equal. “Exist” means “to be,” but often means just barely. I think (I know, presumptuous of me) that the curators meant “survives,” “endures,” “prevails” or “lives” – positive declarations – not just Ukraine being on its last leg, barely there. This is a subtle distinction, but it makes a big difference when the poster, in big letters, declares “Ukraine Exists.”

I heard that some individuals were upset that I brought up the issue of “exists” and took it to be a criticism of the exhibition. It certainly was not. It was an observation, a concern that because of the title (in English) the exhibition would be perceived to be something other than it is.

I’m sure that many of us in North America would come up with similar gaffes if we were to translate into Ukrainian. And with the language there evolving as it has, with so many Russified and now Anglicized words and phrases, there would be a problem. But I’m guessing that we’d have the good sense to ask someone knowledgeable to edit our translation. There seems to be a hubris on the part of many Ukrainian Ukrainians when it comes to the English they learned in their institutes – no suggestions or corrections accepted, no matter how kindly they are presented.

A few times, while in Ukraine, I have come across brochures and even books in English that are so poorly translated that they hurt my teeth. Someone meant well, someone paid big money for the “professor from the institute” to translate, and the result is a shame and an embarrassment. It is a matter of how English is taught and by whom. Let’s hope more and more fluently bilingual individuals appear to make Ukrainians proud.

PS: My other article on this subject, “Trouble with Translating – in So Many Words,” appeared in The Ukrainian Weekly on June 8, 2008.