Translation is futile, unless lobotomy is involved

What does it mean to translate to another language? One year after moving to Germany and working in German, I can try and answer that.

In India, my learning happened mostly through reading or listening. I was learning German using its English translations in a remote setting. If I read a news article, I would decipher words like “attacker”, “arrested” and “shot” (since so much international news is about terrorism) and strengthen them through repetition.

In Germany, I registered the words I already  knew by listening to people use them. But along with the sound of the word escaping their lips, my mind was bombarded by several other cues: the wrinkles on their foreheads, the movement of their eyebrows, the setting they used it in, the reaction of the people around them and so on.

The difference is that of a corpse and a living person.

Let me illustrate this with Mahlzeit. Its literal translation is “Meal-time”. It is said only during lunchtime, and doubles up as a greeting. The more figurative translation is “Happy lunch-time”. But here’s another catch. It is said only at work, because it separates work from leisure – something Germans take very seriously. Now the translation morphs to “Happy lunch-break”. What is more? It is used predominantly by working class Germans, as a means of expressing their solidarity, indicating that this sacred time cannot be appropriated by their bosses. Try translating that!

Besides, a translated German novel where characters would go around in a factory chanting “Happy lunch-break” would call for a change in genre.

Faithful translation requires the rewiring of brains. Translation is futile, unless lobotomy is involved.

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