Writer's Digest

Finding the Words

When Italian astronomer Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli began mapping Mars in 1877, he described dark and light areas on the planet’s surface as “seas” and “continents.” Due to a telescopic illusion that was unknown at the time, he also marked what he believed were channels and labeled them with the Italian word canali. His peers mistranslated that into canals, thus launching the theory that these were artificial structures created by intelligent life on Mars. An American astronomer named Percival Lowell was a fervent believer in the canals, mapping hundreds of them and even writing three books on the subject. Lowell’s work influenced a young writer, H.G. Wells, who would write a book of his own, The War of the Worlds.

Translations are a delicate art. When handled sloppily, they can undermine foreign policy, sink marketing campaigns, and—in the case of Schiaparelli, Lowell, and Wells—spawn an intergalactic literary genre. When done correctly, a suitable translation isn’t noticed at all.

In her treatise on translation, Why Translation Matters, Edith Grossman lays out the paradoxical job of a translator: “Aren’t we simply the humble, anonymous handmaids-and-men of literature, the grateful, ever-obsequious servants of the publishing industry? In the most resounding yet decorous terms I can muster, the answer is no, for the most fundamental description of what translators do is that we write—or perhaps rewrite—in language B a work of literature originally composed in language A, hoping that readers of the second language […] will perceive the text, emotionally and artistically, in a manner that parallels and corresponds to the esthetic experience of its first readers.”

Günter Grass,

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