Why Are Translations So Hard?

I’m in the process of working on a short piece for New Mandala on Islam in a post-BN world. In the course of doing this, I’ve been reading carefully some of the goals of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). I do this in Malay because I can read Malay fairly fluently, but to communicate this meaning to non-Malay speakers I have to find an English gloss.

I find this really, really difficult. Here’s an example from the PAS website. PAS argues that its goals include
Memperjuangkan wujudnya di dalam negara ini sebuah masyarakat dan pemerintahan yang terlaksana di dalamnya bilai-nilai hidup Islam dan hukum-hukumnya menuju keredhaan Allah. 
Now I would like to render this into English. As far as I can tell, I know in my mind exactly what this means. And I can produce a word-by-word translation very easily.

Memperjuangkan wujudnya di dalam negara ini sebuah masyarakat
to fight or struggle for the creation of in state this one a society

dan pemerintahan yang terlaksana di dalamnya bilai-nilai hidup
and government that administered internally values life

Islam dan hukum-hukumnya menuju keredhaan Allah
Islam and the laws to go towards pleasure Allah

I bet that most readers could read my word-for-word translation pretty easily and get the exact gist of this. But even though I know that the words mean, and I know what the overall meaning is, I cannot render this in the form of a natural English sentence that sounds “right” to me. One possibility is just that I’m not totally fluent in Malay, but I don’t think that that’s it, because I don’t encounter this problem when I’m speaking Malay. The difficulty seems inherent to the act of translating.

Why would this be? Perhaps this is something that the linguists have thought about, and certainly this is a problem for people who do literary translation. It strikes me that the problem is somewhere in the syntax-semantics interface: I am trying to retain semantics (meaning) but changing syntax (sentence and phrase structure). When we speak or read, we don’t ever separate syntax from semantics–the two are inextricably linked. When we self-consciously translate, we are forced to preserve one while changing the other. This is just a hypothesis. But it might also explain why I often find it difficult to respond when people say “can you say XXX in Indonesian” even though my Indonesian is pretty good.

I’d be curious as to whether I’m the only one with this problem.

Comments 6

  1. John February 14, 2012

    You’re not alone, Tom. Evidently, there is a difference between Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, for example, and whatever sense Google Translate might make of Old Norse; the former is translation as rewriting, the latter is translation as decoding. I suspect that the likes of you and I fall somewhere in the middle of the two.

    Or, as one might say in new Norse, “Þú ert ekki einn, Tom. Augljóslega, það er munur á milli þýðingar Heaney er á Beowulf, til dæmis, og hvaða vit Google Þýða gæti gert af Old Norse, fyrrverandi er þýðing sem endurskrifa, hið síðarnefnda er þýðing sem umskráningu. Mig grunar að gaman af þér og ég falla einhvers staðar í the miðja af the tveir.”

  2. Tom February 14, 2012

    That’s a nice contrast: decoding versus rewriting. The question is why can’t they go hand-in-hand? Or in other words, why do my own self-translations sound little better than Google Translate?

  3. Samuel Clark February 17, 2012

    I regularly encounter this problem when I quickly translate news reports for my blog on corruption in Indonesia. I tend to follow a three step process: 1) Grab a rough translation from Google; 2) Substantially re-write based on the understanding in my head of the Indonesian, ignoring as much as possible google’s “decoding”; and then 3) go back to the Indonesian to make sure I’ve not changed the meaning too much. I say “too much” because sometimes with news articles I find I do have to interpret because the passage may not be entirely clear. Of course if it’s something important I get my wife to then take a look!

  4. widi February 22, 2012

    That Malaysian traslation has a bit different meaning in Indonesian translation. It sounds weird in my ears.

  5. Joanne Yoong February 24, 2012

    Bahasa Indonesia and Malaysia are different too! And I think metaphors or allusive language are part of problem as well.

    From Bahasa Malaysia I would say a reasonable translation would be something like

    “To fight for the creation of a community and government within this country that embodies within it the values and prescriptions of Islam for the pleasure of God”

  6. Tom February 24, 2012

    Joanne–you ought to be my translator! I get a bit of twinge of uneasiness at tacking “for the pleasure of God” at the end–seems like a run-on–but this is far better than what I normally produce. Good show.

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