Hopscotch Translation’s Second Anniversary Forum
This week, Hopscotch Translation celebrates its second anniversary!
To mark the occasion, we’ve asked a group of literary translators to reflect on words that have proven not quite untranslatable, but perhaps impassable…
At a literary translation award ceremony in New York a few years ago, the guest of honor, French novelist Marc Levy, expressed his deep admiration for the craft. “What I love about translators is that they are, as we say in French, passeurs. How do you say passeur in English?” The reply came with a laugh from the roomful of translators: “Yeah, you can’t really translate that…”
Things are not quite so simple, of course: passeur can indeed pass into other languages in any number of ways, depending on the context. The word often denotes the figure of the boatman who ferries passengers across the water; passeurs and translators are adept at overcoming obstacles to reach the far shore. As navigators, they could be said to rival the adventurous speaker of Arthur Rimbaud’s poem “The Drunken Boat” – and we might recall in passing the editor Malcolm Cowley’s refusal to consider any translation of the poem whose opening line contained the phrase “impassable rivers”!
In the spirit of Barbara Cassin’s Dictionary of Untranslatables (which a crew of passeurs remarkably conveyed from French to English), Hopscotch Translation invites you to reflect on any word that has proved especially tricky for you to translate, whether in a particular case or in multiple instances throughout your work.
Do the Right Thing
In the 19th century, the famous German linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt declared as generally accepted that language is the organ that forms thought, and therefore thinking activity and language are inseparable. In other words, one perceives the world only through one’s language. If this is the case, we should worry about how the French see the world, because it seems difficult to translate “to do the right thing” into French.
It’s 2023, so let’s look at what DeepL suggests: “faire ce qu’il faut”, “faire ce qui est juste”, “faire le bon choix” (“to do what needs to be done”, “to do what is just”, “to make the right choice”). Not bad. But what have I done, when I have stumbled upon it.
To find out, I looked up “do the right thing” in the PDFs of the source texts of some of my translations, then checked the French version to see how I had rendered it.
I found a few examples where I had gone along with DeepL:
A Whisker in the Dark — Leighann Dobbs — Cozy Crime novel
“You did the right thing,” Nero glanced sideways at Poe.
— Tu as fait ce qu’il fallait, dit Nero en jetant un regard en coin à Poe.
« At least Stella Dumont did the right thing and decided not to use my coffee-cake recipe for the contest. » Millie forked up a piece of the crumbly top.
— Heureusement que Stella Dumont a enfin fait le bon choix et décidé de ne pas utiliser ma recette pour le concours de cuisine, dit Millie en plantant sa fourchette dans la pâte sablée.
But more often than not, I’ve been forced to say something somewhat different from “to do the right thing.”
Watching from the Dark—Gytha Lodge—Crime novel
She knew she’d been cruel. In some ways, she had probably given him reason to believe he’d done the right thing. She’d been harsh and cold and bloody furious.
Elle savait qu’elle s’était montrée cruelle. D’une certaine façon, elle lui avait probablement donné des raisons de croire que ses actes se justifiaient. Elle s’était montrée dure, froide et elle était très en colère.
Here, the translation literally means: his actions were justifiable. This approach suggests, again according to Humboldt, that for the French, the end justifies the means.
But sometimes it gets even more complicated. Another example from the Cozy Crime novel:
I was bent over the keyhole and had assured myself this was the right thing to do when I heard, “What are you doing?”
J’étais penchée sur la serrure, à tenter de me persuader que je n’étais pas sur le point de commettre une mauvaise action, quand j’entendis une voix.
— Qu’est-ce que tu fais ?
Literally: I wasn’t about to commit a bad deed. Oddly enough, in French, it seems easier to deny that you’ll do something bad than to state that you’re planning to do something good. I realize that my theory is probably idiosyncratic, but no more than Humboldt’s, so let’s merrily continue our exploration with non-fiction texts.
Enemy of the People—Jim Acosta
All this was baffling to me. If the Moore allegations don’t disgust you, nothing will. But, for Trump, a Senate seat was more important, obviously, than doing the right thing. Much of the White House team around him apparently agreed.
Pour moi, tout cela était ahurissant. Si les chefs d’accusation contre Moore ne vous dégoûtaient pas, je ne voyais pas ce qui pourrait le faire. Mais à l’évidence, pour Trump, gagner un siège au Sénat était plus important qu’agir avec décence. Et, apparemment, la plupart des membres de son équipe étaient d’accord avec lui.
Literally: Act with decency. Here, the translation takes advantage of the presence of Trump in the sentence, which provides an obvious semantic counterpoint to the phrase “act with decency”. French accommodates both morons and oxymorons quite well.
And a last one, by Jeffrey Archer, a former politician turned mystery writer:
Turn a Blind Eye—Jeffrey Archer
She needed to convince Nicky she had done the right thing by giving evidence against her former lover, and it was now time for her to move on.
Il fallait convaincre Nicky qu’elle avait bien fait de témoigner contre son ancien amant et qu’il était temps de tourner la page.
Literally: that she was right to give evidence. What is surprising is that the wording changes the perspective of the character. “To do the right thing,” implies an ethical or moral motivation. “To be right to do something” is more of an ability to do things that will benefit her. Basically, this way to say things is more selfish.
One could therefore summarize my contribution to the upper echelons of translation science as follows: According to Humboldt, the French have trouble doing the right thing, since some translators, namely me, can’t come up with a proper translation of the phrase.
 In Verschiedenheit des menschlichen Sprachbaues (1836).
I’ve made myself a nuisance over many years by turning up my nose at the idea that any expression is untranslatable, on the grounds that if it were truly untranslatable into any form of human language, then it would not have any meaning at all—even if it has an identifiable force. For example, the shouted expression “LBW” cannot be translated into French or any other cricket-deprived language and culture. However, speakers of Abkhaz can observe its ritual force when it causes the bats(wo)man to walk back to the pavilion with a crestfallen look on his or her face. But this kind of conundrum does not make a serious claim about untranslatability; all it really shows is that translation requires you to know what an expression is about, and if you insist on not knowing the rules of cricket, then you can’t translate cricket-talk.
A more challenging obstacle arises with perfectly accessible expressions that have meanings which correspond to no extant expressions in the target language. My favorite for today is ullage, a word that is by no means known to all speakers of English but can serve many useful purposes. It refers in the first instance to the amount by which a barrel of beer is not full. A gruff publican can mutter on the delivery of supplies from a slightly crooked artisanal microbrewery that “there’s too much ullage in them kegs”, for example. I would like to use it to denigrate overlong articles in The New Yorker, which make a decent page or two into ten (writers are paid by the word in that magazine) by filling them up with rhetorical nothings: “there’s a lot of ullage in that piece”, I would like to say. Readers of this piece may find all kinds of other uses for the term when buying cheap tins of soup or packets of pasta or when irritated by book designs based on the distribution of large amounts of white space. However, as far as I know, no other language has a lexical item devoted to the amount by which something falls short of being full, entire or complete. It would be less than quaint to invoke a Sartrean néant for the 5 grams of lentils that are not in the box, and none of the German words proposed by dictionaries and on-line resources—Füllstand, Leerstände, Flüssigkeitsschwund—translate directly back into ullage. There is a solution (as there always is) in lexical expansion, but still, it’s a pity you can’t say ullage just like that when tapping the cuve of your local vigneron. All you can do is suggest by elegant periphrasis that there’s less than 5 000 liters in his stainless-steel cylinder and that you would like to have a word about the plonk that’s not there.
 Ullage is nonetheless borrowed from late medieval French, where the verb ouiller meant (and still means) almost the opposite—to top up a barrel that is short of being quite full. In Canadian French, the verb is still current to mean overfeeding a guest at the dinner table, as in the exclamation Oo là là, tu nous ouilles! on being served a huge plate of poutine.
Ditch the Drink, Keep the Joke
Any word can send a translator down a rabbit hole — or through a wormhole, or maybe even into a black hole. It all depends on what the author was doing with it.
I’ve only translated the word “reikō” once — in Izumi Suzuki’s “Hey, It’s A Love Psychedelic!” (1982; English translation in Hit Parade of Tears [Verso; April 2023]) — and I doubt I’ll ever have another shot at it. In the Kansai area, in the not-too-distant past, “reikō” was one way to say “iced coffee,” but in my translation, I ended up changing the drink into a soda, and I’d like to explain why. I could have simply translated the word as “iced coffee” and moved on with my life, but that would have meant sacrificing something else Suzuki was doing — something I thought was too good to let go.
In “Psychedelic!,” a woman named Reiko (note the lack of macron [accent]) travels through time, from 1981 to 1971, then returns to 1981. When the story opens, Reiko’s name appears in hiragana; in the middle section, the one set in 1971, her name’s written in katakana; then, in 1981 the second time around, it’s Reiko in kanji. I did what I could to convey Suzuki’s play with different scripts, calling the character “Reico” in Part One, “Reyco” in Part Two, and “Reiko” in Part Three.
“Reikō” comes up toward the end of the story — in Part Three.
I said Reiko returns to 1981, but maybe “return” isn’t the right word for it. In the final part of the story, she finds herself in a different version of 1981, a bizarro world in which everything is worse than it used to be — at least for her. In the first 1981, she’s going out with a musician who really gets her; in the second, she’s on a date with an older man with a boring job, a “mouth-breather” who has no ear for music (a crime in Reiko’s mind). When the man shows up at the café for his date with Reiko, he orders something to drink. “Reikō,” he says, then turns to her and adds, “Same as your name…” Reiko’s not impressed.
I hate killing a joke — especially a bad one meant to show us that two characters are (perhaps literally) from different worlds. With that in mind, I decided to ditch the drink and keep the joke. I came up with a soda, its name also a nod to Suzuki’s sci-fi sensibility: “Raygun Cola.” So, in my translation, the man asks the waiter for a “Ray-Co.” Meanwhile, across the table, his date is wondering why the hell she’s wasting another Friday night with a guy like him. Was it wrong to turn the mouth-breather into a coke-drinker? It was definitely an intervention, but I felt like I had to play with Suzuki’s code — just a little — if I was going to get the same sort of energy out of the scene.
But Deviating Nonetheless
Poet Najlaa Eltom begins Songs of Speed by orienting the reader to the notion of “istidrāk”, commonly translated as “knowledge”, but knowledge and istidrāk are not the same here. “Knowledge is the muscle and istidrāk is the tissue,” writes Eltom. “Knowledge is a muscle that binds itself to the body without acting on its behalf. There can be no speaking or mediating on behalf of istidrāk. Its manifold nature makes it a complete, distinct plane.”
With this distinction out of the way, Songs of Speed offers several definitions of istidrāk, which are familiar to the Arabic speaker, and uses them as points of departure. The first of which is istidrāk meaning arriving at a moment of recognition, understanding anew. Eltom writes, “Istidrāk is having your readiness torn apart.” In other words, encountering the unexpected, being undone by it. “Your shortcomings start to glimmer,” she goes on. “You pore over every detail and chase after the missing part of yourself with your teeth.”
The second definition has to do with correcting a mistake: “Istidrāk is deviating to the correct path, but deviating nonetheless. It necessitates taking a path, though sometimes one can wander freely, buoyed by openness and the absence of meaning.”
The third definition has to do with movement: to reach, arrive, catch up, overtake, outrun: “Istidrāk is moving without a compass, free from any sense of direction. It’s walking out, naked, into ambiguity.” Yet Eltom soon goes in a different direction. She writes: “Istidrāk is not merely a return or a catching-up-to; it is a new structure.” If a moment ago Istidrāk was a body moving through space, now it is “an organism of acceleration; a tangible material made from knowing and not from experience.”
In Sufism, ‘Irfan refers to the inner knowledge of self and God. Najlaa describes Songs of Speed as a ‘Irfani text concerning “the rediscovery of self” and the pains that result from such discoveries. In a conversation earlier on, Najlaa told me that a ‘irfani text allows for multiple meanings at once. This is what complicates my task as a translator. I have been drawn again and again toward concreteness and away from abstraction. I was tempted, for instance, to insert the dictionary entries in order to provide the English reader with the associations available to the reader of the original. Ultimately I decided this would weigh down the text. I am still searching for the right balance.
Chasing the Ineffable
Good poets love words, and loving words requires learning their histories and connotations. Most of my translation work is from Latin or Romance languages; due to words’ shared histories and shared linguistic assumptions, it is easier for me to find the “best” words for translations of words from those languages than from others, but there are always subtle differences between words seemingly interchangeable between languages. Accordingly, every translated line of poetry fails to some degree—the only questions are: how did the translator fail and to what degree?
A nuanced word will lose nuances in translation if precision requires prolixity that disappoints readers’ expectations of poetic concision. Some translated words nail the primary meaning and the major nuances, but also import meanings not present in the original. Moreover, a translated line always fails to mimic the rhythms and sounds of the original in significant ways. Even with close-to-perfect translations, such as Richard Wilbur’s Molière translations, a determined critic can find small things to criticize.
I make translation easier for myself by sticking mostly to poets writing in the mainstreams of their traditions. In most cases I can find scholarship and data bases that help to illuminate a word’s meanings, so my biggest frustrations occur with poetry that is more experimental.
Contemporary poets often think experimental poetry began with Ezra Pound, which is untrue even in languages they view as stodgy, such as Latin. One example of experimental poetry in Latin is Martianus Capella’s fifth-century mixed prose/verse piece De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii, which provoked C.S. Lewis to complain that “the universe, which has produced the bee-orchid and giraffe, has produced nothing stranger than Martianus Capella.” A close second for strangeness would be the seventh-century work of Irish Latin poets, such as the free verse of Hisperica Famina, which intrigued James Joyce.
The poetry most resistant to translation for me is work by Rilke. That may seem odd to you because there are countless translations of Rilke’s superb German poems, but there is not much more than one workmanlike edition that translates Rilke’s hundreds of French poems.
If Rilke’s German poems are like pemmican, the dried meat densely packed with dried fruit that sustained Native Americans while traveling, Rilke’s French poems are like chiffons—sweet, airy and lacking the nutrition of pemmican. Off and on over twenty years I tried to translate these brief, densely rhymed poems, with only one arguable “success.”
One problem is that Rilke’s poems in French often use much shorter lines than most of his German poetry, so there is little flexibility to manipulate syntax to capture rhymes. A subtler problem is that Rilke felt liberated by moving from German to French, and he used his second language to try linguistic experiments that are hard to render with any precision in English.
A small example of this issue occurs in the sixth poem of a sequence called Les Quatrains Valaisans (The Valaisian Quatrains) where Rilke is playing with the kind of synesthesia pioneered by Rimbaud:
Pays dont les eaux sont presque les seules nouvelles,
toutes ces eaux qui se donnent,
mettant partout la clarté de leurs voyelles
entre tes dures consonnes!
Here are two “literal” translations:
Country, where all about the only news is water,
all this water giving itself,
leaving the light of its vowels everywhere
between your hard consonants. (Poulin, Jr. trans.)
Countryside whose waters are the only news,
all these waters that are merging,
placing everywhere the brilliance of their vowels
between your hard consonants. (Juster trans.)
Poulin’s hyperliteral translation of “se donnent” as “giving itself” is a basic error—it as if someone translated the English phrase “the project blew up in his face” as a physical, disfiguring explosion. It also deprives the reader of the image that sets up Rilke’s synesthetic description of the confluence of rivers making noise and reflecting light.
With the second line of the quatrain straightened out, a translator can focus on the key word clarté in the third line. Poulin’s “light” is not wrong—it is the primary definition given by my Larousse dictionary—but it falls far short of the intensity that Rilke’s word conveys. It is tempting to choose a secondary definition that shares a Latin root with the French noun, but “clearness” and “clarity” would give the image too much of a sense of resolution—if it has clarity, the vision is complete, but completion conflicts with the trope of constantly churning water. “Brilliance” is better because it both captures the image of light and suggests insight, but it also suggests self-generated light and thus clashes with the water trope.
Space constrains me from explaining further while I am unhappy with my best solution so far for clarté, and I haven’t even begun to wrestle with the rhythm and rhyme of Rilke’s quatrain.
When Wind Becomes Wish Becomes Wind
Such read the handwritten first draft of my English translation of “Namu Gureum Baram,” by South Korean poet Lee Jenny. 나무 (namu) is tree; 구름 (gureum) is cloud. Simple enough! But 바람 (baram) had me stumped. The internet may have no shortage of listicles and TikToks and Twitter threads exotifying “untranslatable” words from other languages, but when I translate poems by Lee Jenny, it is always the simplest of words that catch me off guard.
In Korean, baram can be a homonym for both “wind” and “wish.” Usually, context makes it simple to tell which of the two meanings apply, but in poetry like Lee’s, which paints the physical alongside the metaphysical and abounds with unusual imagery and startling metaphors, context doesn’t always clarify—and sometimes, that’s even the point.
In “Namu Gureum Baram” the word baram shifts between meaning “wind” in some lines and “wish” in others. In some cases, my interpretation based on the surrounding context of the word and the grammatical construction of the line did seem to make it clear which of the two was meant:
The shade of trees simply shifted, as if swaying with the wind, diffusing with a cloud.
Tree, cloud, and baram make their way into this line early in the poem. The motion of swaying and other physical, nature-focused imagery made me lean toward reading baram as “wind,” though in the broader context of the poem, “swaying with a wish” did not seem unreasonable either.
Then, things seem to get trickier:
The wind does not give advice or interfere. The wind does not help anything. Unsupported, unconscious, it helps all things. From here to there, flower pollen blows. A black plastic bag flies.
My wish was to become a tree.
The first two sentences personify baram. Alone, they do not offer clues as to whether this is “wind” or “wish,” but the flight of the pollen and plastic bag clued me into this likely meaning “wind.”
Interestingly, these lines were immediately followed by the other baram. Here, I was momentarily disoriented; the grammar of this line suggested to me that this was probably “my wish.” But could it also be read as, “My wind was to become a tree”?
I revisited that question, and then every single other instance of the word baram in the poem, once I came to these lines:
The cloud’s baram was to become a tree.
The tree’s baram was to become a cloud.
The baram’s baram was to become a baram.
If there’s a note of hesitancy in my writing now, it is because of the last line. The Korean structure of these lines is fairly simple. If I followed what I thought was the most natural meaning of baram, given the particular sentence structure of those lines in Korean, the second baram was probably “wish.” But even then, there were four options for the third line:
- The wind’s wish was to become a wish.
- The wind’s wish was to become a wind.
- The wish’s wish was to become a wind.
- The wish’s wish was to become a wish.
Given that you don’t typically become something that you already are, maybe options 2 and 4 were less likely than 1 or 3. Right?
One of the many things that translating over forty poems by Lee Jenny has taught me is that her work challenges the meaning that we, as speakers of language, attach to words in the first place. Lee seems to ask, what does it mean to strip a word down to its naked sound, to unburden it from its nuances and connotations and part of speech? What if, freed, the word can then absorb other meanings entirely? The options for the third line expanded in my mind, as I substituted “wind” for the second baram.
I’m conscious of the fact that, in Korean, I wouldn’t have to choose between different words. In any given line, baram might carry both meanings, neither meaning, or a single meaning simultaneously, shifting and changing like wind itself between readings. The very act of choosing to translate baram as “wind” or “wish,” at the exclusion of the other, feels like it reduces the expansiveness of this poem. But I’m lucky also that “wind” and “wish” are at least sonically and visually similar in English, for it allows me to preserve even just a little bit of that kaleidoscopic nature of this poem. Because that was the point of the poem all along—not to elucidate one correct meaning, but to allow space for every meaning. To allow a wind to become a wish to become a wind.
Letting Some Words Remain Secret
In early 2021, Fordham University Press published my translation of Anne Dufourmantelle’s In Defense of Secrets. A psychoanalyst and philosopher perhaps best known for her work on risk, Dufourmantelle had drowned in 2017 while attempting to rescue two children from the ocean. All my previous translations were by living authors, and In Defense of Secrets made me nervous for two reasons: first because I’m not a psychoanalyst, and second because I couldn’t speak to Dufourmantelle, ask her questions, or receive her blessing for the liberties that are necessary for any translation. In Defense of Secrets is a knotty book, and my impossible key term quickly emerged: Dufourmantelle frequently plays on the French phrase “au secret,” which means both “secret, in secret” and “in solitary confinement.” I stomped around muttering about it for weeks and weeks. I asked everyone I could think of, but no one helped. I might still be wrong, but I really don’t think there’s any economical way in English to say something that means “secret” and implies anything carceral at once.
I opted in the end for what seemed like the best solution: the first time the term appeared in the text, I explained the French double meaning of “au secret.” For subsequent appearances, I left the term untranslated, in French. But it began to seem to me that this wasn’t just strategy—that it was intimately related to the theory of the secret that Dufourmantelle elaborates. For Dufourmantelle, secrets are not there to be cracked, solved, or shared. Instead, they exist embedded within us, a source of power and growth, treasures that we can protect or that others can help us protect. What if, instead of thinking about what is “lost” in translation, or what is “impossible” to translate, we think about what remains secret in translation—what, in this case, was doubly reinforced by the ultimate seal of secrecy that was Dufourmantelle’s death? There is, I think, an ethics to letting some words remain secret, untranslated, whole in their contexts and languages. In these cases, the translator’s task is to protect and to treasure such secrets.
Santiago Artozqui is a writer and translator living just outside of Paris, France. He has translated some sixty books from English and Spanish into French. He was president of ATLAS, an organisation for the promotion of literary translation, and in 2016, he co-founded the online literary journal En attendant Nadeau and became its publishing director. He is also a member of the Outranspo (L’Ouvroir de Translation Potencial), a literary group dedicated to creative translation. His many translations include books by R. L. Stevenson, Maya Angelou, Roxane Gay, and Matthew Baker.
David Bellos is Meredith Howland Pyne Professor of French and Comparative Literature at Princeton. He has translated more than thirty books from French and is the author of biographies of Georges Perec, Jacques Tati and Romain Gary. His book about translation, Is That A Fish in Your Ear? has itself been translated into many languages, most recently Japanese, Russian and Farsi.
David Boyd is Assistant Professor of Japanese at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He has translated novels and stories by Hiroko Oyamada, Hideo Furukawa, and Toh EnJoe, among others. With Sam Bett, he is co-translating the novels of Mieko Kawakami.
Mayada Ibrahim is a New-York based translator, editor and writer, working in Arabic and English. Her translations have been published by Africa Institute (UAE), Circumference Magazine (US), Archipelago Books (US), Banipal (UK), and Willows House (South Sudan). She participated as a judge in PEN America’s Literary Translation Prize 2022.
A.M. Juster tweets about translation and formal poetry at @amjuster. His work has appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, and The Hudson Review and won the Barnstone Translation Prize. His eleventh book, a translation of Petrarch’s Canzoniere, is coming soon from W.W. Norton.
Archana Madhavan is a literary translator from Korean into English. Her first book-length work is a co-translation of Glory Hole by Kim Hyun (Seagull Books, 2022). Her other poetry and prose translations have appeared in Modern Poetry In Translation, The Columbia Journal, The Puritan, and more. In 2022, Archana was selected as the Korean poetry mentee for the ALTA Emerging Translator Mentorship Program. She resides in San Jose, California.
Lindsay Turner is the author of the poetry collections Songs & Ballads (Prelude Books, 2018) and The Upstate (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming, 2023). She has twice received French Voices awards for her translations from the French, which include books of poetry and philosophy by Stéphane Bouquet, Souleymane Bachir Diagne, Anne Dufourmantelle, Ryoko Sekiguchi, and others. She is Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.
Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, January 31, 2023