Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Transportive Power of Language

I felt rather restless last night - close to midnight, it was too early to go to bed, but too late to start a movie; I was too tired to write, but eager to enjoy a satisfying turn of the language.

I stood in front of my bookcase, as I often do (there is no other way - it is five feet wide, floor to ceiling) searching for that pull.  When it came, I reached for my worn copy of Legy Jo Mindhalalig by Moricz Zsigmond.  I realize that most won't know of him, a major Hungarian novelist who lived from the late 19th century until the mid-20th, with the 1996 translation of his novel (Be Faithful Unto Death), as far as I know, being the only one into English.  The story is of an eleven-year-old boy's coming of age just after the first World War (when Hungary was on the wrong side), and his struggles of adolescence captured the essential world view of Hungarians of that era (and beyond).

I have read the English version, which is really good, but it lacks that inexplicable trait I call transportive power.

It's not just this particular novel - reading in a "foreign" language I grew up with (German and Hungarian) takes me back to my childhood, word by word, page by page, recreating a world that is always there but sometimes forgotten. 

Anyone else experience this when reading an original versus a translation?


  1. “After studying the Hungarian language for years, I can confidently conclude that had Hungarian been my mother tongue, it would have been more precise. Simply because through this extraordinary, ancient and powerful language it is possible to precisely describe the tiniest differences and the most secretive tremors of emotions.” Irish noble-prize winner writer, George Bernard Shaw

  2. I'll throw sign language into the mix. The syntax and grammar are quite different than any spoken language (am most familiar with English, Spanish and Hebrew.) While not directly answering your question, I will say that once sign language is mastered by a hearing person, it opens a whole new way of thinking about language and translation. I have incredible respect for those who translate for the deaf: they often have no time to consider the "best" way to translate, but must do so in the moment.


    And on another note, I knew someone who was bilingual, Hebrew and English. She blew my mind when she expressed her opinion that Shakespeare can be successfully translated. Shakespeare's lingual art is so complex that I am not so sure I agree with her, but cannot argue well since I am not bilingual.

  3. I absolutely agree with you! I have read several books in German that are often lacking in the English version. I also feel a lot closer to the author when I read in German. I find the common language very comforting. When I read something that was translated from Spanish, I sometimes have problems with the work and contribute it to language and cultural barriers. I feel right at home when I pull out a German book.

  4. Have you read "Der Vorleser" (The Reader) by Bernhard Schlink? That book had a very heavy impact on me in English, but a much higher impact in German.

  5. Since I am bilingual (English/German), and know French well enough to read in the original, I am always keely aware of the shortcomings of a translation. I remember reading Herman Wouk's This is My God in German, and the book was so annoying in tone that I figured it must be a bad translation and ordered the English version which was a bit of a pain as I lived in Germany at the time, but sure enough, it was a completely different book in the original! Nevertheless, I am thankful to all those translators who can bring the works of the great Russian writers, for instance, into a language I can read, or I never would have been able to read Dostoyevsky, Tolstoi, or Chekhov.

  6. Awesome blog...great content.



  7. Thank you all very much for visiting and commenting!

    I had no idea that Shaw studied Hungarian - what an interesting tidbit (especially since I agree with him :-)

    I had not thought about sign language but is definitely an interesting comparison as well

    And while I'll have to make sure to pick up a copy of Der Vorleser in its original, I do also agree with Annette that a translation is a million times better than the alternative of not reading if the book is in a language one does not read/speak. Especially the Russians authors - good point.

  8. It is SO hard to read a translated novel. There are too many minor variations of the meanings of words.

    I took a French lit class in college, and read both books in English first, just to make sure I could keep up. The English was definitely lacking, because not everything translates directly.

  9. Well if you are fond of traveling and belong to an elite class then try the chauffeur services which gives you a supreme class of traveling experience and cater you with hot tea inside and many businessmen even make presentations and make communication inside the car, and it is not just a car rather it may be a limousine or Mercedes type of