Thursday, July 11, 2013

Translating and Reading

This is a quotation from this week's review book, Le Petit Prince by Antoine de St.-Exupery. As you can see... it is in French.

I am reading the book in French to do this review, but I have read it in English before. These are two very different experiences.

First, it takes longer. I have a B.A. in French, but I don't practice very much, so I've gotten pretty rusty, and even reading this children's book takes considerably more time and effort than reading it in my native tongue.

There are vocabulary words that I knew well in high school and college, but I have to think hard about (or look up) now. There are also some I may have never learned. The same goes for sentence structure (but more on that in a minute).

So, let's use this quote as our example for reading in a foreign language.

On ne voit bien qu'avec le coeur. L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.

It means, in a rough translation,

One can only see well with the heart. The essential is invisible to the eyes.

I didn't need to look up any of the words in these two sentences, but let's pretend I didn't know the word "yeux." I would go to my favorite translation dictionary and type in "yeux." I find this:

Based on the context of the rest of the sentence, I can probably guess that the first choice, "eyes," is correct. But when you're translating, you have to consider the other possibilities, and you have to think, "Could he mean spies? Or maybe he meant globules of fat? Probably not..."

It's time- and energy-consuming, but necessary in order to make sure you get the right meaning.

Another thing that can take some time is dealing with sentence structure. In French, if you want to make your verb negative ("I do not eat") you put "ne" in front of it and "pas" after it ("je ne mange pas"). To say "only" about your verb ("I only eat apples") you put "ne" in front of it and "que" after it ("je ne mange que les pommes"). Clearly this is a difference construct from English, and it can make the native-English-speaking reader think at first that the sentence is going to be negative. (I made that mistake when I first glanced at the quote, and I was confused for a second.)

Beyond taking lots of extra time, translating while reading affects understanding. First, you have to get  each word translated. Then you have to make sure they're in the right order. You also have to look for idioms or colloquial phrases you might not be familiar with, and figure them out. (For example, "avoir le cul borde des nouilles" literally means to have your butt stuffed with noodles... but to the French, it means to be lucky. Idioms!)

Once you've taken care of all of that, you can finally stand back and look at what you've translated, and then apply understanding. The quote above is quite lovely, but when you're focused up-close and detailed, you see "one" and "only" and "sees" and "well"... so on until the end of the quote. If you don't stand back after the translation is done, you just have sentences. If you do, you have deep, beautiful meaning.

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