Went last night to the excellent ‘Sappho in the City’; came home to a pile of catch-up editing for Wikipedia.*
In an odd coincidence, translation was at the heart of both these activities. (Even if Josephine Balmer’s translation of Sappho from the Aeolic Greek is to my bashing out a Wikipedia summary of a modern Italian biography of Alessandra Vaccaro, as a Grand National winner is to an end-of- season seaside donkey. Sigh.)
When languages are as old as Sappho, so few now comprehend them that translations are vital if such ancient words are to speak.** So there is some irony in finding that they actually can’t do that without a great deal of help. A translator (as Balmer more eloquently explained) must puzzle at meaning when a single word can itself be the basis of its dictionary definition. Not to mention the sensory effects of a language – metre, phoneticism, word order, even its very mouth-feel – that cannot all cross the divide.
Even the simplest aim of reproducing the text in another language requires originality, creation.
Dealing in more workaday fashion with modern languages, this can seem less important. “Run the thing through Google, you’ll basically be there” is a common (British) attitude. Except that by pruning language to its barest meaning you lose an awful lot more than linguistic effect.
Only the simplest of words mean exactly the same thing in different languages – as you can see when languages borrow the words they find that they lack. Think schadenfreude, bella figura, volte face. Once you can use a different language to think with, you have a means of thinking about things differently. (As well as it seeming a pleasure we should pack up as being too expansively self-indulgent for austerity.)
*If I don’t set myself deadlines, nobody else will.
**Strictly, sing. It’s lyric poetry after all. But don’t we listen more to speakers than singers now?