Words are magical little parcels of meaning. Think about it – squiggles, arbitrary marks have come to represent single units of meaning in the English language which, strung together, make words. Words that we can pronounce because we associate meaning with those little configurations of lines. And then we go and string those words together to make sentences, sentences that convey thoughts about the things we observe, the things we like, the ideologies of our societies.
Words are magical buggers.
From the moment I discovered the nuances of the Japanese language that led me to devote over four years of my life to learning the language, I was in love. In love with the way subtle affection can be displayed by the choice of verb suki instead of aishiteru, not to mention one’s level of fluency. In love with the distinctions in respect shown to a parent or boss with particular honorifics, versus the comfortable familiarity of conversing with a friend in distal style. In love with the way that in one word, wabi-sabi, one can convey the natural aesthetic of beauty in imperfection and transience. The mere choice of words is a powerful force.
When it comes to translation, naturally, words and meaning are just as important. Conveying meaning is not the same as providing a word-for-word translation of vocabulary terms. I believe it truly is an art, an art that allows a translator to leave just as much of an impression on a work as its original author.
Not all things translate from one language to another. It certainly feels as if that’s the case between Japanese and English. It’s not enough to just render the words into one language from the other; translation requires an awareness of tone, of subtle meaning, of aesthetics and values. The very idea of love is not the same in Western novels as it is in Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. There are nuances at work, ones that hinge on society and perceptions, feelings and what is acceptable to be displayed (or not displayed).
Perhaps the essential thing to preserve in translation is the essence itself, a bit of wabi-sabi. True, there is something to be said for accuracy, but in literature, the feeling, the aesthetic, is just as magical of a piece.