Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Hofstadter on elevators in French and American English

The last thing in the world that translators of novels wish to do, unless they are playing special kinds of intellectual games, is to carry a work of literature across the seas and re-set it in another land and culture; nonetheless, because vast numbers of words and phrases give off subtle aromas of which one is not always aware, this can happen, at least to some extent, despite their best intentions. The most insidious problem is that every single tiny act of translation, no matter how innocent-seeming, involves some degree of transculturation. This happens even with highly universal, vanilla-flavored words, such as "house", "door", "dog", "walk", "happy", "thanks", and so forth. 
To take a concrete example, how does one say "elevator" in French? If one uses the dictionary equivalent ascenseur (and there really is no alternative, so it's a forced move), that word will tend to conjure up in the mind of a native French speaker an image formed over the course of thousands of experiences with French elevators (strictly speaking, to be self-consistent, I should have written, "with French ascenseurs"). To be sure, the images of ascenseurs that jump to a French mind have much in common with the images of elevators that jump to an American mind, but there are also many differences, as anyone who has spent any time in the two countries knows very well. 
For instance, American elevators are usually quite large and frustratingly slow. They tend to have very thick walls and very thick, multi-layered doors that, on opening, slide out of view and, often after quite a long wait, slide back shut. They are rather silent (except for beeps at every floor), they have lots of lights, and they "intelligently" or "politely" stop at intermediate floors, if someone has pushed a button there. By contrast, European elevators (especially those of a few years ago) are often small (sometimes just a couple of people can squeeze in), their manual doors swing open outwards (and often there are two sets -- one inner and one outer). They move fast and are often "dumb" or "impolite", blithely ignoring people on intermediate floors, who simply have to wait till all current passengers have disembarked. And then there are those wonderful antique elevators with cages instead of actual walls, where, as you ascend or descend, you can see the spiral staircase winding around you, and woe to anyone who sticks their finger through the iron grillwork of the cage.
The contrast between these kinds of images is enormous. Although both the American elevator and the French ascenseur serve the function of vertically transporting people, animals, suitcases, and other items in some tallish building, the "vibes" that they emanate are radically different. Therefore, if a French translation of an American novel taking place in Richland, Washington replaces the word "elevator" by the word ascenseur all three times it occurs, there will result a tiny, microscopic, almost undetectable effect of transculturation in the minds of French readers.
-- from "Translator, Trader" (pp.15-17), an essay (bound in the same volume as the author's translation from French version of Fran├žoise Sagan's novel La Chamade) which in its hundred-some chatty pages visits, considers, and retreads many of the challenges and pleasures of translation, including that familiar problem, discussed above, of transcultural references. As appears in That Mad Ache: A Novel/Translator, Trader: An Essay by Douglas Hofstadter. (See a review of the book at Three Percent.)

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