Lost (and gained) in translation

To say that culture advances through translations means that the distant fertilizes the local. This is enriched by that. It is a way of enlarging the circle and expanding the area. In agricultural terms, it’s like growing non-native varieties in local soil.

Translating is carrying (-latus in Latin means that which has been carried) something across (trans). It is the most basic type of cultural communication and the basis of all others.

When language is carried across systems, culture always follows in its wake. Translation is more than converting language currency. It is about keeping the cultural change. The commission is high, so we should keep translating.

In Europe, the first translations were made possible by cultural exportation. The Semitic alphabet spread out around the Mediterranean, first by the Phoenicians, then by the Greeks, Etruscans and Romans, providing the basis for the first translation waves: Hebrew into Greek and Greek into Latin.

Translation is a cosmopolitan phenomenon. It is urban. The first hubs of translation were important urban centres: Alexandria, Rome, Toledo.

Translating is like agriculture. Bringing a non-native plant to the local soil has the effect of transforming both the native landscape and the incoming species. What may look like a loss to the work translated from is likely to be a gain for what has been translated into. The ancient Greek works translated into Latin as well as the ancient Roman imitation of Greece, which was also an effect of translation, meant that Latin literature, philosophy and culture was significantly enriched. The Arabic texts translated into Latin in the Middle Ages were also the gain of the West, despite the fact that most of these translations missed important points from the original. The loss in translation was the gain in culture.

It is always better to access the original, rather than the translation. But it is always better to translate as much as possible, rather than to rely on access to the original. That is because the greatest impact comes not from direct – and necessarily limited – engagement with originals, but through accessible, sweeping translations. The latter have a considerably higher probability of fertilising other areas and bringing significant value to culture.

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