LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Pinocchio: Lost in Translation?

on February 7, 2013 2:58pm

In this week’s class, the reading of Pinocchio brought up a discussion of translations of literature, and of the problems that arise therein. I think that this issue is an incredibly important and complex one, and that so some degree, it is under-considered – especially in the Children’s Lit canon. While there are some obvious issues that present themselves  (for example, the shark or whale debate in Pinocchio), other, less tangible meanings are “lost in translation.”



One of the things that I think is the most important to talk about in this discussion and one of the most difficult to quantify is the subtle connotations and cultural affixations of words that, necessarily, are lost when a work is translated. Even for bilingual individuals, who have an intricate understanding of both languages, conveying the meaning of a word from one language to the next is often difficult or even impossible. By extension, even a translator fluent in both the language of the original text and the language of the translation will have to make some linguistic sacrifices.

Another translational issue that often arises in literature is the loss of word play and other poetic devices. If, for example, an author has used alliteration, it is likely very difficult for that alliteration to be replicated post-translation. Puns are similarly difficult to translate, because homonyms and spelling differ, of course, from language to language. While these discrepancies do not generally alter the story or plot, they do change the tone of the text – and often the perceived intention of the author as well.

In Pinocchio, many of these translation problems are revealed and implemented. Although I am not fluent in Italian, I am certain that a person who was would read the original text and the English translation as somewhat discrepant from one another. While it is likely that these issues are not tremendously problematic for the overall story, as literature scholars we must consider them with the gravity that they deserve.Image


One response to “Pinocchio: Lost in Translation?

  1. bkfining says:

    I agree that translation of literature is often an overlooked issue. Language serves two main functions; it serves as a means of communication, or a communicative function, and as a means of showing one’s thoughts and ideas, or an expressive function. This dichotomy of function is especially relevant in regards to fiction writing. While summaries of two texts written in different languages would largely convey the same storyline, much of the effect of the full text is lost if directly translated. As you mentioned, literary rhetoric is often affected by translation. These inevitable stylistic modifications can change the mood, rhythm, and tone of the original piece, though the storylines of the two may still match. Keeping this in mind, it becomes clear that translation has the potential of taking the language presented in a literary text and decreasing it’s functionality by 50% (when looking at the issue in a quantifiable manner), as many cultural and stylistic nuances become lost when translation occurs. It is important to note, though, that while the issue of translation of literature is often disregarded, measures are taken to maintain the quality and style of literary works in their original language. Informative texts place their focus on the ideas presented with words, while literary texts can largely be considered art and focus more on the “images” expressed by the arrangement of the author’s words. While informative texts are translated with the determinative point being term-equivalence, works of literature are translated using adequate substitution instead of direct translation in attempts to maintain the original “image” the author was attempting to portray. While I do think it is important to recognize that different techniques are being employed in the translation of literary texts, I still agree that this issue is one of note and that the best way to read a literary work (if possible) is in its original language.

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