Book review, equivalences, untranslateables

The New York Time Book Review recently featured a discussion of a novel by Flemish author Stefan Hertmans. While the headline indicates that this is a “Flemish novel”, the author is later described as a speaker of Dutch, which is true but doesn’t attempt to unpack the cultural or linguistic relationship of the Flemish dialect to the larger Dutch speaking world. The text that precedes the article includes the author, the price, and the name of the translator–like price it is treated as a simple and self-explanatory description. Perhaps nothing more than the credits at the end of a movie.

There is a mention in the review of the translator but it is mostly a statement of binary competence: “David McKay, meanwhile, provides an artful translation of the book into English.” It seems that this is really all the reviewer could have to say about the act of translation; either it accomplished some utilitarian goal or it does not. Also absent is any consideration of why the reviewer believes the translation to be artful. There is no indication that he speaks Flemish (or Dutch) or that he is familiar with the source text. The goal of translation in this case then is revealed to hinge entirely on the final product in the target language. The translation is artful if the text itself is–a dubious conflation.

Like most NYT reviews this one is filled with quotes and analysis that relies on at least some level of close reading to demonstrate the verbal mastery of the author. These kinds of claims about translated works are always the ones that most bother me. As a literary critic, I am trained to have a certain degree of scrutiny about what close reading can and cannot explain or reveal–to lack that skepticism even after the distortion of translation and to credit the verbal mastery to the source text author is a possible correct, but entirely baseless exercise.



There is pretty large similarity between (both in meaning and in the sense that they are cognates) German and English when it comes to a lot of common nouns such family members (Vater/Father), food/drink (Bier/Beer) etc. Such cognates can, of course, serve as false friends. When I was in California a few years ago I can across a German themed souvenir shop called the “Gift Haus”, which would seem to have some interesting implications.


  1. Doch (German) – used as a single word contradiction to a negative statement. e.g. That’s not true/ Doch! which in English would be something along the lines of “But (actually) it is!”
  2. Clitics are unstressed function words that exist in some languages (e.g. question particles, certain pronominal or possessive forms). Because they are unstressed there can be different ordering depending on phonological rules of a language/dialect. Within BCS (Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian) clitic ordering can have strong class based implications that would be rather difficult to translate in any direct way.
  3. Schadenfreude/Zeitgeist- These words might be examples of an approach to untranslatable words: simply steal them!
  4. Konjunitv I for use with indirect discourse in German, which essentially allows one to place a certain distance between a repeated claim and ones belief in its veracity. There are ways to do this in English but almost invariably require expansion and/or awkward circumlocution.


Discussion Question 8/30 – The problems with claiming radical differences in language

The introduction of the second chapter quotes Mary Snell-Horby arguing against equivalence as presenting “an  illusion of symmetry between languages which hardly exists beyond the level of vague approximations and which distorts the basic problems of translation”. While there is an important point here, it seems like there is a risk that we take it too far. There is the implication of a gaping chasm between languages that I’m not sure meshes with reality–at least in some cases. Languages are not internally uniform and they act as continuums of dialects that can often bleed into and out of neighboring languages both within and between language families. The presence of Sprachbunds containing unrelated languages shows that there are not walls between one language and the next that neatly keep them apart.

How do we navigate this shifting continuum while also taking seriously the massive difference between certain languages? Do we risk exoticizing certain languages(and the cultures in which they are spoken) when we fight too strongly against the case for equivalence?

Notes on Pym + Equivalence 8/30

Ch. 1

The foregrounding the ubiquity of theory seems important to me; it is made clear from the beginning of the first chapter that theory is not just self-indulgent chin stroking (though surely there is some of that too), but rather it is implicit in the act of translation itself. Any decision (and a translator makes many) is always based on some theory–however coherent or explicit–that justifies the choice over others (clarity, fidelity, client preference, deadlines, etc.).

Also interesting that Pym unpack whether knowing about theory (in an explicit sense) has practical benefits. It is noted that certain problems that are novel might benefit from theory insofar as it can help inform creative solutions. I am somewhat skeptical of this claim. It seems to me that theoretical frameworks may result in the over-fitting of novel problems into pre-existing worldviews.

Ch. 2

The discussion of natural equivalence is refreshingly sympathetic. While there are obviously major issues with it, it a little too easy to bat away with quotes like the one from Mary Snell-Hornby without giving serious consideration to why it was so popular in the first place. When encountering paradigms with such a number of adherents, it makes sense–at least initially–to assume that all those people are not so unbelievably stupid so as to ignored all of its shortcomings for no reason. They may still, of course, be in the wrong, but it is likely that there is some practical benefit that made such a viewpoint attractive in the first place.

The discussions of structuralism and Sapir-Wolf is always one–that as someone with a Chomskian background–I find tiresome. It conflates language (i.e. syntax, vocabulary etc.) with culture and does not even attempt to unpack the difference. Is it really more likely that words or concepts absent in one language lead to their absence in the culture or the other way around? While there is a little of both in different cases, the discussion of how language shapes our thought often gives too much credit to theories of cognition and culture that are entirely linguistic. The reason–such theories would predict if taken to their logical conclusion–that uncontacted tribes in the Amazon basin lack electricity, modern medicine, and internal combustion engines is because their language lacks words for them and therefore they are unable to even imagine (and then create) such things. Perhaps a little harsh, but I think the point stands. There is a need to militate against linguistic determinism while at the same time not flattening languages to a system of entirely interchangeable parts.


Equivalence Entry

As I read I am struck by the feeling that the need for sub-definitions and genera of equivalence begins to bleed to the term of its usefulness. It seems that the discussion around equivalence is incredibly important as it touches on some of the most fundamental questions about language and translation, but is there really any practical import to the stance either for or against equivalence? It seems that trying to considering how certain practical problems are negotiated around the idea of equivalence is perhaps more productive than weighty philosophical ideas (e.g. those expressed in the quote from Mary Snell-Hornby in Pym).