Losing Angela in translation

February 5, 2010 § Leave a comment

My latest Europhrenia blog at presseurop.eu

When presseurop.eu was launched in May last year, one of its guiding mottos was Umberto Eco’s “The future of Europe is translation.” But quite frequently I’m inclined to think that sometimes the future of Europe is lost in translation. I recently checked a statement by Angela Merkel concerning the CD-rom nabbed by HSBC supergrass Falciani containing data on Germans who have siphoned off their money to Switzerland in order to avoid taxes back home. This has created a hole in the German treasury of some €200million, but in order to get the data, the German governement has to cough up €2.5million. While some wring their hands as whether it’s right to chase up tax evaders by paying a thief, the French language press widely relayed Merkel’s statement on the matter as “Il faut tout entreprendre pour obtenir ces données” i.e. Everything must be done to obtain this data.However, if you look at the original German statement, “Vom Ziel her sollten wir, wenn diese Daten relevant sind, auch in den Besitz dieser Daten kommen“, you realise she didn’t quite say that. In transliterated English this goes – “An objective should be aimed at, if this data is relevant, then we should take property of the data”. Ok, German syntax is complex, but nevertheless this is a typically Merkelian clunker, grey as dishwater, dry as dust, that plods around the subject until it sort of dies of boredom. Now contrast this with the zippy French rendering of the statement and actually it seems as if it got an edit from the hyperactive Nicolas Sarkozy, who says “must” every time he opens his mouth.

But what’s good translation? On the literary front, having recently dipped into the new Penguin version of the Arabian nights, I’m more and more frustrated by this very contemporary quest for ultimate precision. The editors are keen to bury the definitive Burton translation, full as they say of “mistakes” and “archaisms”, but so far I’ve been less than thrilled to come across words like “managers” and “skills” and even the adolescent “kind of”. They sound much more like 21st century Angela Merkel than 12th century Bagdad. Which gets me thinking, to twist Nietzsche to some foul ends, that it might be better if accuracy perish rather than life. When Merkel is translated with a bit of fantasy, we listen up. We only need now enliven the Union entire by translating Van Rompuy, Barroso et al as if they all weren’t trying to make us fall asleep.


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