Friday, June 22, 2012

The Translation of Proverbs

Translating words is easy, you can just consult a dictionary to come up with the meaning or meanings of a word. Anybody can use a dictionary to translate separated words; it requires no special talent or gift. But the task gets more complicated as the words line up in sentences and the sentences line up to constitute pages of text. This is because words alone are just words, but when they are put together in a certain context to convey a certain message, the words gains a distinctive character, a soul, which is derived form the character and the soul of the writer.

The translator has to understand this character, to absorb this soul and to communicate with the text before tries to translate and to communicate with the target audience. This is not easy to do, since the text is a piece of the mind and the soul of the author, even if it was just a news report. The flavor of the text will most certainly differ from one author to another. If translating a text written by a single author or even multiple authors is so difficult, what would be the case when we attempt to translate a text written by a whole nation or culture with all its background and historical legacy. These texts are the proverbs. A part from philosophical texts and HVT’s, translating proverbs is a demanding task, since we are not only trying to translate words, but we are also trying to convey the same message, and to construct the translated text in the same form, be it poetic or figurative, as the original proverb.

Approaching the problem:

A given proverb constitutes a highly complex piece of text, and is usually difficult to translate. A proverb
  • is constituted in a poetic or figurative form,
  • conveys a certain message or moral value, and 
  • reflects a culture-specific trend or value.
Every proverb is made up in a way that affects every native speaker of the language and anyone that belongs to that source language culture. It is not the simple moral message that the proverb is trying to convey that concerns the listener and the translator, since sometimes we hear proverbs that we don't agree with it in whole or in part. Rather, it is the music that exists in the proverb that is difficult to convey. Even if you don’t agree with its message, you can’t help reacting to the music in its wordings. Translating a proverb lexically or even ideationally will most certainly fail to produce the same effect on the target audience. Since the native speaker of the language do not only react to the proverb message or poetic or figurative form, but also to a piece of their culture, a piece of its very soul and identity, a distinctive historical legacy. So, for an acceptable translation of a proverb, the translator should observe the following points:
  • He/She must constitute the translation in a poetic or figurative form, as the source proverb.
  • He/She must make sure that his/her translation conveys
  • the same message or moral value. 
  • He/She must reflect the cultural trend or cultural-specific figures of the target language which in equivalence to those of the source language.
  • He/She should attempt to reflect the soul, identity, and historical legacy of the target culture, as does the source : proverb.
Now consider the following examples:

Example 1: 

What goes around comes around.

Translating this proverb lexically will produce a disaster. Take a look: ما يذهب حول نفسه يعود حول نفسه 

The idea is not even clear. And this is what causes the ambiguity of some translated texts. Since the source text is very clear in its original form. But once the translator begins translating lexically the produced text comes out as a deformed, shapeless, tasteless "THING'. The translated text will not even come close to match the source text. So we got to try to translate this proverb ideation,ally. So we will just use the idea of the proverb and put it in words, so the translated proverb will look something like this: كما تفعل ، سيفعل بك 

This one is closer and the idea is clearer compared to the first attempt. But still it doesn’t produce any effect on the target audience as the source proverb did, except maybe the effect of feeling that this text is surely translated. If the target audience felt that this text is translated, then the translator didn't do his/her job well. That’s why HVTs are almost impossible to translate. If you read the Koran in any language but Arabic, you will know that this text is not in its original language, even if you are not familiar with the Koran in Arabic, or even if you don’t know that it does exist in Arabic in the first place. Who of us is familiar with the Bible in Latin? Almost no one, but when we read it in Arabic or English we get this feeling, this flavor of a translated text. So how can we translate texts, generally, and proverbs, specifically, without giving this flavour of a translated text? The answer, again, is cultural-borrowing. We must find an equivalent for the proverb in the target culture, be it a proverb in it self or a holy saying or anything that gives this musical and familiar feeling and tone of a proverb. Anything that gives the same message and yet makes the target reader feel ‘at home’.

And not finding an equivalent is not an option here. Since we are all humans, we all have, more or less, the same experiences, and we are affected by the same feelings. The translation ol earthly proverbs to an extraterrestrial language would be difficult. A reasonable translation of the English proverb "What goes around comes round” can be: {كما تدين تدان}

Which is part of a holy saying by prophet Muhammad (PBUH). As we can see this translation preserved all the points discussed earlier, and it produces an equivalent effect on the target audience. In addition, it gives the produced text a depth and a familiar flavour to the Arabic reader.

Example 2:

A tree is known by its fruit.

Translating this as: إنما تعرف الشجرة بثمارها 

gives a clear idea about the meaning of the proverb. It is a good translation that is extracted from the New Testament: It can also be translated by: من ثمارهم تعرفونهم 

Which is also another verse of the New Testament, Mathew 7:16.

Example 3:

Cleanliness is next to godliness.  النظافة أقرب شيء للتقوى

On the basis of the above discussion, it is preferable to translate this proverb as: النظافة من الإيمان 

Example 4:

Diamonds cut diamonds

But again, a more familiar translation for the Arabic readers will be: لا يفل الحديد إلا الحديد. 


No precious diamonds here, but rather cheap iron. But Ironically, this is more familiar and accepted translation to the target culture.

Example 5:

Every dog has his day
لكل كلب يومه
That might be a rather offensive proverb if translated into Arabic. But a good translation would be:

الدهر يومان: يوم لك ويوم عليك

Example 6:

God helps them who help themselves
 إنما يساعد الله أولئك الذين يساعدون أنفسهم

a good Arabic equivalent would be:

إن الله لا يغير ما بقوم حتى يغيروا ما بأنفسهم

As all the examples dearly show, translating proverbs is a hard task. The translator must be knowledgeable in the target culture to find an equivalent to the proverb. In most case, must borrow a holy saying or a famous phrase to do the job.



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