Lost in Translation

O, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive.

O, what a tangled web we weave …

This week BBC2 screened Night Train to Lisbon, the film version of Pascal Mercier’s best selling book. The film is good enough for a late night slot on terrestrial TV but would have disappointed in the cinema.  Nevertheless, it was sufficiently thought-provoking that I was tempted to buy the book – it is primarily about an abrupt impulse to leave an old life behind and start a new one.  The catalyst for the unfolding events is a fictional book, A Goldsmith of Words; it contains some wonderful quotes:

We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place. We stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there.

I decided against buying the book when I read this review – The translation, though, is lumpy and seems to rob the prose of the lyricism I’m sure is there.  The quote from A Goldsmith of Words gives some hint of this – the repetition of ‘leave’ in the first sentence, the superfluous ‘there’ at its end.  Something has indeed been lost in translation.

All of which puts me in mind of something I left out of Golf in the Wild.  Firstly I considered it too self-indulgent and secondly one of my editors was not entirely convinced by the distinction between the use of ‘will’ and ‘must’, something I derived from my exposure to IT procurement projects 😰 :

Whatever you do, wherever you are,
Even when you can’t see me
You must never renounce me.
The curse from the film Regreso a Moira

Words are intensely important and the use of grammar to ensure precise understanding is ignored at our peril. The quote from the Spanish film at the introduction to this chapter is a case in point. The English subtitles substitute the word “must” for “will” thus diluting the curse to an observation. For English speaking audiences, it undermines the entire structure of the film …

…  This is my turning point. I received a phone call  inviting me for an interview on the understanding that I would be able to start work in ten days. My immediate reaction was despair; I was on four weeks’ notice with my current employer so the telephone conversation ended. It was the strong-willed, freckle-faced force of nature who made me call back, assuring me there was nothing they could do if I just left, and, regardless of the consequences “you will always have me”. And so began my forty with computers, none of them better than those first few years operating large machines. Those five words, “you will always have me”, haunt me. They may have been a curse; possibly I misheard, maybe the will was a must

The following evening I watched Danny Collins, 106 minutes of redemptive hokum only partially saved by Al Pacino.  Again, there is something more interesting at its heart. The story is remotely based on a real event – a lost letter from John Lennon to a young musician on the threshold of fame and fortune.  It took 34 years to arrive at its intended recipient – Steve Tilston:

... when first we practise to deceive.

… when first we practise to deceive.


  1. LaVagabonde · March 29, 2016

    I’ve often wondered, while reading a translation of a foreign novel, how much I’m losing of the original spirit. I’ve tested this with French novels translated into English. There’s a cultural element that is always lost.

    • Sue · March 29, 2016

      I agree with you!

    • northumbrianlight · March 29, 2016

      I am sure that is right Julie but being English, and therefore ill-disposed (lazy) towards foreign languages, I have no way of finding out 😜

  2. Sue · March 29, 2016

    Night Train would have been most disappointing in the cinema – I found it rather lame on TV, but nonetheless there was something about it…..

    • northumbrianlight · March 29, 2016

      It would, Sue – basically it lacked dramatic tension – unlike The Night Manager which was gripping, almost harrowing 😨

      • Sue · March 29, 2016

        It certainly lacked dramatic tension, and I. felt it was a bit juvenile at times…but there was a wistfulness about it which did appeal

  3. Pit · March 29, 2016

    I’ve always been wondering about what is lost in translation, too, as all translatio is, at the same moment, interpretation, too, and there’s always a difference in the connotations and the social context of the words in the original and in the translation. I realized that very clearly, when I read the German and the English versions of the novel “Rode Orm”, originally published in Swedish. They are absolutely different in tone, the German one funny and ironic, the English one serious and wooden. I’d dearly love to be able to read the original in Swedish.

    • northumbrianlight · March 29, 2016

      Hi Pit – always good to hear from you – trust all is well and thanks for the many RTs on Twitter. Another problem that I have had first hand experience of is instantaneous interpretation in EU meetings. Carefully constructed and succinct interventions were invariably mangled by the interpreters – that is the only conclusion I can come to judging by the responses they provoked 😉 Someone with malicious intent could have a great deal of ‘fun’ in that job.

      • Pit · March 30, 2016

        Hmmm, I have never thought of that aspect.

  4. Cate Franklyn · March 29, 2016

    I tend to look for a word that sums up what I saw or did rather than give explanations. Thank goodness for Google translate. I use it a lot. 🙂

    • northumbrianlight · March 30, 2016

      I am always surprised by Google’s translation capabilities but, of course, I have no way of knowing if it’s right 😀

  5. restlessjo · March 30, 2016

    I watched the last half of Night train… and all of The Night Manager (final part, but none of the series 😦 ). My daughter’s choices. I was trying to keep up with the blog, but I enjoyed all that I saw. It was a good Easter. 🙂

    • northumbrianlight · March 30, 2016

      Glad you had a good Easter, Jo – I really would recommend seeing all of the Night Manager on catch-up.

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