Volume 19 | Issue 33 | December 15 - 21, 2006

The Penny Post

The hottest market

By Andrei Codrescu

Translation is the emerging market of the century. The Simultaneous Translator will soon be on the cover of Time, and it will be a… human. Machines cannot translate no matter how smart we make them. The slightest nuance of a nuance, and the machine mistranslates. In fact, the last job that only humans can accomplish is that of translation.

That said, even humans do not translate very well. Millions of people have fallen into the gaps between words and were never seen again. In my business, poetry, which is a small preserve in the vast domain of language-use, there is a high rate of casualties. Every year our academies graduate thousands of fresh faces ready to take on Baudelaire, Rilke, Pasternak, and Arghezi. Two years after graduation, you can walk through the semantic fields and count the bodies.

Even the so-called “successful” translations have to be retranslated every five years in order to capture in new language what wasn’t understood in the first place. Poetry is notoriously untranslateable, but other linguistic communications are no exception. Neither business nor the U.N. are exempt from the fallibility of translation.

Why are languages so refractory to having their meanings carried from one set of sounds to another? The answer will astonish you: languages are different precisely because they do not wish to be translated! War is not the result of mistranslation, but the consequence of language being translated against its will. Poetry, which is the delicate music of the tiniest differences, sets itself up a priori in a singular place, but all language is the story of differences. The people of the valley speak differently from the people of the mountain because: 1) the valley shapes them physically and speaks through them, and 2) they do not wish the people of the mountain to understand them. The physical being of which they are a part delights in becoming conscious of difference. The defense of that delight requires protection from other topographies. We have a tiny switch in the language brain that mandates the rapid evolution of communication in response to every outside stimulus. If the outside is changed by even one rock, language undergoes a shift. When we moved out of the countryside into the city, we started to translate each other. Mass media, the Esperanto of our age, is automatically translating every language to produce a common virtual landscape. On the one hand, translators aren’t needed in the age of mass media. On the other, the mass media dies if its language is not constantly fed linguistic differences to smash and homogenize.

Outside the media, the need for translation is greater than ever. For business to go forward, differences must be understood. The flattening Esperanto of media or bad translation does not suffice. The transfer of money and the transformation and circulation of goods are as delicate as poetry. The media itself, which is just another business, needs a pre-translation before it can create the illusion of universality.

There are several exceptions to the rule of inevitable approximation: one of them is called Ioana Avadani, the re-renderer of this text from American into Bucharestian.

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