Reading in Translation

Yesterday a few girlfriends and I went to see the movie “Eat Pray Love,” starring Julia Roberts and based on the book by Elizabeth Gilbert.  I wanted to see the movie, having read the book, and it was motivated to arrange a girls’ day out.

But the real impetus behind my interest was a conversation I had with a good friend a few weeks ago.  My friend is Korean, born in Seoul, but moved to Japan with her family in her mid-teens.  She went to International School in Tokyo, but then went to Boston University in Boston Massachusetts for her university education.  She speaks Korean, Japanese and English with equal fluidity, which never fails to amaze me.  On that particular afternoon when we were having coffee together, she was just finishing reading the book Eat Pray Love with the idea that she would then go see the movie.

“So in what language do you read?” I asked curiously.

My friend went on to explain that she was reading the book in its original English.  When I inquired as to why, she told me it was cultural.  She of course, went on to explain.  She began with Richard from Texas in the book.  There’s a certain cultural connotation of a guy from Texas that somehow doesn’t quite mesh with the idea of an Ashram in India where Gilbert meets him.  There’s a richness to their relationship that forms partially due to their backgrounds as Americans in a strange place.  But Americans understand that part of their dichotomy is because she’s a New Yorker and he’s a Texan.  There are certain societal norms inherent in the stereotype of the locations that my friend did not feel could be conveyed in another language.  “Sure there could be a word-for-word translation,” she said, “but how could someone explain the idea of Texas just with the word Texas?”  She felt the English would be true to the sense of the book, not just the words contained therein.

Yesterday, after the movie, the seven of us went to the Atelier Joel Robuchon for a beautiful French lunch.  “Now all we need to do is pray,” another friend said over appetizers, and we had a good laugh.

The conversation continued about the translation.  My friend explained that she reads the Japanese subtitles even while watching the movie in English.  The words just aren’t the same, according to her.  In many of the places when we all laughed, the joke was not carried over into Japanese.  She says that the Japanese are generally pretty placid movie-goers, but beyond their native reserve, the language barrier further separates them from the humor of the film, and sometimes even the sad parts.  I cried quite a bit during the movie, and my friend was sure that the Japanese audience members did not.

What’s the lesson in all this?  Well, frankly, one should read in the original language of publication, if at all possible, but not only for the words, but also for the richness of the cultural connotation.  It’s the author intent that has so much to do with making meaning.

But to be honest, another lesson is that a book, a movie and a lunch – including interesting discussion – between friends, is a great gift to any woman, and I for one, appreciate my girlfriends.

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