Pro Bozo Publico & Other Bilingual Tales: Translation

Skip the B.S.

By Skip Eisiminger 

“If she’s beautiful, she’s unfaithful; if she’s faithful, she’s ugly.”—Voltaire

“A perfect translation is impossible; yet absolutely necessary.”Anonymous 

CLEMSON South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—3/5/12—Cervantes compared the translation of a classic work to the back side of a tapestry: pale, dusty and knotted.

Indeed, the difference between the original and the imitation may be as striking as “toadstool” and “Mr. Toad’s stool.” I recall observing a foreign tourist at a Pizza Hut who wanted mushrooms on his pie. Unable to recall the English word for the topping he desired, he took out his pocket Hexaglot, struck a few keys, and asked the counter clerk for “a medium, thin-crust pizza with fungi.” Chuckling at the end of the line, I was reminded of Evelyn Waugh’s observation, “No man who knows more than one language can express himself memorably in any.”

Moses’s horns, their meaning waylaid in translation.
Moses’s horns, their meaning waylaid in translation.

A single-panel cartoon by Mark O’Donnell in Spy Magazine captured some of Waugh’s sentiments. In a characterless café, a translator is having a drink with a writer whose back is turned. Says the translator, “Do you not be happy with me as the translator of the books of you?”

Married to a German woman for 49 years, I have acquired some modest experience translating from one language to another. I also have 42 years’ experience teaching native English speakers how to communicate in Standard Written English. Far too often, the latter practice is like teaching Pashtun to pumpkins. Prodding 18-year old students with a passable command of the colloquial to a level of English that will make them employable, I have come to appreciate the difficulties of preserving the rhythms, humor, and connotative complexity of the speech they bring to the classroom. Often, however, much is lost in the “translation” of the students, the result of which is ignorance in two “languages.

Frankly, the majority of Americans do not need a second language; they need a finer control of the one they absorbed through osmosis. As Emerson reportedly said, “Why should I swim the Charles River when there’s a bridge?”

Or, as I used to say when studying Latin in high school, “Why am I wasting my time parsing verbs when there are translations of Cicero in the library?” Frankly, I believe there’s more to be gained from reading those translations than learning the correct usage of amas and amat. Winston Churchill, incidentally, agreed with me, and he won the Nobel Prize for Literature (as well as a world war). Yes, there’s a certain mental discipline gained from studying Latin and calculus, but the majority of students I’ve taught will find English and business math, which have their own disciplines, more useful and satisfying.

At the risk of sounding like a snob, let me tell you of an encounter with the Catholic custodian who used to clean the offices and classrooms in the building where I once taught. A parochial school graduate with a semester of Spanish, Philip was, nevertheless, a man of suboptimal intelligence, but he had the street smarts needed to hold a job when others were collecting welfare. One day, with a few minutes to kill before class, I saw him mopping the hall outside my office near the men’s room. Seeking to engage him in some friendly banter, I said, “Hey, Philip. I see you have a new sign.”

“No, I’ve been using this yellow-plastic thingy for a couple of months.”

“I’m surprised I never noticed it because this one is interesting,” I said brightly. “See, it says ‘closed’ in German, French, Spanish, and English.”

“I reckon English is plenty for me,” Philip said, “but on the floors below, the kids might could use these other words.

“You mean in the Language Department?”


“Well, if some ignoramus doesn’t understand these,” I noted, “there’s this open-hand symbol here.”

“What’s the hand mean?”


If I’d worked a physically demanding job or jobs like Philip for 40 years, I probably wouldn’t know that geschlossen means “closed” in German, either. Frankly, I was just guessing at the Spanish, but I didn’t tell Philip that—I was too embarrassed by the horse-Protestant way I’d treated him.

As long as there are six languages spoken at the United Nations, eleven in the European Union, and 7,358 across the globe, there will be translators, for they are useful. With a decent translation of the Old Testament, Michelangelo would not have carved horns on Moses’s head. With a translator who understood the subtleties of the Japanese word mokusatsu, President Truman may never have ordered atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And, if we ever get a Qur’an with “72 virgins” translated as “72 white raisins,” we may find fewer young men willing to blow themselves up in a Jerusalem marketplace.

Where, I often wonder when our president is abroad, is St. Jerome’s lion to sic on errant translators? Where was a good State Department interpreter when Jimmy Carter said, “I to want to know the Polish people carnally,” or when John Kennedy announced in Berlin that he was a “jelly doughnut”? The problem often lies with consecutive translation. Instead of waiting for a speaker to finish a statement and letting a translator read a consensus, the underpaid assistant often begins work on a sentence before the speaker has reached the verb nestled at the end. Needless to say, this practice is often dangerous, but it happens almost every day at the UN.

Translating any oral text is a bit like Telephone, the party game in which the message spoken at the end seldom resembles the whispered input. Perhaps no translation is more controversial than the English Bible which has roots in Hebrew, Aramaic, and pidgin Greek, two of which are no longer spoken by anyone except a few specialists.

Depending upon the scholar you read, the Bible was orally transmitted for one hundred to a thousand years. Serious readers of the Bible, therefore, should take the approach that the Rev. Franklin Graham reportedly took with President George W. Bush. When Bush asked the minister about the off chance of the meek inheriting the earth, Graham assured the President that the famed beatitude is a mistranslation. Indeed, if meek is understood as “humbly self-confident,” the prophecy has already come true in much of the world. Bible Gateway, an on-line comparison of 22 English translations, reveals that we really don’t know how to translate meek because it has been rendered variously as “gentle,” “content,” “mild,” “patient,” “long-suffering,” “humble,” “mournful,” and “trusting.” No one translates meek as “submissive,” but I’d be willing to bet that’s the way most Americans such as “W” understand it.

Unless a life is at stake and despite all I’ve said above, I would change little in the majority of inept translations and writings of those whose first language is not English. I realized this recently while reading through some old letters from a former student, who has returned to her native Taiwan to teach art.

In 1994, Echo (yes, Echo) wrote to say that she was considering returning to The States to study English in “the Collage of Literal Arts.” A pregnancy and her father’s illness, however, changed those plans and, in 1995, she wrote fondly of the “Humanity” class she took from me. At Christmas in 2002, she wrote “for the great season and Holy Day.” She closed her card by stating: “Time is flying, and my life space is so limited. Few words but represent our deepest mind.”

I wouldn’t change a syllable.

Comments Off on Pro Bozo Publico & Other Bilingual Tales: Translation

Dr. Sterling (“Skip”) Eisiminger was born in Washington DC in 1941. The son of an Army officer, he traveled widely but often reluctantly with his family in the United States and Europe. After finishing a master’s degree at Auburn and taking a job at Clemson University in 1968, he promised himself that he would put down some deep roots. These roots now reach back through fifty years of Carolina clay. In 1974, Eisiminger received a Ph.D. from the University of South Carolina, where poet James Dickey “guided” his creative dissertation. His publications include Non-Prescription Medicine (poems), The Pleasures of Language: From Acropox to Word Clay (essays), Omi and the Christmas Candles (a children’s book), and Wordspinner (word games). He is married to the former Ingrid (“Omi”) Barmwater, a native of Germany, and is the proud father of a son, Shane, a daughter, Anja, and grandfather to four grandchildren, Edgar, Sterling, Spencer, and Lena. (Author Head Shot Augment: René Laanen.)