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A Question in Translation Studies - Impressions and Expressions of Ijon
April 20th, 2004
10:45 pm


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A Question in Translation Studies
A question in the theory of translation has occurred to me: some words truly do not exist in certain languages, i.e. cannot be adequately expressed in a certain foreign language, but only approximated, or dropped, or described. For instance, the Hebrew words 'davka' and 'harey' (the particle, not the genitive plural of 'mountain') have no English counterparts, and are notoriously difficult to translate. This is obvious and well-known.

Naively, in the case of a text translated from English into Hebrew, we should not expect to find a single instance of either of these two words. But as a matter of fact, such translations do include these words, of course, even if (as I guess they do) in a lesser frequency than in original Hebrew texts. My question is roughly this: what are the conditions in which a translator would choose such words in translation? What sort of constructs or expressions in the source language typically produce such choices?

I figure it's been studied already. I'm just curious.

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(10 comments | Leave a comment)

[User Picture]
Date:April 20th, 2004 08:11 pm (UTC)
qualitas ;) ?

My impression is that I would use these words in three instances:

-- when it seems as if the original text is using some kind of circumlocution to get at the idea in my language's word (often this will imply the next case as well);

-- when the syntax employed in the original is so far from what's possible in my language that I need to recast things anyway in order for them to be comprehensible, and this word turns out to be an elegant part of that recasting process;

-- when I am trying to make a text more comprehensible to readers. I find this case sketchy as it pretty much assumes that I am altering the original meaning somewhat -- recasting it in my culture's terms for the sake of getting a large understanding of an imperfect picture rather than a small understanding of a correct picture. But these sorts of lies are what most of education is about, and sometimes necessarily, so there may be cases when it's defensible, though it should be approached with utmost caution.

P.S. I'm curious what those words mean, though I understand the difficulty of your position in trying to explain them ;).
[User Picture]
Date:April 21st, 2004 06:33 am (UTC)

'Davka' and 'harey'

I'll pick up the glove, Hebrew speakers correct me if I get this wrong.

'Davka': two meanings. First, on purpose, to spite. If a kid does something just to get an angry reaction, it can be said that he did it 'davka,' or that the deed was a 'davka.' The second meaning, which is the one Ijon meant, I believe, is an emphasis, and means roughly 'surprisingly' or 'contrary to intuition'. I'll give an example: "Allthogh it's already June, this morning was davka kind of chilly" or "I didn't like him at first, but when I got to know him it turns out he was davka kind of nice."

'Harey': This wordlet connects two sentances, with the logical meaning of 'because of the following'. For example "This chimp is a smart ones, but that isn't surprising, harey we know chimps are smart" or "Remember to keep this Tuesday night free, harey you know your cousin is getting married on that day."
Date:April 21st, 2004 05:19 pm (UTC)

Re: 'Davka' and 'harey'

In those cases of 'Harey', "for" seems to be an exact English translation.
[User Picture]
Date:April 23rd, 2004 03:23 pm (UTC)

Re: 'Davka' and 'harey'

'Harey' has the additional meaning "because we all know that...", assuming a common knowledge, or very simple explanation, which I don't think 'for' does.
[User Picture]
Date:April 22nd, 2004 12:34 pm (UTC)

Re: 'Davka' and 'harey'

Harey is also used to indicate the speaker's expectation that the content of the proposition it refers to is, to some extent at least, taken for granted.
This pragmatic property makes it extremely useful in marking irony.

I actually have at least one article about the use of harey in Hebrew, but unfortunately, it's in Israel, while I'm in Holland, and I read it once, 5 years ago, so I can't remember the particulars. Damn my inadequate mind!
Date:April 20th, 2004 09:12 pm (UTC)


My (uneducated) guess would be when the translator has a deep understanding of both languages, and so is conveying the meaning or intent of the original author in a way the reader will understand. Often there are cultural differences that can render meaningless a literal translation.

A crude example of the opposite of this are the bad computer translations available via babelfish, et al. Interestingly, when I go looking for a rough online translator of Hebrew, I find none, except lots of services provided by human translators.
[User Picture]
Date:April 21st, 2004 06:03 am (UTC)
What sort of constructs or expressions in the source language typically produce such choices?

Idioms. Expressions, that (through context, intonation, or merely long history of varied usage) lost all connection with the original meaning and are on border of turning into interjections. For example, I can imagine a situation where the famous "Oh, really?" will be best translated as "?דווקא".

Of course, this in addition to other more obvious cases. For example "Why him?", or "Why him, actually?", or "Why him, of all the people?" can all be translated as "?למה דווקא הוא", with increasing probability from the former to the latter.
[User Picture]
Date:April 21st, 2004 06:11 am (UTC)
I'm just curious.

There's an interesting philosophical treatment of translation in W. V. Quine's "Translation and Meaning." (Ch. 2 of Word and Object 1960. Cambridge, MA: MIT P; on shelf at Wiener). It might give you a fresh perspective on this issue.

Also, it contains a gavagai.
[User Picture]
Date:April 21st, 2004 05:41 pm (UTC)

I remember Quine is difficult. Can I tackle him at all, do you think, or is there something specific that I had really better read before approaching Quine?
[User Picture]
Date:April 21st, 2004 06:05 pm (UTC)
This is a gratifying and profound paper and I suggest you give it a shot directly. If nothing makes sense at all, here's an rff coupon.

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