Did a mistaken translation put rovers on Mars? In 1877 Giovanni Schiaparelli, an Italian astronomer, used his then state-of-the-art telescope to view and describe what he called “canali” on the planet. English translators leapt on the discovery of what they rendered as “canals”. There followed a frenzy of speculation that Mars might be inhabited, which left a deep mark on the human imagination. To this day “Martian” is a synonym for alien life.
But the Italian word could also have been translated as “channels”. Which did Schiaparelli mean? In some writings he was careful to discourage firm conclusions about life on Mars; in others, he encouraged exactly those conclusions. It is almost as though canali let him have both “channels” and “canals” in his mind at the same time.
The story is told in “Dancing on Ropes”, Anna Aslanyan’s new book about translators’ and interpreters’ roles at critical moments in history. It is full of lively stories like that of Schiaparelli’s canals. Ms Aslanyan is herself both a translator and interpreter (in the argot of the profession, the former works in writing, the latter in speech), and enlists both practical experience and archival history. She leaves the reader with an awed respect for the translator’s task.
Ideally, interpreters are invisible, and two people who do not share a language will feel they are conversing directly. But this ideal is virtually unachievable. Speakers cut off their own interpreters. Listeners are rude to them, as if they (not the actual interlocutor) had said something objectionable. The poor linguist in the middle can thus be tempted to clean up or soften a rude remark; Ms Aslanyan relates some enjoyable tales from the Russian interpreter for Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s bawdy former prime minister.
The job is draining. In “The Language Game”, Ewandro Magalhães, a Brazilian interpreter, described how, at the Nuremberg trials, small booths hooked up with telephone wires were first used for interpretation into several languages. Staff got one day off in three, and shifts were capped at 45 minutes. Even so, an interpreter said, four months in Nuremberg made her feel ten years older. Perhaps only the Ottomans, who made “dragoman” a powerful job—the grand dragoman was simultaneously deputy foreign minister—gave interpreters the respect they deserve.
Translation is different: usually solitary, seemingly more leisurely, but now under tremendous economic pressure. In the digital era, everyone competes with everyone and buyers often simply take the lowest bid (or Google Translate). The literary work that cannot be done by a faceless contractor or a machine may not always pay the bills, but it at least provides stimulation. Ms Aslanyan recalls trying to transpose a Russian spoken in rural Ukraine into an English that carried the same tones; after she and a collaborator considered and rejected a Scottish inflection, they went with snatches of West Country English. Since 2016 the overseers of the International Booker Prize for fiction have split the prize-money equally between authors and their translators.
Ms Aslanyan says a mistranslation also played a role in America’s atomic bombing of Japan in 1945. An official statement said that the Japanese would “mokusatsu” the Potsdam Declaration that called on Japan to surrender. The verb can mean things including “to offer no comment on” and “to kill with silence”, but also “to treat with silent contempt”. The Americans leaned towards the latter interpretation—a defiant insult—helping seal Hiroshima’s fate.
Devotees of Esperanto, an artificial language, have long hoped that understanding would promote peace between peoples. Douglas Adams, author of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, satirically took the opposite stance. In his fantasy, the Babel Fish—which, once stuck in your ear, instantly provides perfect translation of all languages—is responsible for more wars than anything else in history.
But the most eloquent comment on translation may come from José Ortega y Gasset, a Spanish philosopher whom Ms Aslanyan cites. Two words in two languages are never exact translations of each other, he said. More than that, though, no two people mean the same thing by the same word (with the possible exception of some scientific terms). Translation, therefore, is a “utopian” endeavour, an impossible act of perfect mind-reading. That does not mean it should not be attempted—but those who try should be “good utopians” who know they can never succeed.