I was talking yesterday with a young Swiss artist, Tobias Kaspar – who’s quite interested in translation in general and Robert Walser in particular – about how it is that in many parts of the world growing up bilingual doesn’t necessarily make one good at translating. In all those Swiss towns in which both French and German are spoken, though, I suspect that people are much better at translating than the international average, even if they’ve had no special training in it. This is because in this explicitly multilingual environment in which e.g. most supermarket products are labelled in three languages, people grow up accustomed to thinking about and in the interstices between languages where translation occurs.
And after years of translating and helping generations of students become more proficient at doing so themselves, I think that translation must reside in a part of the brain separate from (but linked to) the parts that govern writing, speaking and language-learning. When we work on translations, we strengthen the synapses that link all these lobes together. At least that’s how I picture it. I’d love to know more about the science behind this. While discussing all these things with Tobias, I mentioned one particular friend of mine who grew up bilingually in a context in which very little translation was required: everyone in the family was fluent in both languages – one of which was always spoken inside the home, the other outside it. As an adult now, she can speak and write elegantly in both, but isn’t so good at translating between them. And last night – just a few hours after this conversation – she came over while I was dreaming to make me dinner in my own kitchen. When the food was ready, she served it by ladling out spoonfuls onto the two front spiral heating coils on my stove. So this dream answered the question of what gets lost in translation: it’s the plates.