Or maybe “Mother died today.” Or maybe “Today, mother died.” Or maybe “Today, maman died.” Or maybe “Mommy died today.”
During the quarantine (the incorrect word, I know) I assigned my college composition kids to read The Metamorphosis and one of the things I asked them to do with it is look at the opening line as it’s been translated by multiple different translators. Then I said to put the German sentence into Google translate and see what you get. Because we’re in distance learning, we only have so much we might explore on this topic, but I like this exercise because it shows or at least illustrates the difficulty of translating not just words, and not just grammatical constructions, but whole cultural ideas into different languages. If Gregor Samsa is a bug, what does that mean to American, English, or German readers? If he’s an insect? A vermin? A verminous insect? What about dreams? Uneasy and unsettling are very different, but do they mean the same thing as the German idea referenced by the word “unruhigen” which mostly translates to “unquiet”?
Anyway this book presents the same problem. German and English grammar share a lot of similarites, so syntax in translation from German to English can be somewhat straightforward. In this novel, we get the problems of grammar, the problems of cultural associations of mothers and the words that mean mother, and with the cultural displacement of French characters in Algerian spaces.
So when we’re looking at exactly how to conceive of Mersault’s relationship to his mother, his state of mind as she’s buried, and when he kills the Arab man on the beach, even with his first person narration, we are struggling through the ability to translate the thoughts of a man, read intentionality and complicity in his actions, and attempt to understand him. This process is most ironically presented in the novel when the prosecutor for the murder carefully characterizes how the evidence in the murder clearly shows the premeditation of the act.
I feel like there’s a lot of that kind of characterization that happens, certainly legally where it makes sense to have some black and white contrast, but constantly in conversations online involving real-life people are their motives. Of course, it takes a novel to show adequately how impossible the task really is.