How much does a piece of complex text, especially a literary one, that was translated from one language to another retain the unique flavor, so to speak, of the original passage? A skilled translator can perhaps come close to duplicating the original in another language, but, alas, some words and phrases just cannot be translated. And sentences must often be rearranged during translation to make them sound better in the new language.
Here is a test I carried out last nite.
One of the best travel and adventure books I have read was On Horseback Through Asia Minor, Frederick Burnaby's account of his trip from Istanbul to Iran in the dead of the winter of 1876. I read the original English version several years ago. Curiously, the 1st Turkish translation didn't come out until the late 1990s, which I also have.
I picked a paragraph more or less at random from the Turkish version and translated it back into English without consulting Burnaby's original.
Here is the opening paragraph of Chapter 47 in the 1996 Oxford University Press edition, which corresponds to Chapter 15 in volume 2 of the 1877 edition available at Google Books. Burnaby was spending the nite in the house of an Armenian family in a small village in Eastern Turkey.
On Horseback Through Asia Minor By Fred Burnaby
Below is the Turkish version (translated by Fatma Taşkent) from the 1999 edition.
And finally, here is my back translation into English.
In the next room separated from us by only an approximately one yard high railing, alongside the Armenian’s relatives, a courier and a Kurd, there were buffaloes, cows, calves and pigeons. The Kurd had on his head a magnificent turban shaped like a bonnet. It was made of blue satin and embroidered with gold thread. It was clear that the man was very proud of his clothing. He told the Armenian that he had bought the turban in Erzurum and that after he finished enjoying it he was going to give it to his preferred wife.The overall meaning of the back translation comes close to that of Burnaby's original, although the sentence structures are inevitably different. However, there are notable differences in some words and phrases.
•The Turkish version gives the height of the railing as one meter, I turned it into one yard, but it turned out that Burnaby had used three feet.
•For Burnaby's postman, the Turkish version uses ulak, of which I didn't know the meaning. According to my Turkish dictionary it means "messenger", which I translated into English as courier.
•Burnaby describes the Kurd's turban as being "adorned with gold thread"; the translator, however, took liberties and changed "adorned" into "embroidered".
•Likewise, in the next sentence Burnaby's "this attire" refers to the Kurd's turban, but the Turkish giysisinden literally means "of his clothing"; I would have used sarığından (of his turban) to match Burnaby's specificity.
•In the last sentence, Burnaby said that the Kurd was going to give the turban to his wife after he was finished wearing it. Once again, the translator put more meaning into Burnaby's words than he had intended: "hevesini almak" means to fully enjoy something that is new.
Note that Burnaby's last sentence was replaced by 2 separate sentences in the Turkish version. There is also an example here of the impossibility of translating certain phrases without changing the sentence structure. Burnaby's 2nd sentence starts with "The latter individual" in reference to the Kurd, but an equivalent phrase does not exist in Turkish. So the Turkish translator had to specify that it was the Kurd who was wearing a turban. In a different context, this could have affected the character of the narrative.