Mother of Discontent

Translation and programming scratch a similar itch: I take pleasure in the act of giving form to ideas.

On occasion I have been asked how much I change things when I translate. It’s not an easy question to answer. A lot and very little. It’s not word for word, or even sentence for sentence. In the end it’s not the language itself I am translating, but a narrative populated by characters with emotions, problems, and their own ways of seeing the world. I want to paint the same scene, but I need to do it in a different medium. Aggression, compassion, and regret word themselves differently from one language to another. I can’t just report on what the German says; I have to create the story again.

There is an example that sticks in my mind. In A Well-Tempered Heart, which I translated from Jan-Philipp Sendker’s Herzenstimmen, there is a scene were a mother struggles with the fact that she does not love her two children equally. Their father, her husband, urges her to stop measuring them one against the other, and he reinforces his plea by appealing to a bit of wisdom that in the original runs thus:

In jedem Vergleich ist das Ungl├╝ck zu Haus.

A fairly literal rendering in English might be:

Unhappiness is at home in every comparison.

The direct translation would not be wrong, but it misses what the sentence is trying to achieve in the conversation. The utterance in the original has the feel of a truth that for the speaker is beyond dispute. To achieve a similar effect in English I eventually cast the expression in the form of an aphorism:

Comparison is the mother of discontent.

The metaphor here intentionally borrows much of its bearing from conventional idioms, most obviously ‘Necessity is the mother of invention,’ and ‘Comparison is the thief of joy.’ The fact that the translation, like the original, imports its emotional reasoning from a domestic domain, only increases the poignancy. The speaker is, after all, making an argument about an actual mother (prone to comparison) and an actual child (whose happiness is at risk) in an actual home. I would argue, in fact, that the English solution subtly amplifies the resonances of the original. Should I shy away from that kind of modification? There are plenty of other moments where the translation has to compromise. To be as vivid as the original, the English version needs to find its own opportunities and to make the most of them.

To be similar, it has to be different.