Consider the poem, A une Damoyselle Malade (To a Sick Young Lady), written in 1537 by Clemont Marot for the daughter of a queen. Twenty eight lines, three syllables per line. How complicated can it be to translate from French to English?
The answer: plenty complicated. Douglas Hofstadter, author of the wildly acclaimed 1999 non-fiction title, Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, takes on this question in a podcast featured on the NPR program, Radiolab.
“What kind of of crazy things can happen when you translate crazy texts,” Hofstadter asks. He set off of a project to translate the poem himself, then conscripted 60 others to take on the job. Soon he found himself embroiled in questions regarding tone and form — how do you preserve the feel of the poem, the lightness and good cheer — amid the myriad possibilities offered by the English language?
While not immediately analogous to the problems faced by medical interpreters and translators, this is another, interesting take on the complexity of translation. “What is translation?” Hofstadter finally asks. “And can it be done?”
Hofstadter’s interview, titled 100 Flowers, is part of an hour-plus presentation that features seven other related segments.