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Bewildering Stories

The Critics’ Corner

Passing Through a Gateless Gate

by Don Webb

Every language has its own catchphrases, idioms, clichés, proverbs and even hidden figures of speech. Native speakers may not even be aware of these quirks as such or, if they are, they’ll take the wordings for granted as convenient shortcuts. After all, my working definition of a cliché is that it’s a substitute for thought.

However, translators become acutely aware of what is figurative or culture-bound when trying to make a text understandable in another language, and even translating clichés requires thought.

For example, English speakers know immediately what is meant by a “mixed blessing.” But that’s where it ends; a literal translation would make no sense in French.

Rather, the translator might resort to an idiomatic expression that means “there’s something to eat and drink in that” — which a reader who knew only English would find baffling or might completely misunderstand. The history of translation abounds in such things; it’s almost a compendium of the linguistic effects of Murphy’s Law: if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong.

One of Guy de Maupassant’s less ribald short stories features a Frenchman who marries an English girl because he thinks she’s a brilliant poet. Only when he learns English, himself, does he realize that her pet sayings, such as “Every cloud has a silver lining,” are not inspired images but threadbare clichés. I think the Frenchman jumps off a bridge at the end of the story, but I don’t recall for sure. In any case, such an ending would make sense to the French although not to Anglophones. Chalk it up to hidden cultural biases on both sides.

A recent submission quotes a phrase from Zen Buddhism: “to pass through the gateless gate.” Now, Zen is known for its playful and thought-provoking use of oxymorons, but this one in particular seems to offer a lesson in the way language can affect our understanding.

Readers who are familiar with Zen and its culture will recognize the phrase and the meaning it alludes to. Otherwise they’ll see the phrase only as a word game.

A “gateless gate” is actually ambiguous in English. Does “gate” refer to a kind of door in a fence or wall or to the enclosure in which it’s normally hung?

Would the image be clearer if it referred to a “doorless doorway”? That can’t mean the same thing as a “door without a doorway,” and we’d lose the oxymoron.

The language in which the phrase originated — whatever it is — may make the distinction clear, but I wouldn’t know. Absent a knowledge of the language and culture of origin, we’re “up a creek” and have to “shift for ourselves” in trying to make “head or tail” of figurative language.

What are the practical implications? Writers would be well advised to remember one of our mottoes: “Readers take everything literally unless they know to do otherwise.” Keep that in mind and the writing will “go swimmingly.”

Copyright © 2011 by Don Webb
for Bewildering Stories

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