The single word, then words together and how they sound, and now, finally, how words are allowed to go together to make a coherent utterance, that is, something that a native speaker and reader of a given language would hear or read and accept as coming from a fellow practitioner of the language, regardless of the content. This final category in what can prove impossible to translate, in what we lose when we say something is lost in translation, involves the bugbear grammar.
Bugbear, of course, because for most, grammar is the language stuff, the rules, that we were supposed to pick up at school and either did, and now often make sure others know that fact (you know who you are and frankly you are not helping matters… plus you are often mistaken); or didn’t and now either are playing catch up, by trying to relearn the rules as adults, or don’t care but know, too, that the rules are out there, somewhere, waiting to pounce.
That is not what I mean, however difficult, even impossible, one may deem grammar by the way. I mean something that is permissible in one language and is put to use by writers in that language, but which cannot be done in the target language. A very simple example by way of illustration. In French, as in many languages, all nouns have a gender (“table” is feminine, la table, whereas a pot is masculine, le pot, to take two examples where the words are nearly identical in spelling and sense in the two languages). The third person singular and plural pronouns in French will reflect the gender of the noun they refer to, so la table can simply be referred to as elle while le pot would be il, if you wish to speak of them elsewhere without actually repeating the words in question (Le pot ? Il est sur la table. La table ?! Mon dieu, elle est dans l’autre pièce… “The pot? It’s on the table. The table?! Jeeze, it’s in the other room…”). In English, as any English-speaker knows, for “table” or “pot” all we have is “it,” and indeed the neutral pronoun seems to apply to much that is in our world, or which we might want to talk about. Now if in French there is, say, a complicated sentence with a number of things mentioned but only one of them is masculine while the rest are feminine, or vice versa, and in the following sentence the writer only wants to focus on that one outstanding thing, the new sentence can limit itself to the appropriate pronoun, whether il or elle. The reader will almost instantly know the referent. In English, the translator cannot count on using “it” alone; the term might refer to several things in the earlier sentence. Thus, because of how the languages work, the English translator probably has to repeat the term in question, or find a synonym, to avoid ambiguity.
Along the same lines, a possessive pronoun (my, your, his, her, its, and so on) in French agrees with the gender of what it goes with, sa table but son pot; not so in English, of course. For the third person singular, for instance, we want to know the sex of the person referred to, whether it is his or her table. In a number of instances in the field where I often work, art history and criticism, I have faced the problem of not knowing from the artist’s name whether I need to write, say, “his vigorous, expressive brushstrokes” or “her vigorous, expressive brushstrokes,” since the original French here would offer me no clue. Usually, if there are at least a few sentences about the artist, somewhere there is an indication, a personal pronoun or a past participle that has to agree with the person: Né à Tokyo, il travaille… or née à Paris, elle travaille… (we have borrowed the latter née into English of course, written née or nee, as a way, now a bit posh I suppose, of indicating a woman’s maiden name). Quite recently in a French text, I had to deal with an artist whose given name is Gedi. My apologies if the limits of my general knowledge are showing. Since the piece involved short notices on about two dozen artists in all, there were exactly four sentences devoted to this artist and the work being shown, with nary a né or née to help. Worse, while the second sentence of the notice did indeed use the masculine pronoun il (ah, I’m saved!), a careful reading revealed that it could arguably refer to two things in the preceding sentence, the artist or son travail (his/her “work” or “work of art”—masculine in French). In the pre-internet era, I would have been in a fix.
As it turns out, Gedi is a male name. Yet I was still in a fix, strictly speaking. Was the author referring to the artist or son travail, “his work,” when, in the second sentence, we read, “…il empêche l’accès à l’élément visuel…” (he/it thwarts [our/the viewer’s] access to the visual element)? Interpretation was called for, and in all likelihood, it was indeed the artist who was the subject of the clause. This kind of difficulty—not impossibility—is rare but perhaps not as rare today as one imagines. By way of an experiment, I found on line a gallery that shows Gedi as well as a good number of other contemporary artists, and along with the Rachels and the Richards, I find a Bjarne (I’ll guess male before looking it up) and a Haegue (lovely name, but no clue). And to return to the supposedly familiar arres, Ryan, come to think of it, used to be almost exclusively a male name, but not so since the 1970s.
Other difficulties arise between French and English, for example, because of such a simple thing as word order (I may be stretching the “grammar” category here). For nouns with modifying adjectives in English, the usual word order has the adjective coming before the noun, the yellow rose; in French the usual order is the opposite, la rose jaune. This may seem like a minor point, but in French it often allows the writer to continue to work from the adjective without interrupting the flow of the sentence. In a recent translation I encountered this turn of phrase, “…il extrait des objets emblématiques d’une certaine esthétique de la pacotille…” (…he selects objects that are emblematic of a certain cheap, bogus aesthetic…). The emblématiques following the noun it modifies allows the writer to specify what the objects are emblematic of without the addition of a dependent clause; in English I had to do just that, add a dependent clause (“…that are emblematic of…”). This may not seem like much, but the addition of two words, in cases where brevity is critical, can pose a problem. It can also prove quite a headache to recreate stylistically when working from what we might call classic French art-history prose. The sentences tend to be long and the writers very fond of what linguists call recursion, the capacity of language to add infinitely to an utterance in a nesting Matryoshka doll effect. It puts me in mind of a truly professional gentleman burglar before an especially tall chest of drawers: he neatly pulls out the lowest drawer, deftly goes over the contents, leaves it open and passes on to the drawer above that, and so on, to the very top. The sentences run to Faulknerian or Proustian lengths, often by using the short cut of building from an adjective or past participle which we have just seen above.
In the complete clause I quoted, for example, there are in fact two such constructions, “…il extrait des objets emblématiques d’une certaine esthétique de la pacotille (guirlandes lumineuses, fausses fleurs) assez typique des banlieues pavillonnaires,” which in English yields, “…he selects objects that are emblematic of a certain cheap, bogus aesthetic (strings of lights, fake flowers), one that is fairly typical of residential suburbs with their rows of individual houses.” (The astute bilingual reader had already noticed that extrait, from the verb extraire, lexically “to extract, to pull out of, to quarry,” even “to excerpt,” ought to be “…[from this] he draws objects…,” but an English verb closer to the original doesn’t really fit here.) Emblématiques de is followed closely by assez typique (fairly/rather typical of), modifying une certaine esthétique de la pacotille. In English this ought to involve two that or which clauses following closely on one another, but that would make for an intolerable echo of the breathless drone generated by the well-informed museum docent on a tear. I introduce a break in the sentence (“one that is fairly typical…”) to avoid just that. In a sentence with six, seven, or more such clauses, many more in a wonderfully meandering, beautifully wrought sentence by Proust (often a chest of drawers that soars right through the ceiling into the floor above—and beyond, making it as far as the attic three or floor flights up), it becomes impossible at times to mirror the contours—and the length—of the sentence in the original.