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Intentional Use of Ambiguity in Translation


Although ambiguity is to be generally avoided, not only in translation, but also in other types of writing, sometimes it might prove useful and can intensify the final product of the process of translation.
Let us consider the following nursery rhyme:

Jack be nimble,
Jack be quick,
Jack jump over
The candlestick.

and my translation of it into Slovak:

Ján buď svižný,
buď rýchly ako nik,
Ján ti preskočil - ó,
cez svietnik!

Although there is no change of rhyme type in the final product of the translation function (I like to think of the translation device as a mathematical function, which is not always well defined, but may still be working satisfactorily), one can't help noticing the intentional ambiguity in the third line, where two different words combined together /preskočiť=to jump over and ó=(poetical) device to express astonishment or amazement/ create another, namely a past tense of the Slovak verb expressing an unfavourable change of a person's psyche /preskočiť (niekomu)=to go nuts/.

At this point it is appropriate to underline that the Slovak verb “preskočiť” thus has two meanings, a fact very common in English. In Slovak it is less so.

So there are several levels of ambiguity and multiple meanings present here. First of all, the whole text is a poem, of course, and the lexeme “ó” (there is little difference compared to English language here, as they use simple O with no acute accent, with the same meaning) underlines its poetical character in a perfect way.

Another level of multiplicity of meaning consists in the fact that jumping over candlesticks, especially when they are active and burning, is a crazy feat in and of itself. So when we translate this in such a way as to imply that the subject of the nursery rhyme, namely Jack, is a bit nuts (“mu preskočilo”, in Slovak) we add still more intensity to the output of the translation function.

And then there is the last, down-to-earth layer of meaning, which is the jumping proper; this becomes obvious only after removing the previous strata in the process of interpretation. The physical always comes last, after the spiritual has been exhausted.

So this simple syntactic trick may have a very powerful effect on the reader and the translator may be said to have accomplished even more than he intended to in the first place.

NM