What Is the Point of Literary Translation?

Katia Grubisic in The Walrus:

The better machines become at transferring equivalent words and even almost correct syntax and grammatical structures from one language to another, the more the mechanics of translation matter less, and the more we are aware of inflections and innuendoes; what we don’t know what to call, we call beauty.

Translation is everywhere: I’m at a beach in South America. The grainy exuberance of a megaphone begins to blast indecipherably. Something about menopause. Seriously? It’s a little putt-putt plane, tooting advertisements. A billboard I spot later as I bounce along in the back of a truck provides the rest of the story: it’s not that Argentina’s especially empathetic to the woes of the older late-summer crowd, there’s a local theatre show about menopause. Fallait le savoir.

Below the sky, hordes of birds perch and circle, hoping for the bounty of the sea or some morsel of human garbage: gaviota, not gull. How dull the English equivalent is, how doltish. Gaviota captures the awkward, insistent shriek. There’s that guttural opening g and an echo of the French gaver. The translator’s undoing is the multiplicity of languages, each with its own best words.

More here.