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In Defence of Translators
This newsletter alternates between new entries and pieces from the archives. This is one of the latter, expanded from a piece first published here. (Please note that the source website hasn’t been updated in a while.)
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People unfamiliar with the craft of translation often believe that translators spend much of their time looking up words they don’t understand in the dictionary, to find out what they mean. But, in fact, understanding the source text is usually the easiest part of the process, by far. The real challenge lies in taking what you read and expressing it appropriately in English.
As anyone who has used a dictionary knows, languages don’t map onto one another in a one-to-one relationship. Look up a source word in almost any language and you will often find a dozen synonyms in the target language. A single term in German may have many equivalents in English—and vice versa. The act of consulting a dictionary turns a single word, a point of meaning, into a haze, a blur, of alternatives. The translator’s art lies in selecting the right word or phrase for the context. In fact, when I translate, I use the thesaurus far more than the dictionary.
More than an understanding of the source material, translation requires a deep commitment to, love of and dexterity at manipulating your own native language. It requires the faith that everything can be expressed—adequately, creatively and vividly expressed—in your own language, the sense that your mother tongue is a treasure trove and you know where to find its riches, a Room of Requirement where, with sufficient searching, you can always locate what you need.
There are specific challenges, of course, depending on the source material you are working with. In technical and scientific translations, it’s important to know the correct terminology for the specific field and to employ that terminology consistently. This often requires obtaining enough of a knowledge of the discipline to be able to understand the details of what the text is referring to.
The translation of legal documents, such as court proceedings or business contracts, requires special care. Both parties to a contract or court case must receive identical impressions of what is going on, must be understanding the same meaning, even though that meaning is conveyed to them in different languages. False economies abound in the business sector. I’ve sometimes been in the position of haggling for minimal rates to translate contracts, when millions of Euros might be forfeited in court over a poor choice of terminology.
In business translations, tone and register are all important. A single word which sounds cutesy, eccentric or overly flippant can detract from the message the company wishes to convey. Although, on the other hand, the groanworthily bad puns some CEOs enjoy making and love to see immortalised in print present a particular challenge for the translator.
Perhaps the most difficult kind of translation of all is literary translation.
In the case of poetry, the translator must be a poet herself. She will need to—not so much translate—as reimagine the poem, as the poet might have written it, had he been a native speaker of the translator’s mother tongue.
But even prose translation is challenging. It is important in all forms of translation, but especially so in literature, that the reader should feel as though what he is reading could have been conceived in his own language. The reader must feel as though there is no barrier between herself and the text, as though she were drinking straight from the source, and not from a muddy stream. When translating literature, it is often less important to render the meaning of the original accurately and more important to pay attention to other aspects of the text, such as its tone, register and flow.
It is often helpful to adopt what some have called the 'raisin approach.' The source text may employ a beautiful, vivid or strikingly metaphorical word at a particular place, for example. You realise that there is no graceful or meaningful way to render it in English. So you translate it with a more pedestrian term or expression and then, later in the text, you do the opposite, you compensate by choosing a vividly expressive term where your source is blankly matter-of-fact. You are acting much like the baker who knows that the recipe calls for a cup of raisins, that the taste and proportion of the raisins will be vital to the cake’s success, but who does not have precise instructions as to which spot in the dough to place each one.
Part of the translator’s art also lies in recognising which characteristics of a piece of writing are idiosyncratic and which are shaped purely by the language in which it is written. In German, for instance, the syntax of the language itself and, in particular, the flexibility of word order that language offers, encourages the creation of serpentine structures of improbable and daunting length. But if a scholar, writing in Spanish, has chosen to express herself in meandering or labyrinthine sentences, this is probably an intentional strategy or a feature of his personal writing style. In the first case, deftly snipping those long sentences in two may be appropriate. In the second, you may want to leave the sentences in all their original wordy glory.
But, above all, translation is a discreet craft. The translator’s aim is to disappear into his text, to provide a clear window through which to see the original words, free from cracks and smudges. The artistry is hidden, like the lenscrafter’s careful honings. The translation is a pair of magic spectacles, which transforms the foreign words into clear meaning expressed in the language you were born to.
If you only need to understand the meaning of a text, a machine translation will provide the gist. But how a thing is expressed is often at least as important as what is said. And so far only human translators can convey the requisite nuance. Let’s celebrate them.
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