Translation: the other side of the tapestry

As far as modern writing is concerned, it is rarely rewarding to translate it, although it might be easy. Translation is very much like copying paintings. Boris Pasternak

Fidelity is surely our highest aim, but a translation is not made with tracing paper. It is an act of critical interpretation. Let me insist on the obvious: Languages trail immense, individual histories behind them, and no two languages, with all their accretions of tradition and culture, ever dovetail perfectly. They can be linked by translation, as a photograph can link movement and stasis, but it is disingenuous to assume that either translation or photography, or acting for that matter, are representational in any narrow sense of the term. Fidelity is our noble purpose, but it does not have much, if anything, to do with what is called literal meaning. A translation can be faithful to tone and intention, to meaning. It can rarely be faithful to words or syntax, for these are peculiar to specific languages and are not transferable. Edith Grossman

The best thing on translation was said by Cervantes: translation is the other side of a tapestry. Leonardo Sciascia

The original is unfaithful to the translation. Jorge Luis Borges

The translator Edith Grossman has just written a book called Why Translation Matters. Grossman, who was born in Philadelphia in 1936, has made a career translating such luminaries as Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Márquez and Ariel Dorfman into English. She has also done a critically acclaimed translation of Don Quijote. I recently heard an interview with Grossman where she talked about her craft. It got me thinking about the importance of this unsung profession.

The definition of translation that I like includes the following steps:

1.         Decoding the meaning of the source text; and

2.         Re-encoding this meaning in the target language.

What makes a good translator? I tend to think you should be both bilingual and bicultural. I like the comment made by the translator Gregory Rabassa when he was translating Gabriel Garcia Marquez into English. He was asked by one dopey reporter if he had enough Spanish to translate the Columbian author. His reply was that the real problem was whether he had enough English. But knowing the two languages is not enough. You also have to know the field of knowledge of the text you are translating.

The status of the translator does not correspond with the difficulty and importance of what they do. Partly this is because a good translator, like a good football referee, should go unnoticed. I once did a course in translation but I have never really made a serious go of it. It seems too much like hard work. I felt I lacked constituency. At times I thought I had really found the perfect choice of words. That was a tremendously satisfying feeling. But at other times it just seemed impossible to render the passage in English.

In translation you have to be constantly making decisions about how you want to render a word, phrase or passage. This will depend on the objective of the translation, as there are many possible goals. A classic example is the case of Bible translation by those missionaries intent on converting local populations. You do not just want a neutral translation you want to inspire them with your evangelical fire. Give us this day our daily bread makes little sense to people living in the Arctic regions, so the missionaries came up with “Give us this day our daily seal.” If you are dubbing a film then you want something that synch with the lips of the actors. You have to sacrifice accuracy. If it is subtitles, brevity is the key – you should be able to fit everything into two lines because this is the maximum that can comfortably be read. And the holy grail of all translators is equivalency- you want to create the same effect that the original had.

What is the future of translation? One area is that of machine translation. Computers are very good at playing chess but their initial attempts were rather crude and often unintentionally funny as translation requires more than just brute force. The theory is that with enough data the computer should be able to make those decisions about word choice that humans have to make. I think that while they make well take a lot of the drudgery out of translation, you will always need that human element. However, in the last few years some major developments in linguistics, computing and artificial intelligence have led to increased optimism about its potential Who knows what will happen in a generation? Automatic translation seems like a daunting challenge but I would always be wary of betting against the boffins at the MIT and their like.

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