Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Translation: Science or Art?


Translation is the interpreting of the meaning of a text and the subsequent production of an equivalent text, likewise called a "translation," that communicates the same message in another language.

The quote above was copied from Wikipedia, and I feel that it explains perfectly the meaning of what this so-called science is. I especially like the part that says "Interpreting the meaning of a text..." because I understand that this phrase expresses the intrinsic difficulty of translation: To interpret or recreate a text - for which you basically need freedom of mind, and the necessity to stick to the original - which basically constrains your freedom. The necessity of freedom but also the necessity to stick to an original meaning is a contradiction that can convert a translation into a quite a knotty and elusive task.

If you are reading this article, I’m assuming you are either a translator or an interpreter - which can be even more difficult - and you must understand this classical discomfort which all translators feel sometimes: You understand the meaning of the source text, but can find no equivalent in your own language; changing the meaning of the text is not fair, so you finally create a text which sounds absolutely unnatural in the target language. 

Then, as a translator, what should I do? Should I stick to the original, or should I try to do something that sounds natural in the target language?

Well, from my point of view, the answer depends on what you are translating. A legal document or patent needs to be translated with surgical precision, while business presentations, marketing documents, and literary texts need to sound natural in the target language. But this - the task of finding something that sounds natural - requires certain linguistic mastership, a deep understanding of the language and its procedures; translation is not about science: It is about the inner music of a language, the flow of phrases combined with a correct selection of the terminology inside a text. 
However, some people still believe it IS possible - and almost beneficial - to approach the translation as a perfect science. They say everything is about skills, more than feeling or tempo, and a properly trained brain can pour one language into another without any effort, just as a machine. 

These sort of opposing tendencies do not have any name, but all of the translators I’ve met since first coming into contact with translation can be classified into two groups: Those who translate with the head, focusing always on the source text, and those who do it with feeling, focusing more on the target language. A translator never fails to fall into one of these two categories, and interpreters can also be classified like this as well. Indeed, as a project manager I’ve found technical translators who had the ability of doing free translation and making technical texts sound natural, and literary translators who stick to the original and create pages and pages that you’d be hard pressed to read (the latter occurring especially when literature is translated from Chinese or Japanese into European languages). 

All the same, should the translations be good or bad, there is no doubt that translating and interpreting is a reflection of how difficult the transmission of a message of a man can be. Especially if you are an interpreter, as a human being who wants to help two speakers to communicate, you might also have the temptation to translate what was not said as well: the hidden meaning of words, or what a speaker is not saying for lack of conviction. I am not exaggerating when I say you could influence the destiny of nations*. 
But, whenever you hesitate, remember: Forget your feelings and stick to the original.

*A good example of this can be found in the novel "A Heart So White". Pick it up if you are interested in literature about translation.