Translator meets world
When we imagine how others spend their day, we’re often wrong. Especially when the person’s profession is one we know little about. There are, of course, certain very public occupations like a lifeguard or entertainer, where we have a pretty good sense of what it might be like. Then there are professions like marine biologist or glassblower where we have no idea.
But more jobs probably fall into a different category: those in which we know what a person does, but not how they do it nor how difficult it is. This is certainly true for teachers. I’ve tried it. It’s hard. It is very often assumed that the possession of knowledge and the ability to convey that knowledge to others in a way that they can grasp it are one and the same. Wrong. That’s why I often disagree with people when they insist a native speaker is a better language teacher than someone who has acquired the language. English is my native tongue but I’m a much better teacher of French, having learned the pedagogy.
Now, the translator has long been the unsung, and very often unknown, hero of centuries of readers wanting to know foreign literatures, but does the translator have the right to complain that he lives in obscurity? Maybe not, for doing his job right requires him to serve as the invisible link between author and reader, and so he is stuck in a situation in which, according to Peter France in Literature in English Translation, “if the translator as traitor is uncomfortably visible, the translator as servant suffers from invisibility.”
This invisibility has led to some misconceptions about the profession. These often come out in conversations where you tell people what you do, and they reply, “oh, my brother speaks about five languages; he could do that.” Or, “my friend would be a good translator; she’s completely bilingual. Or even, “My uncle is an engineer and lived in Germany when he was young; he’d be perfect!”
The brother, the friend, the uncle, they may all make fine translators. But it’s really impossible to tell until they do it for a few years. Of course rebuttals exist — when we’re not too tired to simply smile and nod — to each of the above statements, yet underlying all of them is a false notion of the essence of the translator’s skill.
A translator knows languages. True. A translator knows the subject he translates. True. A translator knows how to research. True. A translator also knows how to type fast, how to format documents, how to handle a wide array computer programs and tools, etc., etc.
The sum of these skills, however, does not amount to a translator. Even if it did, to claim as much would not be putting the translator’s best food forward, for a language professor may know languages better; an engineer knows technology better; a researcher, research. Of course, engineers, and lawyers, and doctors, and financial analysts sometimes quit their jobs or retire, and become translators, bringing with them a wealth of knowledge that will serve them well. But they must first learn the skill of translation.
A few paragraphs is all it should take. All it should take, that is, to realize that it’s going to take a long time to learn how to do it, and do it well. The first challenge is to understand the original; the second, to recreate it, or perhaps more aptly, to create it in the target language. Create because the meaning of the source text alone is not enough to guide the structure or wording of the target. A major misconception is that any two languages share a word-for-word correlation, almost like parallel ports with their tiny pins and holes plugging snugly into each other, and that the translator is needed for little more than typing the result.
This notion may also be at the root of the misunderstanding over why translation takes as much time as it does. I mean, if you’re just typing… let’s see, 60 words per minute, 3,600 words per hour… 28,000 words or so per day. Maybe a bit less. You’ll need lunch, of course. Now, many translators can go quite fast when a subject is particularly familiar but let’s be realistic. Without digressing into translation theory or the impossibility of translation perfection as has been written about by such luminaries in the field of literary translation as Walter Benjamin and Gregory Rabassa, suffice it to say that at every phrase, a translator is faced with many many choices of how to express the original in meaning, tone, word choice, emphasis, register, contextual terminology, and so on, all the while trying to make it sound as if it were created in the target language in the first place. No easy task. Not complaining, mind you.