Translating the impossible…

If you’re expecting the next installment of my life as a cyclist, sorry to disappoint you. That will probably come in the next post.

What has been occupying my mind recently, though, is my work as a translator…..though it has to be said, very much in a part-time capacity. Some of you might wonder how a translator spends his/her working day. Well, the short

Spotted the irony here?

Spotted the irony here?

answer to that is……tapping away on a keyboard with a dictionary at arms-length. In fact, my most useful reference tool is not necessarily a bi-lingual dictionary, but an English Thesaurus. Understanding the text for a professional translator may not be a major issue, but finding that perfect equivalent word or expression in their native tongue, that encapsulates the exact meaning of what they are reading in the foreign language……well, that can be an issue. So remember, if you decide to try your hand at translation, invest in a good Thesaurus.

Recently, however, I have been handling a text that defied all understanding. It was strewn with ‘technical’ terminology, the sort of language that scholarly intellectuals in the erudite environment of the university research department will use resourcefully, to a degree that it excludes everyone who is not part of the inner-circle. The text was liberally sprinkled with words like ‘hermeneutics, ‘kenosis’ and’ theophany’, and talked about certain human roles and functions in transcendent ethereal language.

Fortunately, I do have some Greek and Latin in my background (meaning, the dim and distant past), so understanding words and concepts was not the main challenge. In fact, if translating were merely an exercise of ‘transliterating’ words from one language to the next, the process would be very straightforward indeed. No, yourTranslate translation is destined for readers who will be looking for, not just the meaning of words, but the meaning of the text as a whole. But after studying and translating my most recent text, I asked myself: “Does life have to be this complicated? Isn’t life too short for this sort of stuff?”.

It forcefully reminded me of the reputation that sociologists had in the 1960s. They had created an academic discipline, established university departments, professorships and research units, clothing this relatively new subject in a language that was impenetrable to the outsider. Knowledge meant power, and holding onto power meant excluding the masses. They became deft at complicating the commonplace.

I had decided that the text I was handling was definitely not meant for the masses, and when I sent it off to a ‘friend and ally’ to do some checking for me before submission, he was kind enough to say: “A brilliant translation of an impossible text!”.

Well, that was nice to know…….but I still don’t understand what it was on about!


About Frank Burns

Looking for the extraordinary in the commonplace………taking the road less travelled……..striving for the ‘faculty of making happy chance discoveries’ in unremarkable circumstances. Click on the Personal Link below to visit my webpages.

Posted on March 20, 2014, in Life of a translator and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. A fascinating insight Frank, thanks.

    Have you heard the true story of the boring day in the EU agricultural committee meeting? Most of the delegates were nodding off when they noticed that the British contingent were rolling around the floor in laughter. What had the representative from Normandy said to make them helpless with laughter?

    Well, it was the translator who’d translated a phrase containing the words “la sagasse Normande” as
    This is problem that can only be solved by Norman wisdom

    Ooh Mr Grimsdale!!

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