Category Archives: Life of a translator

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!

If only Google Translator were the answer!

When people ask about my work as a translator, and I tell them a little about the challenges of understanding a text (ie as the writer intended it to be understood) and then rendering that text into comparable English, I am sometimes regaled with the following startlingly “new” revelation: “Why don’t you use Google Translator?” After all, you’ve only to copy and paste the text, and Google will do the rest for you………….

In response, let me use a little bit of archaic English grammar to express an exhortation: “Would that it were that easy!”. If it were, every translator would be out of work in a trice. Google Translator is an excellent tool for a casual, superficial understanding of a text. I use it for languages that are completely outside my spectrum of understanding. But to make use of it as a professional translator……….well, let me demonstrate some of its limitations with a few short texts that I have recently translated.

(My version) Through personal pride, minor faults that affect others are blown out of proportion; whereas, by

My dad’s like, this big deal interpreter, whatever,
but he, like, yuh know, doesn’t understand a thing I say.
(Cartoon by Tony Beckwith)

contrast, more grievous personal faults tend to be played down and justified.

(Google version) We pride staff, smaller faults that affect others are increased, whereas, by contrast, tend to own larger defects decreased and justified

(My version) While it is certainly true that doubt is a human trait that dogs our heels

(Google version) While that certainly is a human element that accompanies us

(My version) Whoever can be trusted in little things can also be trusted in great ones.

(Google version) For only he who is faithful in Petite things can be big things

I think you might agree, there is still room for professional translators on this planet!

‘Transmutation’ into the world of translation

Being free of the job routine brings lots of other opportunities. From being a full-time language teacher, I have undergone a minor ´transmutation´ into the world of translation. Responding to a request from a religious order of missionaries, which has a Spanish foundation, I stepped in as one of their translators over 2 years ago.  For several months of the year, I have a gentle flow of correspondence, articles and website updates to translate, but for about 3 months in the spring, things become manic. There is an avalanche, usually with very tight deadlines and, all of a sudden, I find myself adjusting my routines to find the necessary hours to meet their requirements.

Why the avalanche? The 3000 members of the order, spread over 62 countries throughout the world, are following a course of spiritual formation, and the literature for each year (in the form of 9 booklets) is published in time for the beginning of Advent (early December). This means that the authors of the booklets have to be busy 12 months in advance of that, so that the translators can have their input in the spring, to be followed by the copy-editing, graphics, formatting and printing by the late summer. The booklets can be 12,000-20,000 words in length and, because of the ‘technical’ nature of the language and the cross-referencing that has to be done with existing documentation, a booklet can take me (working only part time) 2-3 weeks to complete. In my first year, you can imagine the shock to the system when I was sent 7 of the booklets, which should have taken me 5-6 months at normal pace, but I managed to squeeze them into 2 months of frenzy…….burning both the midnight oil and getting up at the crack of dawn. Exhausting though it was, it gave me immense pleasure to receive the final published copies. As every translator will know, as you are beavering away for hours on the computer, you never have a visual picture of what the final product will look like.

Why the translation? Although the order has a Spanish foundation, and there is still a predominance of Spanish speakers amongst their ranks, the demographics of the order are changing rapidly. They are experiencing much greater growth in their membership in anglophone countries, especially in Africa and Asia, where English is spoken as an official, working language at least. In other words, people are joining the order that have no knowledge of Spanish, hence the need for everything to be translated.

In future posts, I will share some of the experiences (some of them anecdotal even now) I have had in the world of translation. The next time you pick up the English translation of any foreign author, check out the biographical notes of the translator on an inside cover. Though they will get their financial rewards for their work, they do form a disconnected fraternity of unsung heroes, whose job of translation is frequently much more difficult than the original job of writing the book in the first place.