Surely the worst thing that can happen to a professional translator, like myself, is to be lost for words when at work. I mean, nothing can substitute the confidence that you are doing a translation job not just “well” i.e. at a perfunctory level, but with a certain kind of mastery that will make the reader feel confidence from the start, even if it had not been suggested to them beforehand that they should specifically assess their confidence in you and your work. I am wholly committed to pursuing and maintaining that. I mean, how would I be taken seriously as a professional translator otherwise? And a reasonable part of that is to do with a taste for the substance in the subject matter of the original material.
Have you ever felt like you were looking for something without really knowing what it is? When was the last time you reached the point of no return in your interest in a subject? And did you ever ask yourself about its substance – what really makes it… just what it is (and specifically in the real world, not just in your creative imagination – at the risk of causing shock, probably more the subconscious, rather than conscious, aspects of it)?
Now, having said all that: it’s far easier to translate something with little to no substance than it is to translate something with a lot of it. To provide an example, Vanilla Ice’s Ninja Rap www.youtube.com/watch?v=R_K6971WmAs (as sung in the feature film Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II – 1991) certainly has no substance, nothing capable of any kind of intellectual enlightenment whatsoever (the chorus in particular), because its entire content revolves around a “less than fine” kind of entertainment that only a child with a lot to learn, or someone in an altered state of mind, could get momentarily lost in and indeed carried away by and call it pleasurable / satisfying (forgetting the worries of the real world, of course). Everything is outlandish as it calls for suspension of disbelief. Compare that with something objective and formal in real life, like a business presentation or court documents. They will be much harder to translate, won’t they?
It should help to put this into some sort of context: here I have translated a slew of, shall we say, things that children have actually said which are amusing and endearing for varied reasons, into French and German. But I will strictly state that they are (at least most of the time) things which have a “not fully true / sensical” element about them; but that said, it is hardly likely that they will have any bearing on anyone’s opinions of or attitudes toward anything “real”. That’s my account of what gives them their appeal and allows them to command attention the way they do. They are all taken from the “humour book” “Small talk” (Nanette Newman).
English: “Once you’ve had a baby you can’t put it back.” French: “Après avoir né un bébé, on ne peut pas le remettre.” German: “Nachdem man ein Baby gehabt hat, kann man es nicht zurücksetzen.”
English: “My rabbit was very sorry to die because he liked eating.” French: “Mon lapin était très triste à mourir parce qu’il adorait manger.” German: “Mein Kaninchen war beim Sterben sehr traurig, weil das Essen ihm gefiel.”
English: “I say my prayers with my eyes open so I can hear what I am saying.” French: “J’annonce mes prières avec les yeux ouverts pour que je puisse entendre ce que je dis.” German: “Ich sage meine Gebete mit offenen Augen, damit ich hören kann was ich sage.”
English: “You must take care of love – if you don’t it goes bad.” French: “Il faut prendre soin de l’amour – si on ne fait pas cela il devient pourri.” German: “Man muss sich um die Liebe kümmern – wenn das nicht gemacht wird, dann verfällt sie.”
English: “We are going to Windsor Castle to see the Queen’s private parts.” French: “Nous allons aller au château de Windsor pour voir les parties intimes de la Reine.” German: “Wir werden den Windsor-Schloss besuchen, um die privaten Parts der Königin zu sehen.”
English: “My mummy cried on my first day at school so I had to take her home.” French: “Maman a pleuré pendant mon premier jour à l’école, alors j’ai dû la ramener à la maison.” German: “Während meines ersten Schultages hat Mutti geweint, deswegen musste ich sie wieder zu Hause bringen.”
English: “No-one covered Jesus up when he was born, he could have caught flu.” French: “Personne n’a couvert Jésus pendant sa naissance, il a pu attrapé la grippe.” German: “Als Jesus geboren wurde hat niemand ihn umgehüllt, er könnte die Grippe bekommen haben.”
English: “Peace. Mummy and Daddy like peace. They don’t often get it.” French: “La paix. Maman et Papa aiment la paix. Ils l’ont guère.” German: “Der Friede. Mutti und Vati lieben Friede. Sie bekommen ihn selten.”
But here’s an example of a topic with substance which, in a way, revolves around language in the real world: maybe you have heard of all this talk about people in the UK wanting to forbid the term “junior doctor” in case it sounds condescending to those it labels. The substance behind all this? It’s the pressure that the NHS is under right now. That’s what really stimulated it. Everyone knows it, even if they won’t admit it.
You see, stuff with substance is not just “important” (but it’s not like that word is to be regarded as a label which automatically confirms some kind of high status on whatever it designates); it’s accepted as genuinely engaging by most people (no matter who they are or who they think they are), and not just in the short term. In a way, it’s possible to be both right and wrong about certain aspects of such stuff. These topics are very easy for anyone to have half-intelligent, if potentially contentious, debates about, and, depending on the particular circumstances, it is ultimately capable of fostering education and / or ongoing personal development. There is an afterword to this point: is it not an intelligent idea that the hardest psychological / mental thing to destroy is your own ignorance in connection with something, especially when you are incapable of making guesses with regard to it?
The only possible response to this in a context of producing quality translation work is to find ways to be receptive to what goes on in the real world – outside of the boundaries of my cosy office, in my case. It may be true that I am on my guard against being too casual and insouciant with regard to the expressions I use in my work on a surface level… and yet there are still times when I feel like a fool, as if I should know better than to be “reluctant” or “ashamed” to be inclined to consider more potential in if otherwise quite ordinary things in life; potential which, for all I know, could indeed go as far as what might be technically termed “occasional wonders”. Instead I seem more given to just always regard things purely logically rather than with any kind of human touch – but it would be terrible if, every time I tried to articulate my own reasoning about something, it would sound like I was using a lot of clichés and PBAs, or making excuses for failing to understand others’ sensitivities regarding it – sensitivities which only exist because of who they are. ...
THE PURSUIT OF FLAWLESS TRANSLATION: CONSIDERATION OF CULTURAL PERSPECTIVES AND THE END OF SOCIAL IGNORANCE
Foreword: are translators, or even just linguists, considered artists by default? Consider this quote: “[The artist’s] function is to make his imagination… become the light in the minds of others. His role, in short, is to help people to live their lives.” (Wallace Stevens) It is also said that understanding is an art, and not everyone is an artist.
That said, I am a professional translator, and here’s a good question: why do people get so emotionally attached to their mother tongue – not just because it merely enables communication in its basic general sense (and I can say that with authority because I know that the French authorities once tried to crack down on franglais)?
Can you answer that easily or coherently?
Knowing how a given language tends to be so intertwined with local culture: in some ways, it is the very basis of one’s way of so-called thinking for quite a lot of people – no offence.
That said, I think I should highlight that I indeed said “no offence” at the end, for a good reason. For I totally intend to relate the general topic of social ignorance / awareness to the subject of professional translation worth the name here – and I didn’t want to upset people by making it look like I am thoughtlessly suggesting that they are thick and ignorant, and it is but good manners in action; and that in itself is at the opposite end of the spectrum from social ignorance. For good manners and observation of social norms are key ingredients of social cohesion, and – especially to those that observe them – they are essential things that can and do help to form sound expectations of one’s peers which are not against their better judgement (unless of course you’re a progressive feminist or a Guardian reader or something like that).
Of course, in reality, people will always try to form judgements of their peers, whether they like it or not. It’s just human nature. Think about it. So, surely the idea of good manners by anyone’s interpretation thereof is basically one of unfaltering consideration of other people’s rights, concerns, wishes and situation – asking yourself what you owe it to other people to acknowledge; it’s not solely a matter of asking yourself what you owe it to other people to do for them, whether or not reasons for it speak for themselves. With this, it always pays to ask yourself how much of a judge of others’ mood, concerns and situation you really are – whether or not everyone does this speaks volumes about their own values, and this is probably the biggest “thing” that ultimately makes a society what it is. I mean, how much does the pursuit of “justifiable” (if tacit) conceit really pay off?
In the context of translation, of course, you get different societies with differing values and perspectives, forged and reinforced by different cultures; and people will inevitably sometimes be very passionate about their opinions about what expressions are acceptable / passable or not in any given situation (whatever that exactly means pending consideration of the concept of context) (of course, the consensuses are not always consistent…); although, that said, at this point I am inclined to talk about that which has greater emotional value to me as an individual personally, not that it is in any way related to my identity. (Can you ponder the emotional significance factor in translation?) You see, I grew up thinking that “happy” was but the opposite of “sad”, and I always thought that I knew a sad person when I saw one: someone who was in tears, the ends of their lips pointing down rather than up, whatever (NB I was born autistic). And yet, since those days I have actually, somehow, become someone inclined to view this man www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZ-fgWXPOBY as “sad” (in the catachresic, somewhat comical sense) because he actually agreed to spend enough time in his life to create a video which would end up lasting more than 3 hours in which he reads out the longest word in the English language (methionylthreonyl... [...] ...serxisoleucine, or the chemical name of titin) for the public while looking what I once would have regarded as merely bored. (He’s not even a native English speaker, interestingly enough.) But what does that say about me? But then, what about him? Maybe someone should ask him if he actually expected to be commended or praised for this “accomplishment” (i.e. because of how unlikely it is that anyone would do something like this) – which, in reality, he likely (probably subconsciously) doesn’t consider any more likely than I do – and it’s the same with you, right?
The point I am trying to make which is of such relevance to professional translation is this: getting to know another culture in the truest sense is pretty similar to getting to know someone better in the truest sense: for getting to know someone better in the truest sense requires knowing how to put aside labels and (specifically) suggesting that they have qualities similar to whomever else, especially if it’s someone else who has been a defining person in your life for very personal reasons, particularly if you believe that no-one else knows the same. And in particular if they are a fictional character. And while it is quite OK to adhere to harmless ideals, I cannot emphasise how important it is to ask yourself if known claims related thereto are actually grounded in something tangible rather than casuistry.
But please don’t be daunted by the idea of “bending over backwards” to learn a new culture in the truest sense. We live in an age where global travel is easily accomplishable as long as you have enough money and whatnot, so it should come as no surprise that many people claim that they have travelled to at least one foreign country and immersed themselves in the local culture there. But if any given local culture is to be truly understood by anyone, maybe remembering not to be too attached to hypothetical debates regarding “potential” with it is a good place to start. Don’t forget that you could have been born into another country’s local culture, just like the people there could have been born into yours. They say that “education is the progressing realisation of our ignorance” for a reason, you know.
You know, me writing that alone was enough to remind me of the quote “a different language is a different version of life”. So, yes, let’s keep open minds – while never forgetting to account for the significance of our new discoveries: in photos, diary entries, audio recordings, whatever. That’s what immersing yourself in a new culture (without necessarily “submitting to it”) is all about!
Of course, nothing is set in stone. Things change. And professional translators should be proud to wrestle with untested “truths”, as well as tested ones, born of whatever culture, for the sake of better choices in the production of their work.
If this is all too much for you, consider this: which of the following rings truer to you: “the best is yet to come”, or “the worst is yet to come”? Right… now what if I suggested that whichever one you have more psychological / emotional investment in will indeed determine your fate as such?