What is translation?
Definitions, perceptions, misconceptions…are translators ‘just’ messengers who ferry things across borders? This view is rooted in the history of the word ‘translation’ in English and European languages. Other languages offer different images and metaphors, eg bridging, carrying the sense across, a creative retelling, turning over an embroidery, giving a new life…
Types of translation:
- interlingual – between languages
- literal: close to the original; translations rendering each word separately (interlinear) are rare
- sense-for-sense or free: focus on conveying the sense or meaning, even if the words or ways of expression change; what counts as freely conveying the sense to some people may be criticised as taking too many liberties by others; depends on beliefs, ideologies and ideas about the purpose of the text and its translation
- intralingual – within the same language
- shares with translation ‘proper’ the idea of changing form but maintaining meaning and the need to adjust to different audiences and expectations, eg between registers, as in formal and informal speech, or between regional varieties
- indicative of the richness of perspectives, knowledge and cultures that exist within linguistic traditions (however forgotten; see Robert Macfarlane)
- language does not just explain but helps generate meanings, create new understandings and bring new energy to familiar entities
- err…related to editing, eg exercise on translating a parking ticket from technical writing to Plain English (“Your translation should be readable, easily understandable and cover all the points of the source text.”)
- intersemiotic – moving between different types of language, such as verbal and visual codes; between media or sign systems, when ideas expressed verbally are translated into images and/or movement
Pillar of salt metaphor: a ‘backward gaze’, ie staring at or obsessive working with the text results in something that lacks life.
The dictum that something gets lost in translation further suggests that the ‘imitation’ is inevitably imperfect, with the figure of the translator subordinated to that of the creative author.
The origin of the English word ‘translation’ suggests that translation is about transferring meaning in space. One influential perception is that meaning can be carried over and reach the other language or culture intact:
It’s as though there was some core content that you wrap in paper (ie express in language) and send on its way. At the border the packaging or language is changed but the content remains the same, to arrive untouched at its destination…These images ignore the profound connection between meaning and language as well as culture, and the fact that changing the language may affect meaning itself.
Translators mediate between two sides without taking sides – they are neutral and render information ‘faithfully’. At the same time, as bilinguals having access to information in both languages, translators have always been viewed with suspicion.
Techniques (editing again):
- substituting words
- paraphrasing meaning
- simplifying sentences
- reorganising information
- creative solutions tailored for a new audience and locale (transcreation or localisation)
- cultural factors can affect translation, from simple everyday contexts like the social norms associated with drinking coffee to complex phenomena such as localisation
- translators as ‘cultural mediators’, needing not just linguistic but also cultural knowledge and cultural awareness (always remember to check your own assumptions)
- professional ethics aim to avoid interferences caused by unconscious bias and assumptions
- the meanings carried by verbal language (and by visual language or gestures) are coloured by cultural assumptions, social habits, expectations
- in the 1990s translation scholars proposed what is now known as ‘the cultural turn’ in translation studies; besides Source Text/Language and Target Text/Language we also need to think of Source Culture and Target Culture
- types of cultural communication:
- intralingual – a set of behaviours, including language conventions and habits, associated with a particular activity or profession; see also Barack Obama’s ‘anger translator’
- interlingual – combined with specialist translation, for instance when translating a legal text into the language of a country whose legal system differs substantially from that of the Source Text
- localisation – eg the American Dream in other locales…localisation is all about the audience; it’s not about the original in itself, it’s about that text making sense and being usable for a particular place and for a particular set of people
Dilemma: when translating material for a publicity campaign for an international company, the translator becomes aware of possible issues due to cultural stereotyping which might negatively affect the reception of the advertisement. – The translator should contact the client and point out the problem. ( In this case the relationship is between client and translator only and discussing the issue will not cause undue interference.)
According to the ITI’s code of conduct, a professional translator should:
- Only translate into their native language or ‘a language of habitual use’. The translator’s competence in those languages is assessed and certified by the professional body. (Art 4.1.1)
- Translate in a way that ensures ‘fidelity of meaning and register’, unless they have been specifically required by the client to re-create certain elements of the source culture or context. (Art. 4.1.2)
- Notify the client if there are errors, omissions or imprecise language in the source text. (Art. 4.1.4)
- Keep information and material translated confidential. (Art. 3.5.1)
While the terminology used to discuss translation leads us to divide the world along linguistic and national lines (between source and target cultures, source and target language speakers), in our increasingly multilingual and globalised world there are many people who write, think and speak in more than one language but would not see themselves as translators. Languages often co-exist within the same geographical space, the same community. (This is like the Pole who doesn’t watch British TV, he’s Polish…)
Salman Rushdie describes post-colonial subjects and migrants as ‘translated men’, individuals who are forced to live a life ‘in-between’ in the constant negotiation between different languages, conceptualisations of the world and cultural traditions. Multilingual speakers are often oblivious of translation because they themselves live ‘in translation’, forging their identity and relationships in a constant tension between different languages and cultural allegiances.
Being a migrant, an exile, a traveller, makes you aware not only of the multiplicity of linguistic landscapes that surround us but also of the often very concrete examples of the impossibility of translation. When are multilinguals translators – and when does a non-native become a multilingual? Is it ‘interlingual’, ‘intralingual’, ‘translation between sign systems’, ‘cultural translation’ or a mixture of all of them?
Spectators as translators – what happens when you hear a song or listen to a performance in a foreign language? Research on intercultural spectatorship suggests that the response to foreign language performance, be it in the field of music, theatre or film, is never complete non-understanding. Even if we do not understand the language that is spoken in performance, we respond to it in a different way and create a different relationship of meaning. As spectators, we are used to giving meaning not only to sounds and language but to objects, gestures, facial expressions, and put those meanings together to create a story in our own mind. (Or we just like the tune. The ‘meaning’ of a lot of English pop music my partner grew up with was actually about completely passed him by.)
Some discussion of ‘non-native’ translators – see Exploring directionality in translation studies.
Where does translation take place?
Ooh, the spatial turn, you do wonder if it’s compulsory with FutureLearn:
We will look at the relationship between translation and space. Translation is, literally, all around us, whether we see it or not. We encounter it on the pages of books and on our computer screens, on the streets of our cities, in airports, museums and schools. And the way in which we think about the space around us, the way in which we inhabit it, whether we feel at home in it or not, is closely linked with languages and with translation.
We will discuss how translators like to organise their own space, as well as how they are at times forced to work in spaces and places which are less than ideal. And we will discuss how just by looking at the position of text on the page we make assumptions about what is or is not a translation.
The spaces of translation:
- a book and its pages, in which translation and the original can be both visible or can collapse, one into the other
- the public space of the museum, in which multiple languages encounter each other
- a conflict zone, in which interpreters mediate between factions, often in very difficult circumstances
- on the borders between states, between languages, between cultures
- inside our nations and inside our increasingly multi-lingual cities (see The city as translation zone)
- the way in which different languages are displayed, mixed, perceived or contested in public spaces
- the way in which languages face each other, overlap, or mix in multilingual cities
- polyphonic cities – translation and multilingualism sit side by side, often mixed through forms of ‘translanguaging’
- translation is not neutral – it changes spaces, it transforms them, and it transforms the way in which we can access space, who can access it, and to what extent; example: gender
- space is also not neutral – where do we position something on a page? translation and its original will change the relationship of power between those texts
- a world in constant movement and mobility, constantly bringing previously disparate and distant ideas, representations and experiences into local frames of references
- islands and bridges are not the only spatial images of translation (36 metaphors) – translation can also be found within one location, such as one city or even one street where multiple languages co-exist, clash, overlap or are creatively mixed
- graphic and spatial arrangements, eg parallel texts – most people in the West will instinctively assume that the text which appears before the other is the source text (from top to bottom of the page and from left to right); spatial arrangement is enough to indicate a ‘hierarchy’ of reading
When does non-native become peer translation? Translanguaging – a book written by an author in a language which is not his or her mother tongue (translingual authors often make use of multiple languages in their writing), see also multilingual rock bands.
Key considerations when dealing with space and translation:
- Type: what type of translation (or interpreting) is appropriate in a given scenario?
- Visibility: how visible (or invisible) is the translation going to be in a specific place, and why?
- Location: what are the physical locations in which translation will take place and how can they be adapted, if needed, to ensure that the space is suitable for the activities that are being planned?
- Participants: who are the people taking part in the translation process and what is the relationship among them?
- Power relationships: are there any power implications in the situation and, if so, how are they going to influence the translation process or its outcomes?
- Ethical issues: what are the ethical questions posed by the specific situation in which translation will take place?
- it is essential to think about space when dealing with translation and interpreting
- always question the assumptions we instinctively make on the basis of spatial arrangements, for instance assumptions about authority, power and originality
- proximity and distance are important when translating or interpreting, too distant and translation becomes difficult, if not impossible; too close and it may become uncomfortable
- space arrangements often have implications for privacy when translating and interpreting.
- in many cases it is important to create a safe space in which translation can take place; how we do this varies from case to case
What is a good translation?
The Big Question: should a translation mirror the style of the source or refer to the style of the target (linguistic description vs social evaluation)? It depends on what the translation is trying to achieve.
The source text model: comparing the profiles
Anecdotes about interesting mistranslations abound, attracting so much attention that it may be easier to explain what a good translation is not than what it actually is. The understanding of quality depends on text and translation types as well as the context: the clients, users, audience and so on.
Some approaches concentrate on the relationship between the source text and the translation, expecting them to be equivalent in meaning and, sometimes, form. To measure how successful the transfer of meaning has been, some scholars suggest analysing the source text first, using criteria borrowed from linguistics such as:
- the subject matter
- the communicative situation (who is addressing whom)
- register (the level of formality)
- cohesion (logical links within the text)
- the genre or text function (for example, an informative report vs a persuasive political speech)
- the argumentative or narrative structure (how the points are made or how a story develops within the text)
The quality can be judged by analysing the translation using the same criteria as for the source text (genre, subject matter, etc.) and then comparing the texts’ profiles. If they are very similar, it’s a good translation; if there are mismatches, it’s not so good. Some models allow departures from the source text if they bring the translation more in line with the preferences and conventions of the target language – a translation that fulfills its purpose in the target language and culture is a good translation, even if it changes the source text.
The user and purpose model: assessing the function
Translation defined by purpose: in privileging the purpose, this approach is interested in the target text and context and a connection to the source text may become secondary. Some people are critical of this, suggesting that if a translation is very far away from the original, it would be misleading to call it a translation. Another point of criticism is that it is not always clear what the ‘function’ should be and whether it has been fulfilled.
A translation brief (from Sonia Colina’s 2015 book Fundamentals of translation (adapted):
In the translation industry this criterion ensures resources are allocated effectively. How long would you expect the translator to spend working on your text, with what level of attention and how much revision? How much do you wish to pay for?
Technology has had a huge impact on how translations are produced to meet tight deadlines and sufficient quality standards. Given the industry focus on efficiency, the use of MT may be acceptable for some ‘quick and dirty’ internal tasks, where the gist matters.
Quality concerns not just the product but also the whole process, from recruitment/the commission, process management via a project manager with a system for handling queries, the scope of revisions depending on the available resources, and the profile and purpose of the project (from sample checks against the source text to a quick skim of the target text for basic readability and typos or a bilingual revision against the original).
Read the target text more than once, each time focusing on other issues such as flow and logic, or spelling and grammar. Consistency is extremely important: from the use of terms, to style, to punctuation. Some clients may prefer a particular house style, i.e. a set of language and editing rules. Other tips for efficient revision include reading on paper and not on screen and having the translation revised by someone else (not the translator).
Further stages of the translation process may involve IT checks (especially for specialised formats), product testing (for example, in game localisation) and client surveys.
However, quality control does not have to be present at every stage – eg a call for voluntary translators may have some quality control at a later stage.
- translating specialised, as opposed to general, content from a field of knowledge (eg medical, legal, scientific, technical)
- specialised texts tend to contain terms (as opposed to regular words) from the relevant field, as well as abbreviations and acronyms
- some acronyms have an established target language equivalent, while others may be left in the original language, especially in translations from English, and explained in the target language
- a key marker of translation quality is to render terms accurately and consistently
Key methods and resources for researching terminology:
- specialised dictionaries, monolingual dictionaries or lexicons
- reading about the subject in the source language and the target language
- consulting specialists and fellow translators (eg on a forum)
- looking up authoritative translations of similar texts, which show how relevant terms have been translated before
- online terminological databases
- translation memories
Sometimes it’s not easy to find an equivalent term – there may be more than one term (one borrowed from another language and one ‘native’)or there may be none. If there is no term in the target language a new term may be introduced through translation, by eg literal translation or calque (a French word for tracing paper), or by borrowing, eg importing the English word.
Specialised translation can sometimes pose cultural problems, as conventions for writing specialised texts vary across languages. For example, in English it’s acceptable to use personal pronouns such as ‘we’ in technical writing. The dominance of English means that Anglophone ways of writing and presenting knowledge exert a huge influence on how specialised texts are translated and written in other languages. The situation is so serious that scholars find non-Anglophone ways of constructing knowledge under threat and warn against ‘epistemicide’, or the killing of knowledge.
Literary translation – favouring fluency?:
- from experiments in literalism to free adaptations
- the dominant view among many contemporary publishers is that a well translated book reads naturally and the language flows well, sometimes to the extent of creating an illusion that the book has been originally written in the target language – this rests on the assumption that translation is simply about re-packaging the content in another language
- “make the narrative read fluently” – making the language idiomatic and natural, so it does not read like a translation; a good translation is ‘invisible’ (translators are only noticed to be blamed, never to be praised)
- vs translation as a truly creative process – instead of seeing a translation as a mere copy of an original, we may consider it a text among many texts
- what about literature that strives for unique ways of expression, sculpting language into shapes unseen before (or just using different effects)? If language in a literary piece is not a transparent container for meaning but instead draws attention to itself, how will such pieces be translated? – many translators and publishers prefer not to experiment too much
- allowing foreignness – calls for literary translations that bend and inflect the target language, sound foreign and, indeed, read like translations
- if a text is complicated, ambiguous and challenging, it may be inviting us to pause and see things in a new way or to develop our own interpretations – that complexity should be recreated in translation, even if the resulting text may become even more unusual than the original because of a close or experimental translation
- eg long sentences should be recreated, even if the target language normally uses shorter sentences
- translations should signal linguistic and cultural foreignness to expose readers to other cultures (‘foreignising’, making translators more visible and raising their status, making a difference through translation)
- vs strange sounding texts may appear elitist or scholarly and put readers off; politically progressive translation depends on the context, eg if the source culture has been negatively stereotyped by the target culture, ‘foreignised’ translations could reinforce stereotypes of strangeness, primitivism
- how to render foreign cultural references – ricotta or cream cheese?
- good literary translation is about representing others in a responsible way – many dilemmas!
Translations: either compare with originals or focus on the target audience and the translation function (as in industry)
Type of translation:
- specialised – a high degree of accuracy is important
- literary – opinion is divided:
- for some people a well translated book or novel or poem will read very naturally as though it had been written in the target language
- others prefer to know that they’re reading a translation for they like the style to be a bit different or unusual, or they want to see words and concepts from another culture
- yet others prefer, whatever the message, to represent the source author, and maybe the community that’s depicted in the literary work in a fair way
The myths about translation, that it is easy, that anybody can do it, it’s just a matter of transposing one word for another or perhaps the opposite that it is an impossible task bound to betray and to fail the original every time…How to prepare for translation so that you can perhaps pre-empt some of the difficulties and issues that might come up.