Understanding Professional Translation

The recent BBC Radio 4 programme entitled ‘Something Understood: Translation’ provides an interesting insight into the often misunderstood world of professional translation.

Literary translation is surely one of the joys of life: juggling words and playing with language, navigating the tricky anomalies between one tongue and another, attempting to capture the essence of a literary text in a foreign idiom, and yet it is not a simple case (as has been emphasised in previous blogs) of replacing one word with another.

The BBC programme, presented by Mark Tully, explores the complications and joys of translation in this illuminating documentary. As the programme notes, we in western society are brought up with the idea that translation is a straightforward process, the direct transcription of a text. As the programme notes, there is now a whole academic discipline, Translation Studies, dedicated to the understanding of this delicate, complicated process which involves the conveying a message to a larger audience.

The documentary cites several amusing examples about how even simple messages can be mistranslated, quoting signs and notices in hotels, shops, stations, and restaurants across the world. The fact that even straightforward words and phrases can be mistranslated is testament to the necessity of translating into one’s native language only; understanding a language is not the same as being able to write it flawlessly.

The documentary makes the obvious point that the translation of a legal document and that of a poem are entirely different, but adds the interesting snippet that the western tradition is relatively unusual in having only one word to describe the process of rendering a text from one language into another. The word ‘translation’, claims an interviewee on the documentary, does not take account of the degrees of translation, which is perhaps better conceived as a spectrum rather than a process. In the Indian tradition, translation is seen as a form of re-writing and the medieval vocabulary distinguished between types of language and text, and the methods used to translate these texts, such as paraphrasing for some and a more literal method for others.

The documentary raises the problem translators encounter when some words do not exist in both the languages involved in any given translation process; Portuguese, for example, has a word to describe ‘an emotionless state, a profound melancholic nostalgia’ (as defined by the documentary), but this particular word has no equivalent in English. The programme considering the difficulty of translating emotions and cultural concepts which are foreign to the target audience, and indeed the translator himself. Translation is implicitly presented in the documentary as an intensification of the reading experience, as the translator has to grapple with the text, get into the mind of the author and the characters, immerse himself in the setting of the story. As the documentary points out, the translator has to have a deep appreciation of the text in order to have the skill and patience required to render that text in a faithful a way as possible for the target readership. The translator must, notes the documentary, be ‘accurate without being mechanical’, and capture both the ‘sense and spirit’ of the work. Obviously not all nuances of the language, setting and cultural context of the original can be retained in translation, but it is the translator’s job to retain as much of the original as possible. If the author is still alive, he can act as a guide or adviser to the translator.

The documentary raises the point that the distance between different cultural concepts is not so great when translating between two European languages, for example, or between an Indian language and English, if that Indian language is one which is spoken in an urban area and belongs to a culture which has undergone a lot of English influence. On the other hand, books about areas of rural India, the programme notes, often include very different cultural concepts and a large lexicon with no equivalent in English, which means the translator has to be more creative and is perhaps less able to remain faithful to the original text.

The documentary also quotes author Salman Rushdie, poets Rainer Maria Rilke and Ted Hughes in this fascinating exploration of the processes and intricacies of translation.

Rebecca Loxton