Alright folks, while I’m dealing with the aftermath of the fundraiser, here’s a question from the mailbag.
You’ve mentioned your translators on your blog before, generally in glowing terms. I don’t really see what the big deal is. You wrote something great. You made something out of nothing. But they’re not doing that. They’re not really making anything, they’re just…. copying it.
Plus, don’t you think that what they do is rapidly becoming obsolete? They already have programs that can translate languages. One wonders why they bother having people translators at all.
At first, Steve, I thought you might be pulling my leg with this e-mail. “Nobody could really think translation was easy,” I thought to myself. “He has to be putting me on.”
Then I realized that I’ve been having a crash course in the perils of translation over the last year and a half. And I remembered that most Americans are pointedly, painfully monolingual. And I remembered one of my friends saying as a joke, “How hard can it be to learn French? French babies do it all the time….”
So I’m going to take this question at face value, Steve. The truth is, translation has got to be one of the hardest jobs there is. Period.
First off, you have to be fluent in two languages. Not just kind of fluent, but *really* fluent. You need to understand the culture of the language you’re translating from, and the idiomatic speech.
Like what I said up there in my first paragraph. “Pulling my leg” is an idiom. It doesn’t mean what it actually says. If you’re pulling my leg, it mean you’re playing a joke on me, teasing me.
There are a thousand little things like that stand in the way of true fluency, and you can’t just copy them over into the new language and have them make any sense. For example, if I said, “You have a bird,” in Germany, I’m not actually saying anything about a bird. What I’m actually saying is that you’re crazy.
Secondly, you have to decide if a translation is going to be true to the letter of the work, or true to the spirit of the work.
What do I mean by this? Well… I’m reminded of what one of my favorite professors said when I asked him which version of the Odyssey I should read. I was looking for the best translation, and I trusted him, because he had a good old-fashioned classical education and could actually read Latin and Greek.
“It’s not really an issue of the best translation,” he said. “My old classics professor used to say, ‘a translation is like a woman. It can be beautiful, or it can be faithful, but it can’t be both….’”
Sexism aside, I think this strikes to the heart of the issue. A word-by-word translation is going to be clunky and awkward. But a beautiful one isn’t going to actually say the exact same thing as the original. A translator needs to walk that fine line between. Or rather, they have to dance madly back and forth over that line.
And as for translators being replaced by computer programs? I give a hearty laugh. Translation is not a science, it is an art. And as such, it belongs solely in the realm of humans.
Most everyone knows about Babelfish. Let me show you what something looks like when I use that program to translate something from English to German and back again. If this were as simple as plugging numbers into an equation, we should end up with the same thing we started with, right?
Here’s a paragraph most of you probably recognise:
I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep.
You may have heard of me.
I stole princesses back of sleeping truck kings. I burned down the city of Trebon. I spent and with my reason and my life left the night with Felurian. I was away-driven of the university at a recent age, than most people are inside permitted. I step ways by moonlight, which others are afraid, in order to speak during from the day to. I spoke loved women and written Lieden, who let the Minnesänger cry with Gods.
They can have heard of me.
And that’s using German, a language so closely related to English that if they were people, it would be illegal for them to get married.
Look what happens when you do the same think with a language that’s *really* different, like Japanese:
I stole the king woman from wheelbarrow king of sleep. I burnt under the town of Trebon. I passed the night of Felurian, my sanity and went away with my life both. I was discharged rather than being able to allot most people from the university of a younger age. I the other people between day step on the road with the moonlight which is feared in order to speak concerning. I God, to the song by the document which makes the woman and the wandering minstrel cry who are loved spoke.
It can inquire about me.
Yeah. I think the translators’ jobs are safe for another year or two.