Art and Creativity Coaching Articles

Translators – the invisible writers

Mav Kuhn - Writer & Translator

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The intricacies of translation remain a mystery to some people, including those people who employ translators. The mystery is further befuddled with misconceptions that seem to place a translator in the role of a machine; feed one language in through the eyes or ears and another comes out through the mouth or fingers. Even though such a mechanical and reductionist approach is commonplace, people still balk at and ridicule “machine translations” saying that they are inadequate and lack the subtleties that only a human could convey. It is a shame that translators are not more readily praised for their “subtle” work.

There are several levels of “bad” translation: bad can include poor understanding of the original text, bad grammar, spelling mistakes, a secondary text that reads like a pigeon-language and screams “I have been translated”! But let’s take for granted that most translators work damn hard to master their craft (which is true!). We strive to improve our skills in all the languages that we offer (I’ll nod here to the debate over whether a translator can offer excellent texts when their languages pairs exceed one; personally I have never found a translator who speaks **fluently** in more than two languages – there is usually a bias towards their mother tongue and one other language, any other languages after that do suffer [this is my experience as a project manager for a translation company]). And yet, in spite of all the hard linguistic work, some translators still view their work as a case of transferring information from Language A to Language B; as long as the content is understandable and reads well, that is enough. But in my opinion, it isn’t.

My perception of translation has always been that I am an invisible writer. I am a channel for the original writer to reach people in my native tongue, which is English. Translating requires me to internalise the voice of my source text and replicate it as best I can in English. Yes, this is about matching style, but it goes beyond that. It’s about inhabiting the spirit of the original writer as best I can so that I do true justice in word, sense and tone.

I understand that this might seem too woo-woo for many people, and technical translators especially might roll their eyes considering their source texts. I know, I’ve been there. Who wants to “inhabit the mind” of a writer describing the effects of pilchards on tin cans compared to pineapple? I worked for ten years in industry as a technical translator and it is soul-destroying work (not just the content, but the pressure and demands and the 24/7 nature of having to be the “fifth emergency service”). And yet, I became well acquainted with my customers over ten years. I recognised who was writing which reports. I knew who was wordy and who was more likely to be obtuse. Don’t misunderstand me, if there was any confusion in a text I contacted the client and clarified it so that the translated text read as clear as crystal! Being a translator means that you are responsible for the final text; you are a conduit, but you are not a passive channel.

And the fact is that no one recognises the good work you do as a translator. When your words are read, people see through you and read the words of the original author. When they praise the text, they praise the source writer. I am invisible and remain so. How many translator names do you know for your favourite fiction books by foreign authors? I was reading a book the other day translated from Japanese. I looked to see who the author was … there was just a generic translation company name. The translator hidden even further behind layers – as an individual or a team, forever blanked out to the reader.

You’d think I am complaining about the translator’s visibility? Most people want their work to be recognised and their name added at least as a side note…right? And this is where I think the vocational aspect comes in: either you are a translator because it’s a job and it brings in the money and it’s what you’re qualified to do and you can’t be bothered to find and pursue your own dream, OR you are a translator by vocation. If I translate using only my own voice, stamping my identity all over the place, then the text will be ruined and the reader will very readily see that the text has been slashed. If this is a vocation then you revel in inhabiting another’s mind, playing mental gymnastics as you find the words to convey his or her thoughts in your own language in such a way that the reader never notices the journey that the text has been on.

©Mav Kühn 2016





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This entry was posted on January 23, 2016 by in German Translation, Translation and tagged , .
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