mardi 2 août 2011

The experienced translator has no substitute.

I wrote a letter to the editor this week for the first time in my life. I felt like I had no choice but to respond to this article. In it, the journalist suggests that instead of spending money on translation, the City of Ottawa should just have its documents translated by all of its bilingual employees. WHAT?

One of the most frustrating things about being a translator is the lack of recognition. SO many people think that anyone who is bilingual can translate. Why the heck did I do a four-year university degree, then? (I actually have two translation degrees, one undergraduate and one graduate.)

It is NOT true that anyone who is fluently bilingual can translate.

First of all, just because you can speak a language doesn't mean you can write it well. (How many "bilingual positions" just require you to be able to say "Bonjour." "Puis-je vous aider?" and "Merci."?)

Second, to be a good translator, you have to understand all the cultural references, idiomatic expressions (example: he took it upon himself to make the call) and nuances of the source language (the language you're translating from) as well as all the finer points of grammar (including rules for punctuation, capitalization, subject-verb agreement, etc.), usage (i.e. what is considered acceptable by native speakers) and style in the target language (the language you're translating into).

Third, expressing yourself in a foreign language is one thing. Transferring a complete message from one language into another is something else entirely - in fact, it's something most people have never tried to do.

I have to admit that, given the right tools (a variety of dictionaries, glossaries to help with specialized terminology, up-to-date grammar and style books), some fluently bilingual people - those who are naturally very good writers and have an eye for detail - may be able to do an acceptable job. But I can guarantee that it will take them at least twice the time that it would take a professional translator.

People also don't understand why translation costs so much. It may look easy, but it's not. Translation is not just a matter of replacing words with words. Anyone can do that! Producing professional quality translations means convincing the translation's reader of the message of the original, while making it sound natural in the target language. Writing a clear, coherent and concise text is difficult enough. Translators have to do this all while being restricted to the ideas contained in the original text.

Here are a few examples of what translators have to deal with.

1) In French, if you wanted to tell a customer that getting a new driver's licence is quite easy, you might say that something like "c'est simple comme bonjour!". Now, if you just replace the words with English ones, you get "it's simple like hello!". Does that mean anything to you? Would you be confused, and maybe a bit offended, if you received a letter from your city hall telling you this? It might happen if non-translators are asked to translate (and it wouldn't be their fault!). Professional translators are specially trained to recognize these types of expressions and NOT translate them word-for-word.

2) There are so many subtleties in language that you wouldn't take notice of unless you had tried to translate yourself. Take, for example, the sentence "You should take three pills a day." Is that a suggestion? "Should" can be used to recommend something. (You should go to bed earlier.) But if your pharmacist says you should take three pills a day, he is giving you instructions. "Should" means obligation to do something in this case. There are a HUGE number of words like this that are polysemous (they have many different meanings and can lead to ambiguity if not used correctly). Try translating a sentence like "On a trouvé la solution." That "on" could mean "we". But it could also be an impersonal construction, which could be translated as "The solution has been found" or "Someone has found the solution."

3) Consider this sentence: "J'affirme que cette demande n'est pas très réaliste". A non-professional translator might come up with "I affirm that this request is not very realistic." Does that sound like natural English to you? No. An experienced translator would probably write "I believe that..." or "I feel that..." or simply "This request is quite unrealistic." What about this sentence? "Je ne vous donne que dix dollars." When asked to translate this quickly, you might be tempted to write "I'm not going to give you ten dollars." In fact, it means quite the opposite: "I'm only going to give you ten dollars."

4) An example of usage: in English, it's customary to begin a letter with "Dear Mr. Smith,"... In French, if you wrote "Cher Monsieur Smith,", you would be adressing him as a dear friend. (The equivalent of "Cher..." would be "Dearest John,...") Possibly not the neutral message you wanted to send. Professional translators are aware of these differences in customary usage.

5) There are many traps that inexperienced translators can fall into. "Le prix actuel de ce chandail est..." No, that doesn't mean "actual price". It means "current price". "Actuel" and "actual" are what we call "false friends": words in two languages that sound alike but don't mean the same thing! Another famous example is saying "Soy embarazada" in Spanish when you mean to say that you're embarassed. It actually means you're pregnant!

The experienced translator has no substitute.

1 commentaire:

  1. AGREED! and GOOD FOR YOU!!! I think far too often people take the media as some sort of authority and acquiesce to what they publish. "Since it's in the paper, it must be how things are. Right?" It is imperative that we challenge this in every way possible. There was a show review for the musical Wicked that I disagreed with so much that I emailed the editor and the author. I never recieved a response but I feel good

    The heart of the idea is similar to the back-scatter x-ray machines in airports. If no one opts-out of being scanned, then eventually that ceases to become an option. If people don't see the 'letters to the editor' section, and if people don't see that these people are fallible, if they don't see people opting-out of the scan then they will continue with the cattle-like mindset and just follow the person in front of them.

    I'm interested to hear replies!! :)