Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Becoming a Craftsman

How does a person learn to be a translator?

There are translation courses and programs, but how useful are they? Is translation the sort of craft that must simply be learned on the job?

Gregory Rabassa, whose memoir has been mentioned in the past couple of posts, calls translation “unteachable.” He writes, “you can explain how translation is done, but how can you tell a student what to say without saying it yourself? You can tell him what book to read but you can’t read it for him. It’s my notion, loose as it might be, that when I’m translating a book, I’m simply reading it in English.” In other words, how can you teach someone to have a true feel for language?

Mr. Rabassa says that people who study to be translators risk becoming “knee-jerk, pedantic, post-modern craftsman,” perhaps because, in the way literature programs now rely heavily on theory rather than on actual literature, some translation courses too focus on theory instead of practice. While theory can be fascinating, students might get so involved with it that they lose their instinct for the practice of translation.

As is clear from his memoir, Mr. Rabassa was quite lucky and was in the right place at the right time. He adds that it was his “good fortune, therefore, to have been left adrift in my circumstances, picking things up in an offhand way…” Other translators, however, need to find some way to make the connections and create the situations he seems to have just fallen into.

Perhaps a mentoring program would be useful. After the would-be translator has thoroughly studied the language/s and the culture/s he plans to work with and developed his analyzing, writing, and editing skills, he could work with an experienced translator and together they could review and discuss translations. Or maybe translation courses should be more like MFA in creative writing programs than like Ph.D. in literature ones, which means they would include workshops, analytical readings of translations, and discussions of what works or doesn’t in translation. And, sure, some theory, too, but not so much that the next generation of translators become knee-jerk, pedantic, post-modern craftsmen.

What sort of education do you have, want, or plan to get, and why? How has your training helped or hindered you as a translator? How would the ideal translation program be organized? Write about your experiences or opinions in the comments section or send me an email. How to train translators is an important issue!

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