Saturday, April 15, 2006

Unlocking the Prison of Language

If we know that translation goes far beyond the dictionary, where does that leave the translator?

Here’s a short article I wrote a couple of years ago, called “What Makes a Translator?” The third paragraph looks specifically at what skills and qualities a translator should have.

What Makes a Translator?

The “prison of language is only temporary…someday a merciful guard – the perfect translator – will come along with his keys and let us out,” Wendy Lesser wrote in an article, “The Mysteries of Translation,” in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2002. The following questions remain, however: Who is this translator? What does he do? And what skills should he possess?

Simply put, a translator is a person who recreates a text in another language, attempting to keep a delicate balance between being so literal that the text sounds awkward and unnatural in the new language or being so free that the text has become virtually unrecognizable. A translator has to not only translate the words, but also the concepts. In other words, a translator unlocks the prison of language, as Ms. Lesser said, and helps a text break free of its limited original language, culture, and audience. This service is an unfortunately under-appreciated art and craft.

To do all the above, a translator must have the following things: a native or near-native level of proficiency in both the source language (the language to be translated from) and the target language (the language to be translated to); the ability to thoroughly understand all that a text says and implies; and excellent writing and editing skills. Ideally, the translator would also have a lot of knowledge about both the source and target language cultures, as this affects word usage and meaning, as well as about the author of the original document and his style of writing.

It all sounds rather formidable, certainly, but not impossible. There are, in fact, many excellent practitioners out there who fulfill these hefty requirements, but the tiny number of translated books published in the United States each year reveals the sad fact that few people take up this challenging and stimulating work. If only more people would join the ranks of translators and help unlock the prison of language.

In other words, the skills an ideal translator would possess are:

1. Native or near-native proficiency in the source language.

2. Native proficiency in the target language.

3. Excellent reading comprehension abilities.

4. Excellent writing abilities.

5. Excellent editing abilities.

6. Thorough knowledge of the source language culture.

7. Thorough knowledge of the target language culture.

8. Knowledge of the author.

No wonder not that many people work with unlocking the prison of language!

Of course, not all translators can live up to this ideal, but it is helpful to think about what we should be working towards.


beyond214 said...

2. Native proficiency in the target language.

I don't know the exact meaning of "Native proficiency". Does it mean that someone must be native or someone who uses a second language freely enough to sound like a native one?

B.J. Epstein said...

My usual view is that people should only translate to their native tongues. However, there are some excellent translators out there who can translate to another language as well. So it depends, but generally, I'd say your target language is your native one.

Best wishes,

beyond214 said...

The only reason that I asked this question was that I want to be a translator who translate my mother tongue into English... I know it's hard...
I'm a Chinese student. There're so many good Chinese written books, but only few of them have been translated into English.
Maybe it's because Chinese is difficult? I don't know :-)

B.J. Epstein said...

Well, Chinese is difficult, but it is also that people in English-speaking countries have a notorious aversion to translated works, no matter what the country of origin. But maybe you will be able to interested those readers in Chinese books!

Best wishes,