Friday, April 14, 2006

Where the Dictionary Ends

Well, starting a blog about translation leads to two obvious questions: What exactly is translation? And what does a translator do? There are no short answers here and analyzing what translation is and what a translator does or should be is precisely what I plan to look at in the course of this blog.

Basically, translation is the act of recreating a text in a different language. Etymologically speaking, it is the “carrying across” of words from one language to another. This does not mean, however, that to translate is merely to look up each word in a given text (each word, that is, in the so-called “source language”) in the dictionary and then write down its equivalent in another language (the “target language”).

To illustrate how this technique can lead a translator terribly off-course, we can look at something some of my students do. I teach English to adults and a few of them are either resistant to the idea of learning a new language or else they simply feel “too old” or too discouraged to do so. A sneaky way they attempt to get out of actually putting in effort is to use the dictionary trick. If I assign some writing for homework, these resistant students might, instead of writing directly in English, write in their native language and then use the dictionary to translate their sentences word by word into English. It’s always pretty clear when someone has done this because many of the mistakes are obvious. One student, for example, repeatedly wrote the word “sheep” instead of “get” because the same Swedish word (“får”) covers both English words and he just picked the first word he saw in the dictionary and wrote it down without thinking about whether it was correct. He wrote, “I sheep food at a restaurant.”

You might think that someone who claims to be a translator would know better than to do this, but remembering some of the funny or odd mistranslations I’ve seen leads me to believe otherwise. Besides, translation is not just about the meaning of the words. A translator must carefully consider the culture behind the original text and how that influenced the author, and why an author made the choices s/he did, and how all this can be expressed in a new language in a natural way that does not lose or change anything. As Mikhail Ivanov wrote in an article entitled “Bulgakov’s Post Horses,” translation “begins where the dictionary ends.”

This topic will be continued in the next post.

No comments: