Tuesday, June 20, 2006

An Interview with Ken Schubert Continued: On Being Literal

The conversation with translator Ken Schubert is continued.

BJE: On your website, you write, "In fact, many everyday expressions are not conducive to a direct translation, but require a creative effort on the part of the translator to convey their true sense." Do you have any examples of such expressions?

KS: There are thousands of examples of everyday expressions that can't be translated directly. The first one that came to mind when you asked the question was "det gäller att." One of my favorite translations is "the trick is to," but of course it's not applicable in most cases. One good approach is to leave the phrase out completely in English.

BJE: Leaving the phrase out completely can be a good solution, but do you ever have clients complain because they feel you haven't been literal enough? How closely do you usually follow a text?

KS: I've had very few complaints about lack of literalness. I generally follow the Swedish text sentence by sentence, though I might combine two sentences or make one sentence into two. Beyond that, I am extremely un-literal in terms of sentence structure or the individual words used. I try to translate technical terms literally, but otherwise I try to ignore the particular word and sentence structure used in Swedish and get to what is being said instead.

BJE: About literalness, that is often a problem new translators have. They are afraid of deviating too much from the text. They feel that being faithful to the text means being completely faithful to each word, each way of saying things, etc. Then they end up with problems where their translation sounds forced and foreign. What advice to you have to them, or to any translator who can't quite let go, as it were?

KS: I think each translator has to develop an approach that feels best to them. At one point early in my career, I would translate the entire text fairly quickly and then spend a lot of time modifying it later. Now I generally spend a good deal of time on each sentence initially and make minimal changes later. The first approach was based on a fairly literal translation that gradually became less literal with each modification. The second approach is based on trying to grasp the meaning of the sentence the first time without getting hung up on the words. The second approach has become natural for me now, but it's still more time-consuming and arduous than a literal approach. So it requires a lot of patience and dedication to what you're doing. Customers won't necessarily notice the difference. And as much as I like my approach, the most important thing is consistency and remaining loyal to the source text, however you define loyalty. I don't like translation that gratuitously adds or subtracts something just because it feels good. For me, anything you "change" has to be because you think it more accurately reflects what is meant by the source text or because it is "what would be said" in a corresponding situation in English.

BJE: Your comment on literalness reminds me of something on your website. You wrote, "Far more than a collection of symbols, a language is a dynamic, complex structure – an organism – that survives and evolves through a constant interplay between the whole and the parts." Can you expand on your perspective on language and translation?

KS: Without going into a long exposition on language, I'll just say that the structure of a language tends to determine the words that are used and not vice versa. That's why a 4-year-old child understands most of what is being said, not because their vocabulary is so large but because they've grasped the essence of the structure. I actually experimented with that when learning French over the past few years. I listened to French radio for a couple of years without looking up a single word. Although I couldn't have repeated literally what was being said, I understood the essence of what was being talked about. For translators, that means that the sentence structure or flow of logic in the Swedish text may not correspond to what works in English. Of course, we're fairly limited by the fact that we usually can't move sentences around between paragraphs. Sometimes it's necessary though. One common difference between English and Swedish is that English tends to present the most vital information about a phenomenon the first time it's mentioned, whereas Swedish will present it gradually. A tiny example I ran across today went something like, "XX is a very useful tool for researchers. This database has been in use for many years..." In English, you would say, "The XX database is a very useful tool for researchers...."

BJE: When you say "structure" could you be specific about what you mean? How much freedom can/should translators take with structure?

KS: I was using structure to refer to a particular language as an organism that follows certain principles. As native speakers, we may not be conscious of the principles, but we formulate our words and sentences in accordance with them. The principles of a foreign language may be more obvious to us. One of my main tasks as a translator as I see it is to allow the way that English generates words and phrases to inform my translation. Of course, I'm limited to a certain extent by the need to express a particular thought from the Swedish text, even if the thought isn't "English" in nature or would naturally appear in another part of the text in English. So you have to make compromises as a translator. But again, I don't think that translators should take any "freedom" with structure. They should look for the structure that best reflects what is meant in Swedish and that is most natural in English, given the constraints they are working under. In other words, the non-literal approach is actually more rigorous than the literal approach because your ideal is "how would an English writer express themselves in this specific situation."

BJE: Yes, and that is what is so challenging. Sometimes a translator can get so caught up in the way something is said in Swedish (or whatever the source language is), that it is difficult to figure out how an English writer would have said it. You have to be creative and you have to keep your native language (the target language) fresh, so it still feels natural to you.

KS: I have to say that translation never truly becomes easy if you take it seriously, because it poses new challenges at each step along the way. And you're still faced by the impossibility of truly capturing the entire meaning of the original. Frequently a translation is "better" than the original in terms of being more understandable conceptually, but it never fully captures the full spontaneity of the way we speak our native languages.

This conversation will be continued in the next post.

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