This weekend, I was reading Translation and Power, edited by Maria Tymoczko and Edwin Gentzler. In an interesting essay by Lin Kenan on translation’s role in China, there was a section on the history of translation in the country. Translation in China began two thousand years ago with Buddhist religious texts; such translation was done in teams and it included what perhaps can be considered a form of sight translation, the subject of the last post.
Dr. Kenan writes: “First, a foreign monk recited from the scriptures. As he was doing so, a native speaker of the target language translated orally what was heard into Chinese. Then someone else transcribed it into written script before it was polished and finalized by a stylist.”
This is quite a different method of operation than most translators follow these days, at least in Europe and the United States. It is true that many religious documents are translated in teams or at least the translation projects are run by editorial boards, but otherwise, team translation is not common, and interpretation/sight translation (I assume that the interpreters in China had access to the scriptures being recited from) usually is not part of the process. One wonders if the translations suffered or were improved because of the multitude of people working on them. Having several people to share ideas with and/or to look over a translation is generally beneficial for translators and their work, but there is also the question of style, since all people have different vocabularies and different ways of writing, so it might be difficult to make a text consistent if each of the translators on a team has his or her own translation techniques and his or her own sense of the text and its style.
Dr. Kenan mentions that team translation is still practiced regularly in China; a recent example he gives is James Joyce’s Ulysses.