We translators are used to thinking about words. But sometimes we have to focus on individual letters.
In Clifford E. Landers’ book, Literary Translation: A Practical Guide, which has been mentioned in the past couple of posts, he talks about how he kept trying to figure out what the Portuguese word “viago” meant. He asked many people and spent a lot of time thinking about it, and it was the author who eventually set him straight. There was no such word; Landers finally found out that it was a typo for “visgo.”
Not long ago, I had a similar situation. I was struggling with a Swedish sentence, which I just couldn’t get to make sense. The word “de” confused me, because it seemed out of place. At last I asked my partner, who took one brief look at the sentence and informed me that “de” was a typo; it should have been “den”. I immediately saw that that was the case and I wondered why I hadn’t noticed it myself. I realized that I kept blaming myself and suspecting I just couldn’t get it, instead of considering that maybe something was wrong with the text.
The fact is, typographical errors in texts of all kinds are extremely common. I see typos every day. I see them in newspapers and magazines, in books, on signs in stores, online, in menus, and so on. So why do we generally assume that a text we are translating has been perfectly edited? Why do we strain to try to make sense out of an odd sentence before even thinking about the possibility that it is not a lack of understanding or intelligence on our part that is causing the problem but simply a mistake in the text? Why don’t we ask the author or editor about the sentence? Are we too embarrassed about being translators who have questions about the text?
One little letter can change the meaning of a phrase (or even remove the meaning from a phrase entirely). Perhaps we would do well to remember that texts to be translated can include typos, and probably do. So if something doesn’t make sense to us, we might want to think about whether a letter might be missing or wrong; that won’t always be the case, but it could be more often than we think.