Monday, December 11, 2006

Do Writers Make Good Translators?

In the last post, I looked at reasons why writers might be put off from translation (the belief that translation is not creative or stimulating, the idea that it is not a well paid job, and a simple lack of knowledge about how to begin), but I didn’t explore a somewhat controversial point made in one of the first paragraphs. I wrote: “Writers are the ideal people to work as translators because they generally already have excellent writing and language skills and an enthusiasm for words”, but is this in fact true?

Well, let’s compare the qualities the typical good translator needs to those the typical good writer has. To start with language ability, a translator must have native proficiency in the target language and near-native proficiency in the source language. A writer obviously ought to have exceptional language skills in the language she or he writes in, but that doesn’t mean that she or he knows a second language at the necessary level. However, being immersed in the world of words and having a deep understanding of language does suggest that one would be open to and capable of learning another tongue.

Next, a translator has to have excellent reading comprehension abilities, because she or he is, it can be argued, the closest reader a text will ever have. Many writers are also voracious and careful readers, or at least they should be because reading and analyzing works by others is beneficial to their own work. A translator can not translate well without thoroughly understanding what the text is about, who the audience is to be, what the author’s style is, what kind of vocabulary is used, what the source and target cultures and literatures are like, and so forth, and these are all issues that writers presumably have also considered.

Translators also need to be good writers. They are taking documents written in one language and basically rewriting them in another. Translation is not simply just choosing a word for word equivalent or copying out the text in a foreign language; it is finding a way in another language of expressing the same thoughts and feelings the author did in his or her language, so translators must be sensitive to what good writing is and how to put words together. Writers, it goes without saying, also care intensely about how to craft texts.

Finally, editing skills are essential in translation, because a translator has to be able to review his or her work, check it against the source document, and also make sure it reads well and makes sense in the target language. Writers, too, typically rework their rough drafts, improving them, seeing if they make sense and use words well, and so on.

In other words, translators must have good language skills, reading skills, writing skills, and editing skills – and as for writers, check, check, check, and check!

So, while certainly not all good translators are or would want to be writers, and not all writers are suited to be translators, I think it is safe to say that many writers potentially could make good translators, and that it is a career path they should consider.

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