Musings #1

Ooh, look, a new category! :O (Better watch this one, she’s quick..)

Warning: attempt at being serious/boring. Read on at your own risk.

Oh, to be a Babelfish

Here’s a question for you – how would you define translation?
And please don’t just sit there and go “Well, duuhh. You take text in one language and just whack it into another.” It’s not that simple. If it was, we could all do it. Smartarse.

Perhaps define is the wrong word. Perhaps “describe” would be better. I mean, the common answer I seem to come across when you ask the average Joe what he thinks it is, is that he talks in terms of words. In fact, the majority of people seem to have this problem of talking in terms of words.

But what if we were to shake things up a bit and change/redefine things a little? Why not talk in terms of ideas, rather than words? Especially seeing as more often than not, you, as a translator/Babelfish, will come across a word in the source language (the one you’re translating out of) that simply does not have an equivalent in your target language.

“But surely,” I hear you say, “Surely, there must be a way round it?”

Sometimes there is, but sometimes you have to re-jig the entire sentence (or paragraph and thereby undo several hours of hard work) and sometimes you have to insert entire sentences to explain the concept. To be honest, I often find that the most dastardly of words that simply refuse to cooperate when it comes to translation (think children at the dentist) seem to be those that are attached to specific cultural ideas or identities.

Anyway, you try translating “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” into German, or any language for that matter, and let me know how you get on. Sometimes it’s the most unsuspecting of words. You try finding an equivalent for “hot-cross buns” or “baked beans” in any language – on the surface they appear to be well-behaved little words who do as they are told, but the minute it comes to communicate them in another tongue, they transmogrify into a translator’s worst nightmare.

Although it must be said that sometimes it’s not individual words that give you problems, but rather the logic of the language. Take Polish, for example. (Polish speakers please feel free to correct me, here) In Polish you don’t have a definite or indefinite article. There’s simply no need for one. They do, however, have a complex case system. For those of you who know a bit of German – you thought German was hard with 4 cases? Polish has 7. That’s more than Russian and Latin, which have 6. Then in Russian and Ukrainian, my understanding is that there is no present tense verb “to be”.

In most Slavic languages there seems to be this idea that the majority of verbs come in pairs – one perfective (I read) and one imperfective (I am reading), yet often the imperfective verbs only occur in past and future tenses. Then there’s the notion of the Subjunctive “mood”, which we only have in phrases such as “if I were you” in English and if you want to speak German, you have to know exactly what you want to say before you say it as the verb often sticks itself on at the end. In Japanese, you need to learn to talk like Yoda (Boring this is) to get the correct word order, and then there are African languages where everything’s a series of clicks and whistles. (Interestingly, there was a whistling language in rural France that has since died out, but it was used by Shepherds to help Allied soldiers to escape occupied France and the Occupying Forces didn’t realise that they were talking to each other, rather than whistling a tune.)

It’s enough to make you want to cry.

And then we end up inevitably coming back to the age-old question of translation: How close should you stick to the source text when asked to translate it?

This particular issue does my head in on a regular basis; to the point where my brain feels like it’s about to implode and leave a spectacular yet nasty mess on the inside of my little head.
I had particularly nasty instance of this last night, when rereading a translation about insurance in Germany.

For those of you who are not familiar with the German insurance system, beware. It’s a rather imposing jungle of legislation and forms and all manner of alarmingly-long words. (For a highly amusing, yet accurate view of the problems experienced by an Anglophone learning German, read Mark Twain’s The Awful German Language.)

One such problematic word in the source text was “Laborversicherung”. German being such a wonderful language, you can break the word down into its component parts. “Labor” by itself means, that’s right, “labour” and “Versicherung” is a lovely noun meaning “insurance” – incidentally, it comes from the verb “versichern”, to insure. German’s a lovely language in that it can be so logical when it comes to word families. I might upload a morphology essay I did last year that helps explain to those interested, how to build compound nouns in German.

Edit: Being a bit of a tit, I completely mis-interpreted (oh, the pun’s hilarious) the meaning of the entire word. Yes, I lied. “Labor” doesn’t mean labour, it means laboratory. ‘Cause, you know, the two are easily confused.

Moral of the story? Never kiss a badger. < /Edit >

Anyway, back to “Laborversicherung”. At present, its translation stands at “Work-Insurance” (also in inverted commas within my translation). Even when you google it, there’s no easy definition, and from what I’ve read so far, we simply don’t have an equivalent here in England. So I’ve had no choice but to leave it for the time being.

Whilst I’m here, there’s something I’d like to whinge about too, and that’s the attitude of employers (or, in fact, just general opinion) towards translation/interpretation. It seems to be so incredibly undervalued and relatively poorly paid; perhaps it’s misunderstood. I mean, okay, we get paid per word, but I’m beginning to think that that’s just to trick me into thinking that I’m earning more than I actually am. I suppose what I really mean to say is that there seems to be a lack of appreciation for the art or knowledge of knowing how to read a text in one language; understand all the nuances and the subtleties and the ideas conveyed and intended by the author and then knowing how to keep all of that when writing it in your target language.

I’m not going to lie; it can be ridiculously difficult. So why do it? Because 1) I like a challenge. 2) That feeling of achievement and satisfaction when you’ve done and you’ve done it well is oh-so-fulfilling. 3) So few people have that ability to understand other cultures and the logic that goes with the language.

Oh, to be a Babelfish.

In other news, I came home to find the most amazing pair of socks waiting for me:

Knee-length stripy socks
It's all about the stripes and the knee-length. Oh, yes.