Translators: vital but unappreciated

translationIt’s one thing to learn to speak another language, quite another to really show mastery.  For example, a speaking vocabulary of the most frequent 2500 words along with a hundred or so primary phrases will likely enable you to converse adequately in every day situations.  Even more so, if you acquire vocabulary by way of topic categories you’re likely to use, say computer or  newspaper vocabulary.

If you really want to ease your way, though it takes considerable discipline and putting it to use, a vocabulary of the right 7000 words from daily life will give you ease, not only in speaking, but over most intermediate level reading matter in your chosen language.  There’s a good book out there you might look at:  Frederick Bodmer’s The Loom of Language: an Approach to the Mastery of Many Languages, which lists essential words in nine European languages.

By the way, the CIA and the military operate expedited, or crash programs, for quick acquisition of oral fluency, usually consisting of 6-8 hour sessions daily over a six month period for the more difficult languages like Chinese, Arabic or Farsi.

It’s quite another thing to be a translator, and here I’ve in mind two kinds:  first, the oral or playback kind you find in the UN General Assembly when you put on your headphone set and, bingo, there it is, instant playback in your own language.  There are schools for this kind of thing too, of which the Monterey Institute is among the most notable.

School can only do so much.  You need an excellent ear and ability to focus and retain, along with a nearly native facility requiring foreign residency for at least a year to get the real hang of the second language and, maybe, the plus of leaving your accent behind.  I remember meeting a sixteen year old Russian  girl at the prestigious Moscow State University doing precisely that as a result of a one year stint as a high school exchange student in Arizona.

If you do a really good job of it, you’ll have a leg-up on other applicants for positions with the government, courts, and medicine (e.g., patient interpreter), and in the travel industry and more.

The second kind of translating skill I’ll call “textual” in that it doesn’t require oral facility, but rather analytical skills and a huge range of specialized vocabulary for reading in a chosen area like medicine or law.  Again, this has its occupational value for auspices involved internationally such as government, banking and business.  After all, somebody has to put product directions into another language, nowadays usually Spanish in North America.

There’s a species here of textual translation that I’ll dub “literary,” or dealing with the literary arts and, I think, the most challenging form of language mastery.  Paradoxically, it’s under-appreciated by those benefitting most from it, not only readers, but publishing houses.

I started reading the classics as a youngster, reading through much of Hugo, Stendhal, Mann, and especially Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, the latter two invariably translated by Constance Garnett, whose life story I’ll perhaps recount in a future post, since it’s quite remarkable.  While I devoured these writers, I took translators for granted, as nearly all of us do even as adults.

My awareness of the translator’s role, however, became an increasing corollary of my academic career teaching many non-English writers in translation.  My curiosity grew especially with poetry, for here we’re dealing especially with matters of rhythm, rime,  dictional resonance, and syntactical ordering.  How faithful is the English rendition to the artist’s conception in its native version?

I also became intrigued as to the inveterate number of translations contemporary English language poets were undertaking.  For example,  one of my favorite poets, W. S.  Merlin, is widely known for his translated renditions of Spanish verse.  Then there is Northern Ireland’s Seamus Heaney with his translation of Beowulf from Old English.  Did Heaney really master Old English, or did he simply draw upon extant translations and fashion a synthesis?

In all honesty, I don’t know the answer as to whether some translators simply transpose.  In short, do some “translators” cheat?

On the other hand, Garnett was genuine and put the Russian classics on the map for English readers.  And I suspect Merlin is genuine, given his academic training in Romantic languages and experience living abroad.  I could name others, especially with regard to translators of classical authors like Allen Mandlebaum.

But to my main point again, true finesse at literary translation requires consummate sensitivity to language as an almost organic entity with a life of its own.  Imagine the mountain a translator must climb to translate authors like Proust or Borges.  And the other way, too, like rendering Joyce into Russian, while remaining faithful to his stylistic innovations.  And even with a writer like Flaubert, for whom le mot juste was the bottom line of his aesthetic approach  along with cadence, and–voila–what a formidable challenge for the translator whose skill must always be measured in proportion to her fidelity to preserve not only his narrative, but the methodology that housed it, authenticating the individuality of the genius behind it.

To do this requires a similar creative capacity in the new language, for genuine translation is really about paraphrase and not word-by-word rendering, and even more than that.  True literary translators are indeed artists in their own right as guardians of their sacred texts, granting admittance only upon maximum surveillance.

In this, we’re a long ways from the increasing vogue for cut and paste technologies that give you an instant read-out of a foreign text.  Their fault lies in their absence of the human factor behind language use, with stilted language and sometimes absurd concoctions reminding us of T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock with his “No, that’s not what I meant at all.” When it comes to literary translation, it may give you sense, but not the artistry of the source text.

In all of this, what boggles my mind is the talent required to translate well, compounded by the translator’s frequent absence from general regard even among our leading publishers who are likely to conflate translation with narrative, omitting the authorial presence that gave it birth.

By the way,  a good read into the exigencies of literary method is Edith Grossman‘s Why Translation Matters.  A renowned Cervantes translator,  she reminds us that “the grand goal of the translator” is to have “the readers perceive the text emotionally and artistically in a manner that parallels and corresponds to the esthetic experience of its first readers.”

In sum, the challenges are many for the dedicated translator and the payoff generally not financial but in a job well done.  Not a bad goal for any profession


Author: RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.

6 thoughts on “Translators: vital but unappreciated”

  1. żeglugi! Zakłócenia w dostawach importowanego
    zboża! Dlatego, że owe też
    prawda, pomyślał Arnold, rozlewnie nie bajdurząc tego na opinia.
    Ruczaj wyschła do małej mieściny zwanej Warszawą.



  2. Hi RJ,
    First, I’d like to thank you for the link to our article. 🙂

    Second, wonderful article! Translators truly are an under appreciated group in our society; its sometimes easy to forget all the work that gets done behind the scenes to make this hyper-globalized world work. From translating medical research to making sure international marketing campaigns run effectively (so that “Got Milk” doesn’t somehow get translated into “Are you lactating?”), translators play a vital role in our everyday lives. Wonderful article, and I look forward to more like it. 🙂


    1. Thank you for your kind comments! And you’re right on re: the pivotal role translators play in our lives, unfortunately missed by many in our everyday world. It’s a pleasure to link with your article, and I’m looking forward to following your site in Twitter.



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