Johnson

Only translate

Translators are the unacknowledged facilitators of the world

 



 

Jun 19th 2021 | words 796

 

 

 

 

DID A MISTAKEN translation put rovers on Mars? In 1877 Giovanni Schiaparelli, an Italian astronomer, used his then state-of-the-art telescope to view and describe what he called canali on the planet. English translators leapt on the discovery of what they rendered as canals. There followed a frenzy of speculation that Mars might be inhabited, which left a deep mark on the human imagination. To this day Martian is a synonym for alien life.

 

But the Italian word could also have been translated as channels. Which did Schiaparelli mean? In some writings he was careful to discourage firm conclusions about life on Mars; in others, he encouraged exactly those conclusions. It is almost as though canali let him have both channels and canals in his mind at the same time.

 

 

 

The story is told in Dancing on Ropes, Anna Aslanyans new book about translators and interpreters roles at critical moments in history. It is full of lively stories like that of Schiaparellis canals. Ms Aslanyan is herself both a translator and interpreter (in the argot of the profession, the former works in writing, the latter in speech), and enlists both practical experience and archival history. She leaves the reader with an awed respect for the translators task.

 

Ideally, interpreters are invisible, and two people who do not share a language will feel they are conversing directly. But this ideal is virtually unachievable. Speakers cut off their own interpreters. Listeners are rude to them, as if they (not the actual interlocutor) had said something objectionable. The poor linguist in the middle can thus be tempted to clean up or soften a rude remark; Ms Aslanyan relates some enjoyable tales from the Russian interpreter for Silvio Berlusconi, Italys bawdy former prime minister.

 

The job is draining. In The Language Game, Ewandro Magalhes, a Brazilian interpreter, described how, at the Nuremberg trials, small booths hooked up with telephone wires were first used for interpretation into several languages. Staff got one day off in three, and shifts were capped at 45 minutes. Even so, an interpreter said, four months in Nuremberg made her feel ten years older. Perhaps only the Ottomans, who made dragoman a powerful jobthe grand dragoman was simultaneously deputy foreign ministergave interpreters the respect they deserve.

 

Translation is different: usually solitary, seemingly more leisurely, but now under tremendous economic pressure. In the digital era, everyone competes with everyone and buyers often simply take the lowest bid (or Google Translate). The literary work that cannot be done by a faceless contractor or a machine may not always pay the bills, but it at least provides stimulation. Ms Aslanyan recalls trying to transpose a Russian spoken in rural Ukraine into an English that carried the same tones; after she and a collaborator considered and rejected a Scottish inflection, they went with snatches of West Country English. Since 2016 the overseers of the International Booker Prize for fiction have split the prize-money equally between authors and their translators.

 

Ms Aslanyan says a mistranslation also played a role in Americas atomic bombing of Japan in 1945. An official statement said that the Japanese would mokusatsu the Potsdam Declaration that called on Japan to surrender. The verb can mean things including to offer no comment on and to kill with silence, but also to treat with silent contempt. The Americans leaned towards the latter interpretationa defiant insulthelping seal Hiroshimas fate.

 

Devotees of Esperanto, an artificial language, have long hoped that understanding would promote peace between peoples. Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, satirically took the opposite stance. In his fantasy, the Babel Fishwhich, once stuck in your ear, instantly provides perfect translation of all languagesis responsible for more wars than anything else in history.

 

But the most eloquent comment on translation may come from Jos Ortega y Gasset, a Spanish philosopher whom Ms Aslanyan cites. Two words in two languages are never exact translations of each other, he said. More than that, though, no two people mean the same thing by the same word (with the possible exception of some scientific terms). Translation, therefore, is a utopian endeavour, an impossible act of perfect mind-reading. That does not mean it should not be attemptedbut those who try should be good utopians who know they can never succeed.

 

 










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Economist | Only translate


 

Johnson

Only translate

Translators are the unacknowledged facilitators of the world

 



 

Jun 19th 2021 | words 796

 

 

 

 

DID A MISTAKEN translation put rovers on Mars? In 1877 Giovanni Schiaparelli, an Italian astronomer, used his then state-of-the-art telescope to view and describe what he called canali on the planet. English translators leapt on the discovery of what they rendered as canals. There followed a frenzy of speculation that Mars might be inhabited, which left a deep mark on the human imagination. To this day Martian is a synonym for alien life.

 

But the Italian word could also have been translated as channels. Which did Schiaparelli mean? In some writings he was careful to discourage firm conclusions about life on Mars; in others, he encouraged exactly those conclusions. It is almost as though canali let him have both channels and canals in his mind at the same time.

 

 

 

The story is told in Dancing on Ropes, Anna Aslanyans new book about translators and interpreters roles at critical moments in history. It is full of lively stories like that of Schiaparellis canals. Ms Aslanyan is herself both a translator and interpreter (in the argot of the profession, the former works in writing, the latter in speech), and enlists both practical experience and archival history. She leaves the reader with an awed respect for the translators task.

 

Ideally, interpreters are invisible, and two people who do not share a language will feel they are conversing directly. But this ideal is virtually unachievable. Speakers cut off their own interpreters. Listeners are rude to them, as if they (not the actual interlocutor) had said something objectionable. The poor linguist in the middle can thus be tempted to clean up or soften a rude remark; Ms Aslanyan relates some enjoyable tales from the Russian interpreter for Silvio Berlusconi, Italys bawdy former prime minister.

 

The job is draining. In The Language Game, Ewandro Magalhes, a Brazilian interpreter, described how, at the Nuremberg trials, small booths hooked up with telephone wires were first used for interpretation into several languages. Staff got one day off in three, and shifts were capped at 45 minutes. Even so, an interpreter said, four months in Nuremberg made her feel ten years older. Perhaps only the Ottomans, who made dragoman a powerful jobthe grand dragoman was simultaneously deputy foreign ministergave interpreters the respect they deserve.

 

Translation is different: usually solitary, seemingly more leisurely, but now under tremendous economic pressure. In the digital era, everyone competes with everyone and buyers often simply take the lowest bid (or Google Translate). The literary work that cannot be done by a faceless contractor or a machine may not always pay the bills, but it at least provides stimulation. Ms Aslanyan recalls trying to transpose a Russian spoken in rural Ukraine into an English that carried the same tones; after she and a collaborator considered and rejected a Scottish inflection, they went with snatches of West Country English. Since 2016 the overseers of the International Booker Prize for fiction have split the prize-money equally between authors and their translators.

 

Ms Aslanyan says a mistranslation also played a role in Americas atomic bombing of Japan in 1945. An official statement said that the Japanese would mokusatsu the Potsdam Declaration that called on Japan to surrender. The verb can mean things including to offer no comment on and to kill with silence, but also to treat with silent contempt. The Americans leaned towards the latter interpretationa defiant insulthelping seal Hiroshimas fate.

 

Devotees of Esperanto, an artificial language, have long hoped that understanding would promote peace between peoples. Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, satirically took the opposite stance. In his fantasy, the Babel Fishwhich, once stuck in your ear, instantly provides perfect translation of all languagesis responsible for more wars than anything else in history.

 

But the most eloquent comment on translation may come from Jos Ortega y Gasset, a Spanish philosopher whom Ms Aslanyan cites. Two words in two languages are never exact translations of each other, he said. More than that, though, no two people mean the same thing by the same word (with the possible exception of some scientific terms). Translation, therefore, is a utopian endeavour, an impossible act of perfect mind-reading. That does not mean it should not be attemptedbut those who try should be good utopians who know they can never succeed.

 

 










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