Trust me, I’m a translator

Before getting started with today’s blog post, I just wanted to quickly mention a recent post I was featured in. Over at the Balance Your Words blog, Sara has started a great new series entitled ‘What’s on your desk?’ that gives translators out there a little insight into their fellow professionals’ quirks and working habits and I was lucky enough to be the first translator featured. Be sure to check out the upcoming posts.

But now it’s time for today’s main course and I want to look at something that has a part to play in every single translation project out there – the issue of trust (I guess the title and the huge flashing image to the right give it away somewhat).

Traditionally, there is a widespread air of mistrust surrounding the translator – this wily, shadowy character who lies between cultures, hides behind their computer screen and turns one language into another in a terrifying act of textual alchemy… It’s not natural, surely!

And in some ways, this sense of unease is quite justified. We are taught to mistrust that which we do not fully understand and the fact that the translator possesses a means of doing something completely alien to the end client will instantly raise their guard. In either turning their beloved text into a strange foreign tongue or producing flowing prose from something that previously made no sense, the client is forced to trust that what they are receiving is the genuine article, so to speak.

This video from the hugely popular series Game of Thrones sums up the dilemma entirely: how do you know that the words you are receiving actually represent those that they should when you do not speak the source language..? In the video, the interpreter (Missandei) is put in the unenviable position of trying to mask her master’s obscene language in order to maintain diplomatic negotiations. Requiring a sharp mind able to produce a complete reinterpretation of the source words in an instant, the role sees her rendering phrases such as ‘because I like the curve of her ass’ as ‘because Master Kraznys is generous’ (1:05).

And this particular conception of trust is something that has been considered by leading translation scholar Anthony Pym. In his 2009 ‘On the ethics of translator’s interventions’ (an intriguing talk that is available in its entirety on Youtube and is well worth a watch!), Pym focuses on the issue of trust and trustworthiness – albeit in a different context to the one explored here – and suggests that as one party is always out of control they must always maintain trust in the intermediary.

Ultimately, that is why professional translators charge what they do: they understand the importance of your message and have spent countless hours learning how to transfer that message as fully as possible to a new culture and audience.

However, I choose to look at trust as a two-way relationship rather than just a single level of faith on the part of the client and this is something alluded to by another leading translation scholar in Andrew Chesterman. While considering the development of a professional code of conduct for translators (his ‘Proposal for a hieronymic oath’), Chesterman highlights trust as one of the key categories involved along with truth, loyalty and understanding.

In labelling his notion of trust as equal and something to be subscribed to by all parties involved, my conclusion coming from his ideas is that, just as the client must trust in the translator, the translator must also trust in the client. Issues such as timely payment, the resolution of problems outside of the translator’s control (source text errors, for instance) and setting reasonable deadlines that are subsequently respected are all examples of occasions when the translator must place their faith in an equally unknown client and this shifts the initial representation of trust that we explored above.

With this taken into account, the notion of trust becomes a reciprocal relationship and should be respected as such: the key to successful collaboration lies in interacting with professionals that share the same standards and expectations as you. My belief is that ultimately, if you can trust yourself to handle a project well, then you can trust your like-minded professional translator to do the best job possible. Trust me, I’m a translator.

Reading up on translation: 5 mini reviews

There’s something a little different in store for my post today with an attempt to give a little something back: over the course of the last few years, I’ve spent many long hours poring over books of all shapes and sizes to satisfy my need for all things translation and I thought a few mini-reviews of what I consider to be the best introductory texts would be a great way to try to provoke a little bit of interest in the field.

Personally, I find translation theory fascinating and have read much of what translation studies as a discipline has to offer, even to the extent of reading Palumbo’s ‘Key Terms in Translation Studies’ (essentially a glossary of the key terms in the discipline) from cover to cover. If it sounds like a far-fetched claim, it is important to consider that, as a fairly young discipline, the amount of literature on the subject isn’t actually that big and can be covered in a few months of intensive study.

Of course, the list is not comprehensive by any means; despite my constant scouring of the market for new literature, there remain texts that I maybe should have come across and if you can recommend anything I may have overlooked, or anything that you think will be of interest, then please leave a comment or drop me a line on Twitter.

The reviews only scratch the surface of what each of these great books has to offer, but hopefully it is enough to whet the appetite:

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Found in Translation – Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche

I thought I would start with one of the more recent additions to my bookshelf, and a book that is currently making waves in translation circles following its release last year and many positive reviews. ‘Found in Translation’ is a collection of anecdotes on the subject which are both accessible and hugely entertaining. Anyone with even a passing interest in languages or translation will find it fascinating and it is the perfect place to start if you want to indulge a potential interest in the area. While the bold claim in the blurb describing it as ‘by far the most meaningful book on the subject of translation that I have ever seen’ may be going a bit far, this book takes steps to put translation on the map and that is exactly what the profession and the discipline need.

Is that a fish in your ear – David Bellos

This book pre-dates ‘Found in Translation’ by a year or two and is written to largely the same end goal: another collection of anecdotes which aim to inspire interest in the field, and it is one that really delivers. Written with a sense of humour that makes it a joy to read, Bellos provides an insight into how translation has shaped the world we live in and how it affects our daily lives. Criticised as being slightly inaccessible for the uninitiated while also lacking adequate substance for more academic tastes, it may not be as suited to testing a tentative curiosity as the previous book, but the author’s style and the content actually make this my (marginal) pick of the two.

In Other Words – Mona Baker

Rather than a collection of anecdotes on the subject, this book is more scholarly in nature and stands as an invaluable companion to the budding translator getting to grips with the subject. There are other introductions to the discipline out there (Susan Bassnett’s ‘Translation Studies’ is the go-to book for many people looking to get into the field and has an excellent, detailed history of the discipline) and other introductory textbooks (Peter Newmark’s ‘Textbook of Translation’ and Jeremy Munday’s ‘Introduction to Translation Studies’ among the best known) out there, but Baker’s coursebook is an amalgamation of the best aspects of each of these and provides a substantial guide to the challenges that translation offers, all coupled with practical examples which serve to help the new student orientate themselves in an alien discipline full of terms and ideas that can otherwise seem overwhelming.

The Scandals of Translation – Lawrence Venuti

The name of Lawrence Venuti has become one that goes hand in hand with translation studies as a discipline, and it is his work that forms the core of the canon. While Baker’s book ventures into more scholarly territory, Venuti’s goes far beyond the outskirts and represents the heart of scholarship. This can make it heavy-going for readers looking for something more accessible but with that said, there are very few authors who have managed to show the extents of translation’s power in the globalised world, and this book is absolutely fascinating for anyone interested in the humanities. ‘The Translator’s Invisibility’ is a similarly absorbing read which further develops his theoretical ideas, but I feel that ‘Scandals’ provides just a little more accessibility to merit its inclusion here.

Can Theory Help Translators? – Chesterman and Wagner

The last of the books on the list is a bit of a departure from the others as it doesn’t represent an introduction to the area at all. However, it addresses a question that causes ongoing debate in the field, and a question which I personally have tried to find answers to. There is a clear vacuum between translation theory and practice; many (maybe even most) freelance translators have very little or no knowledge of theory and still manage to do their job to exceptionally high standards, calling into question the necessity of theory. As such, this book throws a theorist and a professional together in an attempt to ascertain whether or not one can help the other and, while ultimately posing more questions than it answers, it is a must read for anyone curious of the link between the two and the benefits of theoretical knowledge.

As mentioned before, please get in touch with suggestions for books that I may have overlooked or books you have enjoyed, I’m always looking for new reads in the area!