Basic Propositions

Translation (except in the recombinant DNA context) refers to taking a document in one language and rewriting it in another. While rendition of speech from one language to another is popularly referred to as “translating,” this is actually in many ways a different task, and has its own term: interpretation.

In the following, I’ll sketch out some of my own thoughts on translation, gathered, variously assembled, and dismantled in my 9 years as a translator, and try to give an idea of what I see as the task of the translator and the difficulties of translation. Among these, I will include (1) the mental operation that produces a translation (at least when I’m the one doing the translating), (2) the scope of translation, or the limitations on what translation can achieve, and(3) “untranslatables.”

The Thought Process

A lot of people assume that translation can be done by anyone with a dictionary, simply by looking each word up. Before continuing, let’s pause to have a look at what results this “theory” of translation yields:

§3 Allgemeines Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch
Die Wirksamkeit eines Gesetzes und die daraus entspringenden rechtlichen Folgen nehmen gleich nach der Kundmachung ihren Anfang; es wäre denn, daß in dem kund gemachten Gesetze selbst der Zeitpunct seiner Wirksamkeit weiter hinaus bestimmt würde.
{note: unusual spellings in original are due to early 19th Century Austrian orthography}

Dictionary “Translation”

§3 General Bourgeois Lawbook
The effectiveness of a law and the from there jumping out legal consequences take equally after the announcement their beginning; it would be because that in the announced law itself the time point of his effectiveness further outward was determined.

Frighteningly, there are those of my colleagues who apparently subscribe to this “theory,” and make my proofreading work that much more exciting. Since we’ve got an example handy, I’ll use that as the jumping-off point for my discussion of my own thought process in translating (and, I suspect, that of the majority of my colleagues who do not write gibberish).

The first question I ask is: What sort of text is this? This is essential, as the same word can have a multitude of meanings depending on the context (look up set or run sometime in the latest Random House Dictionary).

Among other things, Wirksamkeit can mean “effectiveness,” “efficacy,” “effect,” “ enforceability.” It’s worth noting that several of these possible meanings are possible even within the legal field alone. We speak of an enforceable contract as wirksam. Die Wirksamkeit einer Erklärung, however, does not refer to the enforceability of a declaration; it refers to the effectiveness of a declaration, notice, etc. (e.g. a notice of termination). When a statute provides “Dieses Gesetz wird am Tage nach seiner Verkündung wirksam,” however, we are referring to the law “taking effect,” on its “effective date.”

Here, we are dealing with a statute, namely the Austrian General Civil Code. This knowledge will shade my interpretation of every word and phrase in the text. For example, the dictionary “translation” above translated bürgerlich as “bourgeois.” This is not, strictly speaking, incorrect. If we were translating a sociological, historical, or Marxist text, this would most likely be the rendering of choice. In a legal text, however, bürgerlich means “civil.”

Having determined what sort of text I’m translating, my next step is to read the text. This may seem obvious, but it’s easy to skim over things and miss words like “not,” “which,” “and,” or “or,” which can change everything:

Come out with your hands up and we’ll shoot!

So careful reading of the text is essential. It also allows the translator to begin to get a preliminary grasp on what the text is saying and begin to start dealing with the actual translation. I also begin making mental notes and asking questions – are there any words that are unclear? Any strange grammatical constructions? Any stylistic peculiarities? If I find any, I write them down, and either look them up or ask someone else who might know. Once I’ve gotten a handle on the original, I start thinking about the actual translation.

With this text, which is written in the style and orthography of 19th Century Austrian legal texts, one of my first considerations will be style. Should the style of the era be reflected in the translation? Unless I’m translating the text for incorporation in a literary or other similar work, the answer will most likely be no. If I’m translating something like this, it’s usually so that 21st Century English-speaking lawyers will be able to understand what 21st Century Austrian lawyers are trying to say. There’s no need to complicate things unnecessarily just because it might be fun to try my hand at period English.

Having disposed of that consideration, I will next start the actual translating process. Ultimately, it will come out something like:

§3 General Civil Code
Statutes, and any legal consequences arising from their operation, shall take effect immediately after their promulgation, unless the promulgated statute provides for a later effective date.
In translating this statute, one of the first problems is “die daraus entspringenden rechtlichen Folgen”. Daraus is a da-compound, in which a preposition is applied to a pronoun representing some antecedent. Antecedents are important. While it would not make terribly much difference here whether the legal consequences (rechtliche Folgen) arose (entspringend) from the statute (Gesetz) or its operation (Wirksamkeit, in a dual role), sometimes it does. At any rate, making sure that daraus refers back to the correct antecedent is essential to a correct translation. Given the subject of the original (Die Wirksamkeit, the effect or operation) and the location of the clause (directly following Die Wirksamkeit eines Gesetzes, the effect of a statute), it appears clear that the legal consequences are arising out of “the operation of a statute.”

The next thing is the use of the present tense. German-language legislative drafting generally uses present tense when English drafting would not. Here, for example, “Die Wirksamkeit…und die…Folgen…nehmen… ihren Anfang.” This is a prospective, mandatory statement. § 3 of the General Civil Code mandates that they take effect immediately after promulgation. Thus, in English, I render this with “shall,” the buzzword for mandatory provisions. The same thing would apply if I were translating from English to German. In German, the future tense “shall/will” would seem strange, given that it has more of a predictive feel to it. It is just this sort of consideration that makes dictionaries at best a starting point in translation, and not always a very good one.

This also explains why many translations are much longer or shorter than the original text. For example, the original here is 39 words long, and the translation only 30. Often, one language needs fewer words to get across the same idea.

The Scope of Translation and “Untranslatables”

Translation has limits. Translation is most useful, and most precise, when the source and target languages are closely related or have a certain degree of parity of expression, by which I mean that the idiomatic expressions and grammatical constructions of the two languages closely parallel each other. The less two languages have in common, the more risk there is that important things won’t make it across the language barrier. A Spanish-Portuguese translation will likely emerge virtually unscathed; a Japanese-Italian translation, on the other hand, might not fare so well. Much as “hard cases make bad law,” “hard texts make bad translations.”

Another issue that can often throw a big spanner into the works is that of words that are specific to a particular country, culture, region, group, etc., or have strong cultural connotations.These words are often the ones described as “untranslatable.” For example, in Japanese, tatami refers to the ubiquitous floor mats used as carpeting in Japanese homes. English has no word of its own that readily brings to mind the image of tatami, much less the important cultural connotations. There is an expression: Tatami no ue de shinu (to die on tatami). Its meaning goes well beyond the plain language, however. Tatami here is a metaphor for the comforts of a Japanese home, and the image of “dying on tatami” refers to the desire to die in one’s homeland.

Similarly, many languages have features that do not exist in other languages. These features often provide a great deal of meaning. Pronouns are a case in point. Many Indo-European languages have pronouns not present in English, e.g. du/Sie (German), tú/vos/usted (Spanish), tu/vous (French), du/De (Norwegian/Danish), to/shomâ (Farsi), tum/aap (Hindi/Urdu), or anata/kimi/ anta /omae/ kisama/ ware/ temee/ sochira (Japanese, not Indo-European, but still a good example). Each of these pronouns means “you;” however, each has its own particular connotation, and gives a great deal of information about such things as context, respect of the speaker for the interlocutor, degree of intimacy, etc. The connotations of these words are not easily reproduced in English, and can reasonably be called “untranslatable” due to the vast amount of lexical information that is lost.

Willst du ‘ne Tasse Kaffee (German)
¿Le apetece un café?(Spanish)
Temee, koohii nomitee ka? (Japanese)

The meaning of these sentences is, superficially, the same: Do you want coffee? However, each sentence in the original tells us a great deal about the terms of the relationship between the speaker and the interlocutor.

The German sentence uses the familiar du and abbreviates eine to ‘ne. This tells us, without more, that the speaker is on friendly, or at least familiar, terms with the interlocutor, that they are related, of the same age, or have known each other long time. German summarises all of these concepts by saying that they are per Du.

The Spanish sentence uses the formal usted (a contraction of vuestra merced, “Your Mercy”). This tells us that the speaker may wish to show the interlocutor particular respect, is a business associate or other non-social acquaintance, is a subordinate of the interlocutor, or is from the Antioquía, where usted is used more broadly than in the rest of the Spanish speaking world.

The Japanese sentence tells us even more. Firstly, we can tell that the speaker is probably yakuza or a similar underworld type. Moreover, the speaker obviously holds his (this speech pattern is almost exclusively used by men) interlocutor in contempt. Calling someone temee is the pronominal equivalent of hacking phlegm in the interlocutor’s face. This is confirmed by the nomitee ka (drink-volitional interrogatory), which is the plainest possible form for this question.

None of this information can adequately be expressed in an English translation without completely obliterating the original text

The Translator's Task

What, in light of all the limitations and concerns I've described above, is the translator's job? This is a subject of considerable debate, to which I hope to contribute the following.

I see the translator's job as being similar to that of a judge. There is a clear analogy to be drawn between statutory construction and translation. Unlike an author or a legislator, who is writing on the tabula rasa, the translator, like a judge, is not expressing her own ideas. Instead, the first task of translators and judges is to figure out exactly what the author (legislature) meant. The question is not what the author should have said. Nor is it the translator's job to modify the content of the original.

I once got into a debate with a professor of mine over the translation of the dedication of a book by an editor. The editor expressed his Ehrfurcht of the addressees of the dedication. Ehrfurcht means awe. However, my professor was of the opinion that this should be rendered as "respect," because "an American editor would never admit to being in 'awe' of anyone." In other words, the translator should attempt to reformulate the content of the original author's words in order to fit what a similarly situated person in the country in which the target language is spoken would say. I believe this leaves far too much discretion to translators. A rule of thumb such as this is useful when no adequate rendering of the original word is available. However, where there is an accurate translation of a word or expression, a translator should not substitute her judgment for that of the author. If the author had meant "respect," the author knows how to say Hochachtung. If the author says "awe," then we say "awe."

While I firmly believe that the best translations come from texts that leave little or no discretion to the translator, most texts do not fit this category. When terms are ambiguous or translations are unclear, the translator must, of necessity, use some discretion. There, it is perfectly appropriate to think in terms of how a native speaker of the target language would express a concept. The translation must not seem translated. If a literal translation of the plain language of the original leaves an awkward, odd-sounding text that does not ring true to native ears, then the translator can and should be creative.

However, once creativity comes into play, the translator must be even more vigilant than before. We must never lose sight of the fact that it is someone else's work that we are construing. Thus, in the exercise of our creative impulses we must be guided by the intentions of the author, to the extent that they can be discerned (of course, it's even better when the author can be asked directly; unfortunately, this is rarely the case). Here, again, the analogy to the task of a judge holds. The author is, presumably, the expert on what the author meant. Thus, we must defer to the author in all cases, unless the author's writing makes it impossible to discern the intended meaning (or, as occasionally happens, the author's writing is lousy).

Note, however, that I'm not saying that the content of the author's thoughts should be changed simply for lack of a decent equivalent in the target language. Rather, we must use the tools available to us in the target language to figure out how best to make clear the author's intent, real or assumed, in our translation. If the thought is total gibberish, it is our job to create equivalent gibberish, faithful to the original, in the target language. The quality of the thoughts is not our concern.

Similar concerns arise when translating legal documents. There, the problem is often that a particular legal concept exists in the country of the author, but does not exist in the country of the target language. Here, what is called for is not so much translation as explanation. Sometimes this can be done quite inobtrusively, by "translating" the concept with a phrase that describes roughly what is meant. For example, if I were required to translate "Rule Against Perpetuities," a concept that few non-common law systems have been masochistic enough to adopt, into Russian, I would not translate it literally into the (unintelligible) "Pravilo protiv vjechnostjej." Instead, I would render it "Zaprjeta vremjonno neogranichonnyx kosvjennyx prav na imushchestvo," or the prohibition of temporally unlimited contingent interests in property," since this, as far as anyone has been able to tell, is what the RAP is all about. Failing all else, I'll simply put in a footnote with the prefix "Trans. Note:". Contrary to what some believe, the use of explanatory notes does not necessarily denote a bad translation. However, they should be used rarely, and as a last resort.