by Mike Takkeiddine
At its very core, a successful translation requires that the translator be proficient at reading and assimilating the content in the source text (ST), and that he or she also be proficient at writing clearly and accurately in the target language (TL). As you can imagine however, there are numerous factors that challenge that simplistic depiction of the translator’s task, many of them non-linguistic.
Deadlines, for example, come to mind, as does size and client expectancies. In one extreme case, the client could be Deutsche Bank, a Frankfurt-based bank that is listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Every day, early in the morning, the bank receives analyst reports in German on a number of other listed companies. It needs the reports translated to English and disseminated to its many clients before the opening of the market, a daily job that involves rapid turnaround times, time-sensitive deadlines, voluminous work, complex multi-file translations, and user-related consistency, day after day.
Cultural influences also come to mind, as they are hurdles that the translation must surmount if it is to be effective for the end user. From the day we are born, culture is a main influence in our lives. In fact, it can be said that we are born into a culture, and that culture keeps wielding influence over us throughout our lives. Moreover, culture is often viewed as our set of values, lifestyle, outlook on life, the way we think—and on our idioms and the way we speak and relate to one another.
Because us humans are cultural beings, and translation is a human activity, it follows that translation must have a cultural dimension that may be viewed as “truth in language”. When you use a sentence, others who are culturally linked to you instantly understand your meaning and inflections. However, what happens then when cultures differ greatly between countries, or even within the same country? To be effective, the bilingual translator must therefore have a dynamic understanding of both languages, including the syntax, semantics, idioms, proverbs, colloquialisms, and various other dimensions of each.
Language Ambiguity: Did you know that the verb “run” has more than six hundred different meanings? Or that the Oxford Dictionary places the word “set” next at 546 different meanings? Multiple meanings for the same word invariably give a language depth and richness, at the cost of adding to the complexity factor.
Misunderstandings: When we speak with one another, we usually aim to express one meaning, considering language as a clear medium for accurately conveying concepts and views. And yet, misunderstandings unavoidably come to pass, if only because meanings shift and are interpreted in different ways. Besides, most words have both apparent and hidden meanings or, as in novels and poetry, they may be used figuratively. In literature, double discourse (or double entendre as the French would say), is part and parcel of the intended allegory or metaphor. Poetry in particular thrives on that, allowing the reader to look through the all too apparent meaning of words.
Context: Because we are adept at adding context to our speech, double discourse in everyday life, as well as the other language complexities, are hardly ever a serious challenge. Our brains add context and cultural interpretation routinely and with hardly an effort, something that cannot be said for computers. So, “you can take this to the bank” doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stop everything you’re doing and literally walk to the bank; it means the speaker is merely adding emphatic authority to what they’re saying.
Computers: That in essence is what distinguishes the translator’s work from a computational translation. “Computers are hopeless at disambiguation,” says Dr. Stephen Clark, an expert in Computational Linguistics and Natural Language Processing, “[and] at understanding which of multiple meanings is correct—because they don’t have our world knowledge.” Dr. Clark goes on to explain that although modern online translation devices can “learn” the rapport between words in diverse languages, unless new methods are devised to process language, even the latest software is hard-pressed to truly understand words.
Computer-Assisted Translation (CAT): There is nevertheless no shortage of online translating tools, and even experienced and sought-after translators have switched from pen and paper to sophisticated electronic tools, using CAT software to expedite their tasks. And although CAT tools such as basic word processors and electronic dictionaries and encyclopedias have become one of the translator’s principal staples, they are nevertheless rarely used on their own if the final product is to be truly well-expressed.
Knowledge and life experience: On that note, whether computer-assisted or rendered by high-level professional services, ambiguity figures mightily when it pertains to translation, for the translator is ultimately construing the text through the prism of their own knowledge and life experience, except that they have to steer the process from one language to another.
In so far as ambiguity offers a means for people to naturally convey messages and feelings, it also historically presented a pitfall by which entire communities could not express themselves at all. Before the advent of CAT tools, ambiguity caused endless obstacles, since human translation demanded that extreme faithfulness to the source text.
The Bible: Going back through time, that was the reason why the Roman Catholic Church required that the Bible be left in Latin for centuries on end. Later on, the translations of this most critical work endured endless scrutiny, with Christianity itself, and even Islam, having to derive their own interpretations by going back to Judaism and an even older holy scripture, the Torah. Over the eras that ensued, specific ambiguities caused wars, persecution, and much human conquest and suffering.
German words: Lastly, some languages have more inherently ambiguous words than others. For example, the word “heimat” in German often befuddles translators. Translated literally into English, it can mean “home”, “homeland”, or “heritage”. However, when folks in Munich utter the word heimat, they use it to convey familiarity or belonging—perhaps also feelings associated with being among family and friends in childhood. There is even a Heimat Ministry (or Ministry of Home Affairs) within the interior Ministry.
Similarly, the German word “sympathicsh” frequently causes even the seasoned translator to pause and reflect. In English, it can beckon words such as “likeable” or “friendly”. That however is only half the story, for the same interlocutor out of Munich may easily be attempting to convey more than that, as in “trusting” and “feeling close to the listener”. Again, even a seasoned translator might have to ponder how he or she wants to translate that word.
By necessity, language is replete with ambiguity, embodying variety and value-added richness as well as confusion and frustration. The translator can only rely on “relative truths” that derive from people’s cultural systems, heritage, idioms, thought habits, and speech patterns.
But prior to ambiguity comes a set of other complexities, for every language has its own rules and traditions. Ambiguity for example only adds to the horde of idioms and figures of speech that professional translators may often regard as considerable stumbling blocks. Machines, they assert, can never tackle those successfully, regardless of what heights artificial intelligence attains—or so they claim.
There is also the difficulty with compound words that derive from joining two or more words together, the end result having little to do with each of the words; or the use of two-word verbs like “fill out” and “break down”, or words that translate differently depending on where they fall in a sentence.
And, finally, what about sarcasm? How does the translator deal with the bitter sharpness involved in a style of expression that usually depicts the precise opposite of its literal translation? That can be a discerning factor between one translator and another.