Today we are celebrating International Translation Day. Hundreds of thousands of translators, editors and interpreters are greeting and being greeted, in turn, by their fellow colleagues, friends, family and, hopefully, their clients! Instead of focusing on what we celebrate exactly, or the fact that Google has given us no doodle for a present, I thought it would be interesting to reflect on the role of the translator not as what we often like to call it, a bridge between one culture and another, but as an inherently subjective as well as active reader and interpreter of the texts they translate.
Translating is (more or less) like writing
Yesterday, I attended PhD. Amalia Gladhart’s talk on “Consideraciones contextuales a la hora de traducir: reflexiones desde la práctica” (Contextual considerations in translation: reflexions based on practice). At one point, she defined translation as being always an “interpretation”, to which she added that there is no such thing as a “correct translation”. As for the author of a translation, she said: “A translator is a writer who writes within certain limits, those of the preceding text.” In Gladhart’s words, just as “every language poses its own ambiguities”, a translator is someone who will “produce the same [text], but not quite.”
When I heard Amalia Gladhart speak of us in terms of writers, and of translation as a flexible concept where correctness is oftentimes an obscure starting point when it comes to assessing its quality, I smiled. If only such discourse were part of what is often spoken by the voices of common sense; if only an analogy such as translator-writer did not scandalise the academic community as it sometimes does! I choose to believe that if some degree of similarity between writers and translators were to be admitted by teachers and students at translation programmes as perhaps a positive and fruitful perspective from which the notion of what a translator is could be defined, I am sure most of us would have to make less efforts to be recognised as authors of our own work.
Translating entails interpretation
An idea which is many times rejected by some yet vouched for by others is the role played by interpretation in translation. Even the strictest forms of “objective” translation are based on some degree of interpretation by the translator. For example, my translation of a birth certificate into Spanish will never be exactly the same as my colleague’s, even if we both work with the same language pair. One legal text may be potentially translated into the same language in the form of several different texts because every target text will still very much depend on the translator who creates it, not just on the source text or its writer. The fact that five or six different translators base their work on the same starting point, i. e., one source text, does not render it a necessary consequence that their translations will be the same. They may read similar, but never the same.
We human beings are natural interpreters. We interpret all kinds of input all the time: media products, fashion, literature, history, politics, body language, WhatsApp texts, tone of voice, street signs, and so on. Interpretation is a key part of our everyday lives not only as translators, but also as natural readers.
Interpretation is the basis for knowledge. Even scientific knowledge is based on interpretation: our so called “scientific progress” would never be possible without positive or negative or doubtful or approving interpretation of previous and current scientific research, hypotheses, theories and, ultimately, breakthroughs.
Information alone is nothing without the way we consciously or unconsciously interpret it. Indeed, interpretation leads to some or other use of information which always entails the fascinating potential for building knowledge. So how could interpretation be so easily eradicated by some from the territory of translation?
I think all translators are inherent interpreters. Not interpreters in the sense of consecutive, escort, simultaneous interpreters, to name a few, but readers of all components of the reality they are immersed in, and even of those contexts which they can only access through certain information channels.
So it is not wrong to interpret a text. In fact, it is only natural. Interpretation will be there even when we most want it to disappear in the quest for what we like to call “faithfulness”.
So a translator is a necessary interpreter and someone who will necessarily interpret what they translate. The fact that some of us will tend to associate interpretation with treason against a presumably “original” author of a text is as questionable a reasoning as that which points at translators as mere bridges between cultures.
Translators are inexorable creators, and interpretation is precisely what makes each and every one of us unique, wanted, sought for by some yet not by others, special and part of a living breed at the same time. ◘ ◘ ◘
*I couldn’t find the source article quoted by colleague and Magic Pen Edit fan, but I did find this quote by Thomas Mann on which I suspect our quote is based: “A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people”.