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An Invisible Traitor

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Versão em português

Claudia MoreiraA well-known Italian saying declares traduttore, traditore, ‘Translator, traitor,’ implying this sneaky species is congenitally incapable of remaining faithful to the original text. For most people, a good translation is one that looks nothing like a translation. In other words, the translator should be invisible, their work limited to conveying the original’s meaning in a fluent and natural style.
These commonplace ideas have provoked the questions behind this article. Are we all indeed lurking traitors who have to remain invisible for our work to be minimally acceptable? Why do people generally entertain such notions and what bearing do these have on our profession?

Let’s start with the dictum ‘translator, traitor.’ People capable of reading texts or watching films in their original languages almost always grumble about the quality of the translation found in books and subtitles. Which of us has not overheard someone muttering in the movie theatre, “hmm, but the character didn’t say that: the translator is useless.”

Most of those making this type of comment are unaware of the difficulties inherent in translating for film. In addition to following all the dialogues and possessing a deep knowledge of the country and culture where the story is set, the translator subtitling a film has to work within the time limit of the scene. Since a subtitle cannot ‘leak’ into the next scene, the viewer has to be able to read the entire translated speech during the scene in question.

Of course, sometimes the lay audience is right. After all, there are film translations that are simply feeble, ideal candidates for a program of bloopers and howlers... But film translators – including those working for TV and video, albeit with a few differences – are forced to cut the characters’ speech fairly drastically, limiting the subtitles to conveying the context of what is said. As a result, film translation – whether dubbed or subtitled – is much more an adaptation than a simple transcription into the target language.

Because most people think of the process of translation as a mere swapping of words from one language to another, it is common for us to hear comments that basically devalue our work. Were translation really such an easy task, it would have been replaced by computer software long ago, rather than remaining the often extremely exhausting intellectual work it actually is. Which one of us does not have a relative or friend who appears from time to time with the technical manual for some electronic device or other and asks whether “you could do a quick translation”? After several such experiences, I have found a way of fixing this type of situation: I take the manual, flip through it, count the pages, and state how much my ‘quick translation’ will cost. In most cases, this is enough for the cheeky in-law to give up...
The main upshot of this attitude, which we can dub universal, is the notion that translation is an undemanding job. Translating is presumed to be easy as people imagine it involves little more than an automatic and mechanical process, matching word for word the contents of the original (where just the wrapping is swapped). Another nefarious outcome of the long-term propagation of this idea is underpayment for translation work. Perceiving it as child’s play, clients often budget low costs for related work. It is common for companies and people to be astonished with the prices actually charged, and they are unprepared to pay the sums that a project actually demands.

An impossible invisibility -
Another central point of this article is the idea of the translator’s ‘invisibility.’ This notion is reflected in the instructions frequently dispatched to the translator, roughly along the lines of “reproduce the idea of the original text in full, follow to the letter the original’s style and ensure that the translation has the same fluency and naturalness as the original text.” For most critics, a good translation is one that bears no living resemblance to a translation and where the translator manages to convey the meaning of the original text. This attitude completely negates the translator’s essential intervention in the text.

In the real world, of course, our work is slightly more complicated than switching words around like building blocks – it is much more complex, demanding an interchange of meanings. If it were an easy operation, automatic translation programs would be able to perform the task. However since it is necessary to exchange and change meanings, especially in order to achieve the much coveted fluency in the target language, nothing matches human thought and the human being’s capacity for abstraction. Our task is to transmit the text’s meaning, bearing in mind that it is not always possible to find exact equivalents. For example, in Polish the word ‘table’ has not only one counterpart but two: stól (which means a dining table) and stolik (which means a coffee or telephone table). In this case, as in so many others, where we cannot simply swap one word for another, we have to adapt the text. Translation is an extremely complex mental process of substituting meanings, where we continually make choices based on our current lifestyle, the country where we live and even our own life history and experiences.

Apart from the difference in language, there is a whole set of other differences that the translator must take into account. Some of these differences completely engulf every translator, such as the social and historical context within which they live. For example, cable TV recently broadcast a mini-series on the rap movement in the US. I can readily imagine how difficult the subtitling must have been, given the immense cultural differences involved. Obviously, the Portuguese spoken in Brazil displays variations that reflect the social context of its speakers. Yet in contrast to rap in the United States, these variations are not overtly intentional. In the US, rap language is frequently used as a form of protest. Even if the translator opts to use a more informal, slang-based language, this alone is unlikely to capture the overall social context of rap. Historical context also influences the creation of the translated text. Were someone to produce a translation of Shakespeare or Cervantes today, their text would undoubtedly be very different from a text produced even decades ago.

The idea that translation is a simple exchange of meanings also involves another supposition – that the translator is capable of reading the author’s mind and converting what he or she meant into another language. However, no reader – including the translator – is capable of absorbing exactly what an author meant to say. Every reading we make is equally influenced by our education, the environment in which we live and by the present moment.

These factors in mind, it is difficult to think of the translator as an invisible being. Even the most fluent text will be heavily influenced by its surroundings. No translator works simply by swapping words. Our work involves adapting and transferring the meaning of these words into the local reality. It is not by chance that software translation is called ‘localization,’ or in other words, adaptation to local patterns.

A contextualized traitor -
Fortunately, this view is slowly being replaced by a more relativist approach, where thought is taken to be linguistically constructed. From this perspective, languages represent concepts rather than objects. These concepts take shape in the mind of speakers independently of the objects they represent.

In earlier time, scholars debated whether it was possible to transfer meaning from one language to another. Contemporary academics have turned to questioning how far it is possible to transfer such meaning or how far languages are formed by ‘human nature’ and how far they are shaped by culture.

Following these insights and taking into account the translator’s environment, he or she no longer appears as a ‘traitor.’ Today we know just how much we are influenced by the historical moment, culture and society in which we live. We also know nowadays that before translating a text, it is necessary to contextualize it, identifying the period, place and circumstances in which it was written. Rosemary Arrojo describes this process in her book Oficina de tradução (The Translation Workshop):

The text, like the sign, ceases to be a ‘faithful’ representation of a stable object capable of existing outside the infinite labyrinth of language and becomes a machine of potential meanings. Hence, the prototypical image of the ‘original’ text ceases to resemble a sequence of containers carrying a determinable and completely recoverable content. Instead of considering the text, or the sign, as a receptacle in which ‘content’ can be deposited and kept under control, I suggest that its prototypical image becomes that of a palimpsest, from the Greek palimpsestos (‘rubbed smooth again’), referring to the “ancient writing material, especially parchment, that, due to its scarcity or high price, was used two or three times [...] by rubbing off the previous text.”
Metaphorically, in our ‘workshop,’ the ‘palimpsest’ becomes the text erased in each cultural community and each epoch, so as to give way to another writing (or interpretation, reading or translation) of the ‘same’ text.

Seen from this viewpoint, translators no longer resemble traitors, but people responsible for adapting the original text to the current social and historical context.

The work of translation is acquiring the recognition it deserves as people and companies demand higher quality results and become aware of the difficulties involved in the process. Each sub-area of translation (literary, legal, IT, film, TV, video and so on) has its own peculiarities, such as the use of special tools, the limits imposed by space and time, production of source texts by non-native speakers, and so on. These aspects, associated with the increased demand caused by globalization, have highlighted the above questions and show that translation is in fact a highly complex and specialized process.

So when that annoying brother-in-law appears with the little manual for his latest electronic gadget, debate these philosophical questions with him. And at the end, quote the price for the translation. I promise he will give up very quickly...


This article was originally published in Сcaps Newsletter (

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