What Makes a Translator?
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"prison of language is only temporary…someday a merciful
guard the perfect translator will come along with his keys
and let us out," Wendy Lesser wrote in an article, "The Mysteries
of Translation," in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2002.
The following questions remain, however: Who is this translator?
What does he do? And what skills should he possess?
Simply put, a translator is a person who recreates a text
in another language, attempting to keep a delicate balance
between being so literal that the text sounds awkward and
unnatural in the new language or being so free that the text
has become virtually unrecognizable. A translator has to not
only translate the words, but also the concepts. In other
words, a translator unlocks the prison of language, as Ms.
Lesser said, and helps a text break free of its limited original
language, culture, and audience. This service is an unfortunately
under-appreciated art and craft.
To do all the above, a translator must have the following
things: a native or near-native level of proficiency in both
the source language (the language to be translated from) and
the target language (the language to be translated to); the
ability to thoroughly understand all that a text says and
implies; and excellent writing and editing skills. Ideally,
the translator would also have a lot of knowledge about both
the source and target language cultures, as this affects word
usage and meaning, as well as about the author of the original
document and his style of writing.
It all sounds rather formidable, certainly, but not impossible.
There are, in fact, many excellent practitioners out there
who fulfill these hefty requirements, but the tiny number
of translated books published in the United States each year
reveals the sad fact that few people take up this challenging
and stimulating work. If only more people would join the ranks
of translators and help unlock the prison of language.
Brett Jocelyn Epstein is a Swedish
to English translator who has translated articles, menus,
websites, stories, and other works. She is also an English
teacher, writer, and editor, and she has a BA in literature
and creative writing from Bryn Mawr College and an MFA in
fiction from Queens University.
Please visit her website at www.awaywithwords.se
for more information.
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