Sorry Guys, You Can't Win
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Some time ago my e-mail included a message posted by a respected
colleague discussing the qualities that made a
good translator. The message read like her own
CV. She believed she was a competent professional,
attributed her competence to certain factors and
concluded that those factors were indeed universally
In other words, she firmly believed there is only
one road to becoming a good translator: the road
she had trodden.
If you translate into a foreign language,
your style will be non-native. If you
translate into your own language, you'll
miss the point of the original... You
In fact, most good translators I know have not
followed the same path as she did and many of
those who have are not good translators at all;
the path she followed is not the only possible
one. There is no single path to becoming a good
translator, there is not even a safe path that
will guarantee that those who tread it will become
good translators. Some trails are better than
others, some are less steep, less arduous, less
hazardous, some may be more appropriate to individual
tastes. But there are many routes, not just a
Worse still, none of those roads will take us
to the very top, to that exalted situation of
being a complete translator, for there is no such
a thing. No matter what route we follow, every
translator suffers from what I call "systemic
defects": shortcomings inherently related
to the particular path that this individual followed
to become a translator.
Perhaps, I should delve deeper into this matter
taking my own situation as a starting point.
I was born in Brazil, my first language is Portuguese
and my English was acquired in high school. I
have spent less than thirty days in English-speaking
countries. That gives me a definite edge in translating
from Portuguese into English. As
a matter of fact, I find translating from English
a little terrifying.
Native Stylus vs. Native Style
This is what I call the stylus edge. I
found the stylus vs. style thing so cute
I could not resist using it here. If you see it
used somewhere else, please, remember that this
is my creation, or at least I think it is. But
let me explain what I mean by native stylus.
Long ago, during the LP-era, I read an item claiming
that the most valuable piece of equipment one
could buy for one's stereo was a stylus. Stylus,
as you'll remember, is what everybody called a
needle. The guy proceeded to explain that
most people spent a fortune on speakers, amps,
pre-amps and God knows what else, but went Uncle
Scrooge when purchasing a stylus. This was an
error, the guy said, because the stylus picks
up the sound and if it does not do a good job
of it, there is nothing the rest of the system
can do to improve the sound.
Yes, indeed. My style is not nativebut
my stylus is. Because Portuguese is my
native language and I have always lived in Brazil,
I can easily pick up and understand half-hidden
shades of meaning and cultural allusions that
would go unnoticed if I were not a native speaker.
Not that I can always explain it well in English:
that is the privilege of the native speaker, the
guy who's got the native style.
The Advantages of Transplants
Alas, had I lived abroad, my English would be
a lot better. Or might be, because a lot
of people live abroad for ages and never learn
the language, as everybody knows.
People who have lived abroad claim they make the
best translators because they are native speakers
of Portuguese and speak English like a native.
Their detractors claim their Portuguese starts
getting funny long before the improvement in their
English begins to show and that she speaks
like a native actually means she speaks
as only a foreigner will.
Both sides are right to some extent (meaning both
are wrong most of the time). The fact is that
no matter where you live, your day still has twenty-four
hours and the more contact you have with English,
the less contact you have with Portuguese. As
we say down here, you cannot whistle and chew
sugar cane at the same time. But I can think of
several types of jobs better entrusted to a transplanted
translator than left in the hands of a stay-at-homer.
Not All Translators are Brazilian, Can You Believe
Of course, we do not have a monopoly on translating
from Portugueseor into Portuguese, for that
matter. Lots of Americans are doing it these days.
Many of them even do Portuguese as a "second"
Americans translating from Portuguese into English
have better styles than styluses (this is becoming
too obvious and quite boring, but I must go on
and on) and must work on the decoding side of
translation with the same gusto I work on the
A translation into English by an incompetent foreigner
is a laughable string of nonsense. This is a good
thing because the very absurdity of it all will
tell the reader the translation cannot be trusted.
So it is no security risk.
A translation into English done by a native speaker
whose style is OK but who lacks stylus is a lot
more dangerous. Because the translation looks
OK and reads like decent, honest English,
the reader who has no access to or does not understand
the original is misled into believing it is
This type of translation is what the French call
the belles infidèles, the unfaithful
beauties: beautiful text that fails to reproduce
the meaning of the original.
Les Belles Infidèles
The term refers to a certain type of translation
popular in the nineteenth century, that made excellent
reading in French but did not reflect the original
for several reasons, including the fact that the
translator often was not entirely conversant in
the original language.
Unfaithful beauties are not restricted to translations
into English. Plenty of them are done from English
into Portuguese by Brazilians who believe a few
lessons in English or a short stay in the U.S.
attending high school under an exchange program
entitles them to translate anything.
Are you a professional?
Some of my clients do not object to the fact I
am Brazilian (I became a crack stylus salesperson),
but would rather have the stuff translated by
a lawyer or an accountant, under the belief only
a "professional" can handle "technical
As if translators were not professionals!
It is often difficult to explain to them that
translating is a profession and that a
good lawyer does not necessarily a good translator
make. Some lawyers are excellent translators,
certainly, but most are not. Same goes
for accountants, doctors, cockroach-breeders and
members of other equally worthy professions, trades
As a matter of fact, being a "professional"
(meaning lawyer, accountant, etc., not
"professional translator") may be
an asset but often it is a liability. Those "professionals"
produced some of the worst translations I have
seen, for many of them find it impossible to resist
the temptation to make an improvement here and
This type of person can be truly difficult as
a reviser. A client once made several changes
in one of my translations (into Portuguese, for
a change) on the grounds that the entity he represented
held a different position on the matter and could
not publish that rubbish under its name.
It took me more than an hour of heated discussion
to convince the man that the text did not purport
to convey the opinion of the Brazilian entity.
The very purpose of having it translated was to
inform the Brazilian public what the foreign professional
thought. In the end my, translation was published
unchanged, without the benefit of reviser-imposed
improvements. I am very good at stamping my foot.
Surprisingly, this denial of translation as a
profession also occurs among translators themselves.
My brethren often accept the dictum that translations
of poetry are best left to poets. Sorry, pals,
but I cannot agree. Some poets may be very good
translators, no doubt, in the same manner some
poets cook well, play admirably on the sackbut
or can perform any number of wonderful feats.
But that should not be taken to mean that all
poets are good translators or that only poets
can translate. Many simply write original poetry,
good or otherwise, and publish it as translations
or transmogrifications of someone else's work.
If you do not believe me, just have the their
so-called translations translated back into the
original language by a competent translator who
does not know the text purports to be a translation,
if I make myself clear. Then, compare the original
with the back-translation. Any similarity will
be mere coincidence.
Those people remind me of Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962),
a great Austrian violinist who used to play encores
by Pugnani (1731-1798). When a critic asked a
few awkward questions, Mr. Kreisler, always the
diplomatic Viennese, claimed that the bonbons
had been composed by himself, in the
manner of Pugnani. That did not improve
the musical quality of the pieces but helped pinpoint
Degrees and all that
The old guard (pace Cambronne) never took
a degree in translating because there were none
to be taken during our salad days. And as old
guards are wont to do, we did not surrender to
the hordes of degree-bearers that colleges and
universities have been pouring into the market
Don't take me wrong. I am all in favor of college
training for translators and have had the honor
to address student audiences in at least ten different
colleges. If I were young and wanted to become
a translator, I would certainly enroll in one
of those colleges (not any of them, though)
and dutifully work for a degree.
Some respected members of the Old Guard, however,
affirm the best way to spoil a talent for translation
is to put its holder through a college course
in translating. I do not agree. When Pixinguinha
(please, do not pronounce it pi-ksin-gwin-ha,
it is pee-sheen-gheeng-yaor nearly so) entered
the Rio Conservatoire everybody said he would
never compose anything of value again. They were
wrong and so is anyone who says school is bad
But some facts are true: translation courses range
from excellent to horrible, not to say plain evil,
and not all graduates are nearly as competent
as they believe they are. And, as all new graduates,
they need a bit of experience to become good professionals.
On the other hand, not all of those who have learned
by holding their several noses very close to the
grindwheel are as competent as they would like
you to believe they are. The guy who claims he
(more probably "she," for most translators
are women) has been a translator for thirty years
may in fact have been a mistranslator for
all that time.
If you translate into a foreign language, your
style will be non-native. If you translate into
your own language, you'll miss the point of the
original. If you live abroad, your native language
will get a bit rusty, and you'll never write the
foreign language like a real native does.
If you are a translator, you'll fail to grasp
the fine technical points of the original or to
convey them to the reader using the appropriate
language. If you are a non-translator you should
be doing your thing, not translating, because
you do not know how to translate. If you do not
have a degree, you lack the necessary theoretical
foundation. If you have a degree, you lack the
You can't win.
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