We are Still of Two Minds about It
We were flying down to Argentina to deliver our piece on Brazilian Tax Terminology at the 7th IMTT in Córdoba. It was a boring flight, as most flights are, and to keep the boredom away, we were talking shop, to the distraction of other passengers, who preferred to sleep.
Danilo started reminiscing about old times, as he is wont to do, and that triggered some thoughts, which in turn triggered this article on the very touchy subject of translating into one’s second language. This is a subject that has cropped up several times in our discussions and this is a heavily edited translation (into our second language!) of a nonexistent transcript of our exchanges of ideas.
[Kelli]: You did a lot of translation into your second language early in your career, didn’t you?
[Danilo]: Sure. And I still accept those jobs occasionally. In the old times, it was common practice. A GOOD translator was supposed to translate in both directions. You translated a letter, you were expected to translate the reply. Some were very good at it, some were not, but that was part of life.
[Kelli]: Did you find it easy?
[Danilo]: Certainly not. It was pure hell. But I wanted to be a GOOD translator (as then defined) and did my best to hide my incompetence. You have also done your share of translation into your second language, Kelli, and you know how hard it is.
[Kelli]: Depressing, I would say. I have always thought I could write English reasonably well. But translating, for me, is a lot more difficult than writing an original text in English.
[Danilo]: Yes, it certainly requires different abilities. When you write your own texts, you write what you want say to and, if you don’t know how to write it, you think of something else. When you translate, you write what the author says and there is no way around it.
It is different. Incidentally, this touches on one of my pet peeves: the idea that it is necessary to be a good writer to be a good translator. Not necessarily. "Good" writers sometimes feel compelled to put more of their own feelings into the translation than is warranted. You know the story about Sir Rider Haggard’s "King Solomon’s Mines". For the benefit of those who don’t know it, sir Rider’s novel received a translation from Eça de Queiroz, arguably the best Portuguese prose writer of the 19th century. The translation is often said to be better than the original, because Eça was by far the better writer and the text is more Eça than Rider Haggard. If this is the truth, it may be very good literature, but not good translation.
[Kelli]: I know that any text I write in English shows contamination from my Portuguese, but the degree of contamination seems to be higher in translation.
[Danilo]: Don’t I know it! My first translations into English were very poor and received strong criticism. Grammar was correct, terminology was also correct, but it was not English: it was just Portuguese in English words. It took a lot of time and effort to raise the level to something my clients would accept.
[Kelli]: What did you do to raise the level?
[Danilo]: It all began when I came across a copy of Strunk & White’s "The Elements of Style". You know, this was long before the Internet and there were very few resources available to Brazilian students of English. There were grammars and exercise books, but all of them targeted the foreign student. I had gone much beyond of that and, yet... But S&W targeted the native. It was a great discovery! I read the book several times. Then I found more books on style written for the use of native speakers. Bought and read several of them. Because my problem was not grammar. I made very few grammar mistakes and studying more and more grammar provided diminishing returns. S&W and similar books were a revelation. Some of my findings from that era are reported here.
[Kelli]: And it also taught you that good command of grammar is necessary, but far from sufficient, that not everything that is correct is adequate. I don’t know how many times we discussed that.
[Danilo]: Yes, and it was a very good lesson, wasn’t it? Reminds me of another short book, by Dr. Stella Tagnin, ("O jeito que a gente diz", DISAL) a professor at Universidade de São Paulo. She says that the first time she traveled to the U.S., after studying English for six years, she thought she knew English, but her interlocutor showed surprise at something she said. She asked whether she had made a mistake and the other person answered something like it is not wrong, but not the way we say it.
[Kelli]: A question of tone, register, collocations, phraseology... How did you deal with that?
[Danilo]: Not as difficult as it may seem to be, since I have always dealt with a very limited range of subjects. I can fake a decent translation of a report on Brazilian taxation in English, but have rejected several jobs on other subjects. In other words, there is a core where I consider myself competent enough to produce a "fit for the purpose" translation into English, there is a middle layer of subjects which I will translate into Portuguese but not into English, and there is an outer layer which I will not translate into Portuguese, let alone into English.
In my work translating into Portuguese, I learned many constructions, turns of phrase and terms that made it easier to work in the opposite direction. In other words, since, so to say, I drove the translation bus in both directions, translating into Portuguese has taught me a lot on the other side of road and vice versa. Know something? I would not translate so well into Portuguese if I had not translated so much into English. The road seen from a different angle, you see. Great training!
[Kelli]: For example?
[Danilo]: Why do you have to ask difficult questions? But I will try to answer. Wait a moment. (...) at some point, I realized that there is a connection between verbs in English and nouns in Portuguese. It was an epiphany that changed the way I translated. I didn’t realize it at the time, but our course on (into Portuguese) Translation techniques began at that point. Years later, I found the same information confirmed in Vinay and Darbelnet’s "Stylistique."
[Kelli]: A lot of people criticize those who accept translation jobs into their second language. What can you say to them?
[Danilo]: They look at one side of the coin and think they have seen the whole.
In fact, there is no denying that very few people achieve full command of a foreign language. That is, you and I write English with a "Brazilian accent." Although a lot of people claim they are fully bilingual or "coordinate bilinguals," as the term is, in most cases they just lack self-criticism.
On the other hand, translating from any language requires a lot of knowledge few people are able to gather. Years ago I was asked to double check a translation of an important document from Portuguese into English. The job had been done by a very experienced and competent American colleague. It was a very beautiful text, but she had missed many points which were obvious to the native speaker of the source language. The final version included many of my suggestions, even if slightly edited for style.
That made me quite very proud, until the time I started worrying about my translations into Portuguese: how many points was I missing? I will never know until my Portuguese texts are double checked by a native speaker of English.
In fact, this is the best combination: translation by a native speaker of the target language, double checked by a native speaker of the source language, a combination tried by Erico Veríssimo, a Brazilian writer who headed the translation department for a local publisher years ago.
In addition, as you know, coins do not have only two sides: there is heads, tails and the edge. In this particular case, I believe the edge is represented by the fact that outside the so called "FIGS" languages (French, Italian, German, Spanish English is a "given") and possibly Russian, the supply of good professional translators is very asymmetrical. So that, although it is quite possible to find a good native speaker of English who translates from French, it is far more difficult to find one who can translate from Portuguese and next to impossible to find one who can translate form Albanian, for example, as discussed here.
Since English has become so important both as the language of several economically important countries and the world’s new Koine, the amount of into-English work far exceeds the capabilities of the existing labor pool. No theory of translation can gainsay this, a lesson that even the EU seems to have had to learn.
[Kelli]: Now, with all your experience, which is easier? Into Portuguese or into English?
[Danilo]: This is a loaded question, Kelli, and you know it. Since English is not my mother tongue, it is always easier for me to write Portuguese. Knowing that, Brazilian agencies always pay about 30 percent more for into-English work as an incentive.
[Kelli]: ...that usually seems to be a lot! But every time I accept one of these jobs, I regret it bitterly and always think it is not worth the trouble (even if it seems to be a small fortune when I accept the job, it’s always so little when the job is finished)...
[Danilo]: Yes, a 30 percent bonus doesn’t pay for the added work. It is my experience that we should charge twice as much for into English work. But there is an additional point: I think Portuguese into English translation should be paid more than English into Portuguese, even if the translator’s mother language is English. I may be wrong, but I think translating from English into Portuguese benefits from the long tradition we can draw on. Colleagues working into English certainly do not enjoy the same benefits. Meaning that they are fully entitled to the bonus, even if their native language is English.
[Kelli]: So your advice is not accepting into-English work?
[Danilo]: Is this a question about ethics or economics?
[Danilo]: I am of two minds about it. From the money standpoint, unless you know the subject very well, have an above-average command of the target language and the bonus is at least 70%, it is a loss job.
From the ethical point of view, the issue is more complicated. I did several into-English translations for a UK company and they seemed to be quite happy with the results. They knew I was Brazilian. Of course they found my style faulty. Who would not? In addition, my knowledge of the area and of Brazilian Portuguese allowed me to disentangle the legalese to their satisfaction. I was not fooling anybody. I felt very good doing it. Will do it again anytime. On the other hand, I rejected an institutional text for a Brazilian bank: I can deal with hard technical stuff, but I don’t feel up to the task of "writing pretty."
[Kelli]: I’ve been working with Danilo for three years now. I think my main task is not editing, translating, nor anything really palpable. Well, they were at first, but not anymore. I believe the most useful thing I do today (for me, for him, for the partnership and for everyone who benefits from our work) is to give Danilo some ideas, help him organize them and, most of all, remind him of his early years as a translator. It took me three whole years, but I finally managed to ask him to do what I believe is the most useful thing for the readers: to trace back how he got to the point he is at now. Every step of his learning path. Teaching terminology or translation techniques is far from useless. But showing HOW he got to such technique might provide more insight, both for himself and for the readers.
[Danilo]:The result is here, with this very text. We wrote it in one shot, using Google Documents, while we chatted endlessly over a Skype connection. The whole article is a summary of a hundred different conversations we have had over the last three years, so it did not take any research. In fact, some of the "Kelli" parts were written by Danilo and vice versa: one of us simply remembered what the other had said on this or that occasion and thought it was worth repeating.
We hope you enjoy the text as much as we enjoyed writing it.
Published - December 2011
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