Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Translator as a Co-Creator

Translation is a process by which meaning in one sign system is transferred to another sign system. Here the term ‘sign system’ is limited to linguistic signs only. The person who does this act is called a translator, and bears the responsibility to transfer meaning from source sign system or source language (SL) to target sign system or target language (TL) in an as accurate as possible way. The dilemma of translation, and hence for the translator, starts from within the system of language and its nature. No two words in a language can have same meaning, they might be similar in some aspects but one hundred percent equality or synonymy is not possible. This dilemma widens when words belong to two different languages which have different cultural roots and are distant from each other on the basis of time and space.

It is said that translation is like planting and meaning is the plant which is taken from one soil and planted in a new soil. Meaning exists in a language system but it also has deep roots in culture because language is like a heart and culture is like a body to it. Both language and culture cannot live apart from each other, and upto some extent they do reflect in each other. So the translator is like a person standing on the boundary of one language and culture and importing something to another language and culture. This process needs to be done faithfully, creatively and carefully. During the process of meaning transfer, a translator has to carefully decide what to retain and what to loose. He has to carefully decide how much he has liberty to be creative while giving meaning a new dress of words. At the same time he needs to be careful and faithful to the original meaning of source language. This process can be seen on a continuum or scale of which one end is occupied by ‘creativity’ and the other end is occupied by ‘faithfulness to source’. The translator has to decide what to loose and what to gain on this scale, and according to subject matter, context, and personal taste and experience, he moves back and forth on this continuum or scale.

Subject matter or area of translation is the most powerful factor which affects the translator’s decision to be more creative or less creative. There are some subject areas which require little creativity and are simple to translate. The technology and science related areas, news reports and journalism, websites and software localization, manuals and tutorials etc. are some of the areas which have certain kind of universality. The concepts are usually universally shared and translator just has to change label for specific meaning or concept. Thus the process of translation becomes pretty straight forward with translator being faithful with the source as much as possible. On the contrary, translating a literary piece demands totally opposite skills from the translator. It is generally recommended that translator is also a writer in his mother tongue, or the language in which he is going to translate. He needs to be very careful with meaning but at the same time beauty and creativity are very important as well. He has to be innovative and creative in translation to target language, so that meaning – along with mood, connotations and denotations, formality and cultural ties – is transformed to target language. Juggling on all these fronts requires that translator takes the ‘sense’ of the source and creates something new in the target language. Though generally he may choose a different genre, but ultimately translation will be considered a piece of literature.

The matter of context and personal choice is of less importance as compared to subject matter of translation. The context decides whether translator needs to be creative or needs to retain original meaning of the source. Highly culturally rooted words, e.g. local dishes’ names, are examples which cannot be translated from one language to another. So the translator has to choose faithfulness with the source instead of creating something new. Translations of great literary works like “War and Peace” have made translators to choose original labels instead of using locally available synonyms because of the deep cultural roots of the source, which makes them untranslatable. The matter of understandability for the audience may also be a reason to choose source terms instead of target terms or creation of new ones. This is specially true in localization of modern day software and application programs, where a balance has to be maintained between innovation and/or creation and faithfulness with the source.

Concluding the essay, following opinion can be drawn. Translation is a creative process. A translator has to decide between creativity and faithfulness to source. Sometimes he will be creating new terms, labels and genres; he will be writing the original source in a new tone suitable for the target language. Other times he will be sticking with the source, and trying to imitate words, labels, structures and genres of the source into the target language. So a translator is at the same time a creator of something new as well as a retainer of the old. He is a ‘co-creator’ as well as a ‘translator’; and there are factors which influence the choice of these roles.


Muhammad Shakir Aziz said...

It is a good post, Shakir!

You are right, a translator is not just a 'transporter' transferring meaning from one language to another. He/she concurrently is an active reader and a co-producer of meaning. You are also right that co-production of meaning is found more in a literary translation than a non-literary, or technical, translation. As regards factors influencing choices made by a translator, some of the key ones include the brief (i.e. the instructions given to the translator by the publisher or client), the source-text writer, the source text culture, the target-text culture and the target readers. Another determining factor (which unfortunately is predominantly neglected) may be sense of morality/ethics.

Best wishes and regards,


Muhammad Shakir Aziz said...

Thanks for your essay. I translate Spanish to English and vice versa. I am often questioned about not providing literal over interpretive translations (text). I have to remind the customer/client that the our translation delivers a more complete interpretation of what they ant to convey. Most clients "get it" but only after a detailed discussion.

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