Thought of the Day: On Translations

The majority people, I would suggest, are significantly better* at critiquing and criticizing translations than they are at actually creating them.

Incidentally, criticizing is also quite a bit easier than actually translating, too.

8 thoughts on “Thought of the Day: On Translations

  1. Although the asterisk at “better” seems pretty clearly intended, I’m not sure what the intent is. At any rate, I think your observation is right, but it would seem to call for qualifications and clarifications. Are the “majority of people” here referred to competent in the original language in a significant sense? My guess is that this “majority” is in a better position to judge whether the translated version is intelligible as standard usage in the target language. They’ll say, “Das klingt doch noch nicht richtig!” or “Genau so!” — regaradless whether they can judge how it reflects the legitimate sense of the original text. This is a matter of having one’s ears well tuned to one’s native language. On the other hand, composing good phrases, sentences, and paragraphs in one’s native tongue is a developed skill, an art mastered by relatively few (colleges are notoriously incompetent to teach it!). Competent translating demands deep insight into the meaning of the text in the original language as well as composition skills in one’s native language. One cannot expect that combination in “the majority of people.”

    1. Oops, I meant to remove that asterisk. There originally was a note there.

      Basically, I had been reading a couple blogs yesterday and I just grew highly annoyed by how the authors treated the translations they were discussing with very little acknowledgment for the work of the translators themselves and the challenges faced.

  2. Your post makes me think of this Indonesian proverb:

    Anjing menggonggong, kafilah tetap berlalu.

    The dog bow wows, the (Arab’s) caravan keeps going.

    And this critique by Colson: “I doubt whether the proverb you mention ( the dogs and the caravan) is typically Indonesian, by the way.”

    With this concession by Diny (who being Indonesian and bilingual in English knows): “‘anjing menggonggong kafilah tetap berlalu’ is definitely an Indonesian proverb. The translation (the dog and the caravan, lol) does sound awkward and sound very much un-Indonesian.”

    So Colson continues: “In 1978 the then Dutch Prime Minister, Van Agt, told the parliamentary opposition: ‘De honden blaffen, maar de karavaan trekt voort’ – that is: the dogs are barking, but the caravan moves on.”

    Which presumes that the Dutch is not a translation, that the Indonesian is a bad translation of the Dutch, and that the English translation of the Indonesian which Diny gives and the English of the Dutch that Colson gives is most transparent.

    If, however, the Indonesian is not only good Indonesian (i.e., the onomatopoeic Indonesian “anjing menggonggong”) but is also a transliterated translation (a mocking borrowing of a foreign Arabic word (i.e. qafilah to transliterate in English).

    The proverb itself speaks to critics who (like dogs) only sound off on those who are actually moving on with transporting goods. But giving the translational interactions of words in the Indonesian proverb, the very word “kafilah” is translational in a metaphorical sense. The word becomes the “tenor” for the “vehicle” (i.e., foreign Arabic caravan IS “translation itself” – despite the critics) – Of course, I’m using I.A. Richards’s rhetorical notion of “metaphor,” “tenor,” and “vehicle” — vehicle in a punny sense! But we could use linguists’ “target” and “source” or the more common literary terms “ground” and “figure.”

    At any rate, what I love about “menggonggong” is that it sounds like critics who can not move on, who will not transport notions across deserts or languages, and who have no idea really about how their own barking (so depraved of meaning by comparison) sounds – only sounds.

    (The conversation about the proverb that I mention above is from the blogosphere: http://accordingtod.wordpress.com/2008/01/28/viy-2008-a-tough-task/)

  3. BTW, at the risk of enduring barking criticism, “The dog bow wows, the (Arab’s) caravan keeps going” is my translation.

    And my translation of your “significantly better*” is “επιτήδειος* προφανώς.” 🙂

  4. You’re quite right.

    When I was leading the project to translate Jerome’s Chronicle online, I found that it was always hardest to start a paragraph of the Latin. Once someone had made an attempt — any attempt, other than the a pure guess — then it was relatively easy to come in and comment on this or that.

    I always found it much harder to translate, than to offer corrections. Indeed I got the impression that people thought I had more Latin than I did, simply because I was always offering corrections. But of course that was very much easier, as well as more prestigious!

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