Thursday, February 16, 2012

Words vs. Ideas

When I started to learn French at school, at age 11, it was by the venerable grammar-translation method. As soon as we could translate sentences, we were told, "Don't translate the words, translate the ideas." I noticed that our teachers and examiners sometimes didn't practice what they preached, but the advice sank in. As if we had to make a choice.

"Ideas, not words." Here's a little example I saw recently:
En España, ya queda prohibido circular a más de 100 km/h.
Word translation (with help from Google Translate): In Spain, it is already forbidden to drive at more than 100 km an hour.
Ideas translation: The Spanish speed limit is now 70 mph.
At the extremes, translating the words leads to word-for-word translations; translating the ideas leads to free translations.

Years later, I came across the distinction again in Theodore Savory's The Art of Translation. Savory gives a list of six choices that translators have to make, and first on the list is:
"A translator must give the words of the original,
A translator must give the ideas of the original."
Again, a choice.

By that time I'd also learnt that the choice may be determined by the type of text or the purpose of the translation. It was none other than St Jerome who famously said (my emphasis),
"When I translate the Greeks, I do not translate word for word, except for the Scriptures, where even the order of the words is a mystery."

So far, pretty elementary. Then the distinction got a boost in contemporary translation theory from the research and writings of an influential teacher, Danica Seleskovitch (for more about her, enter Danica in the Search box on the right). She also coined some new terminology in French. She called translating the words transcodage and translating the meaning interprétation. Her research was based on the notes and think-aloud recollections of Expert Conference Interpreters working in the long consecutive mode. In this mode there is typically a delay of many minutes between speaker and interpretation, during which time the interpreter has to remember what's been said. The interpreters are trained to take notes that act as prompts, and the notes are of made up principally of ideograms between which are inserted only a minimum of words. Consequently the interpreter is prompted for the ideas but can't remember the exact wording of the original. The content of the original is thus said to be deverbalised. She went even further and said that this deverbalised form is the way we store spoken information in long-term memory. As a teacher, she insisted her students deverbalise and avoid literal translations. As if they had a choice.

But one of our best contemporary Canadian writers on translation, Brian Mossop (see photo), who has over 30 years of practical experience as a Professional Translator, opposes, we might even say debunks, the idea that there is a choice.
"This picture is certainly useful for pedagogical purposes,... However pedagogical utility does not imply theoretical value... That is, the mere fact that a theory may be useful does not imply or even suggest that it is true...
"My proposal is that both processes (direct links and meaning-mediated links) occur simultaneously and they do so whenever someone is translating. It is never a case of one or the other.

"At the outset, as the translator begins to hear or read a chunk of ST [source text], he/she starts to interpret ST, that is, arrive at an understanding of its meaning. On the other hand, and at the same time, the translator’s bilingual brain automatically produces TL [target language] lexical and syntactic material based on the incoming SL forms and on the connections (whatever these may be) between TL and SL items in the mental store of language knowledge. I’ll call this activity of the brain Rendering. Rendering occurs beyond all conscious control and cannot be ‘unlearned’. It happens automatically: bilingual brains render just as stomachs digest incoming food."
He does admit that
"In the present state of knowledge about how the brain works, we cannot prove any theory about unconscious brain processes during translation. Still, we can ask whether there are any observations which can provide at least initial plausibility for a view."
And he goes on to give some of the evidence.

To be continued.

Theodore Savory. The Art of Translation, enlarged edition. London: Cape, 1967, 159 pages. Out of print, but available second hand through Amazon.

Michael Marlowe. The literal character of the Vulgate. Bible Research. Click here for the text. The Vulgate is Jerome's Latin translation of the Bible.

Danica Seleskovitch. Langage, langues et mémoire: étude de la prise de notes en interprétation consécutive (Language, Languages and Memory: A Study of Note-taking for Consecutive Interpretation). Paris: Minard, 1975, paperback edition 1998. This is the canonical version, but there's an English summary in:
D. Seleskovitch. Language and memory: a study of note-taking in consecutive interpretation. In F. Pöchhacker and M. Shlesinger (eds.), Interpreting Studies Reader, London & New York, Routledge, 2002, pp. 121-129.

Brian Mossop. An Alternative to 'Deverbalization'. 2003. Click here for the text.

Intercultural Studies Group, Braga

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