Friday, September 18, 2015

The Four Miracles of Translation

My thanks, literally heartfelt, to the medical and nursing staffs of the La Fe, Paré Jofré and other hospitals in Valencia, Spain, for snatching me back from the brink. And particularly to Dr José Luis Velero of La Fe, who had me fitted out with a pacemaker in the nick of time.

A long spell in hospital ought to be an opportunity for deep reflection and profound ideas. The fact is inspiration doesn’t work that way and a lot of time can be wasted going over and over what one already knows. Nevertheless there is a belief that has dominated my thoughts these last days.

The Four Miracles of Translation
Back in the 1920s the philosophers Ogden and Richards opined that translation was the most complex of all human mental operations. I’m not sure of that, but it certainly is a miracle. Indeed not just one miracle but a pyramid of at least four miracles of evolution.

Translating is by definition an operation between two languages. The first miracle is therefore language itself. We know that it evolved (or appeared suddenly according to some linguists) but not when or where. Perhaps around half a mllion years ago. Not more, not spoken language anyway, because we hadn’t acquired the physical organs of phonation until then. Yet even that is misleading, because we could have developed non-sonic sign languages earlier. Anyway we learnt it and we learnt how best to use it. But because sound is evanescent and there was no recording, we have no record of its beginnings,

The second miracle, less obvious, is that each of us is made not only to learn one language or the language, but to master many languages. Three, ten... there is plenty of evidence of people learning that many. The limit seems to be imposed not by a person’s capacity to learn them but by the time and energy they have available to do it with. And not only to learn them but to keep them separate from one another in the mind from an early age (about three years) and use each of them appropriately according to context. Why did we need more than one? But then nature is profligate and we can do most things more ways than one.

The third miracle, the most crucial for us translators, is that we are able to transfer information and hold it constant between two languages. At least ‘information’ is what people usually think of; but in fact we also communicate feeling, emotions, whether we are aware of it or not. A translation that doesn’t do all of this may be a correct translation linguistically but it’s not a complete translation.

Is that all? Not quite. One thing still missing is the checking ability: a meta-miracle that enables us to understand and feel the original and the translation simultaneously and to judge whether they are equivalent, and if not to say why not. This is what translation teachers need. Yet most people, even expert translators, don’t think about this fourth meta-miracle, which enables us to detect fine shades of difference and can be refined with training.

C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards, The Meaning of Meaning, 1923. Several modern reprints.
Origin of language. Wikipedia, 2015.

C. K. Ogden. He is best known as the inventor of Basic English, a stripped-down English that uses only 1,000 words.