Sunday, July 17, 2022

Translating in Old Age



“There are many mentions in this blog of how young humans can be when they start to translate, but how old can they get before they lose the power?”

The question was posed in a post on this blog in 2011. It bore the title Old translators never die.. they simply fade away. (To retrieve it, enter toronto eighties in the Search box on the right.) During the intervening decade, little has been done to answer it.


So in the absence of scientific studies, we are forced into the realm of the anecdotal  and what follows is some of it. Nevertheless it provides us with clues for the formation of some hypotheses.


Back in 2020 there was a post on this blog about a lady, a Spanish natural translation interpreter, who helped out impromptu at a bilingual dinner party. To retrieve it, enter no age limit in the Search box on right the right.

She interpreted… everything that was said in English, sometimes in full and sometimes in summary. She also translated into English things that she had first said herself… in Spanish. I noticed that sometimes she produced translations of items on the menu faster than I could think of them myself. She had no training in translation, not even an English language course.”

She was in her late seventies.


A little later, in 2011, there was the post Old Translators Never Die. It was about a professional translator in Toronto who was in his eighties and still working. I expressed surprise that he'd gone on for so long. He replied, "One of the good things about translation is that you can go on doing it to an advanced age."


I myself continued translating routine stuff into my early eighties. When I gave up it wasn’t because I couldn’t translate but because I found it too tiring. Fatigue is an important factor in old-age behaviour.


Now comes news from India, that country of literary translation par excellence, which raises the bar. It’s about Aditya Narayan Dhairyasheel or A.N.D. Haksar. Since he retired 30 years ago, Haksar, who is based in Delhi and is now nearing 90, has spent hours translating Sanskrit works into English, to make them accessible to more readers.

“His most recent translation, Anthology of Humorous Sanskrit Verses (see below) features 200 hasya or humorous verses drawn from various works of Sanskrit literature ranging from the millennia-old Bhagavad Gita and Mahabharata to compilations from the 13th and 14th centuries.”

No mean feat.

Haksar was formerly a career diplomat and ambassador to Portugal and Yugoslavia. He therefore belongs to a particular class of literary translators, people who have retired after distinguished careers and then taken up translation as native translators. Another is my good friend the Tamil translator Prabha Sridevan, who was a high court judge in another life. She has contributed to this blog (and for more about her, enter prabha in the Search box.)


At this point we can venture a hypothesis. It’s that mutatis mutandis there’s no age limit to the ability to translate. It may continue unto death. ‘All other things being equal’ because translating depends on other cognitive abilities in addition to the core translating ability itself. Simultaneous interpreting requires a very fast rate of processing that slows down with age. Consecutive interpreting requires a good short-term memory. All translating requires a good memory for words and names. And so on.


But survival doesn’t mean unimpaired.


We have long known, since the research on aphasics by Michel Paradis at McGill University in the 1970s, that a linguistic upset can lead to surprisingly aberrant behaviour in translating. But how about degenerations that are more typical of old age such as dementia and Alzheimers? There’s plenty of scope here for a thesis. Or for several theses.



A.N.D. Haksar. Anthology of Humorous Sanskrit Verses. Delhi: Penguin Random House India; May 2022.


. Our ancient humour deserves an audience: Translator A.N.D. Haksar. Global Circulate, 20 June 2022.

Michel Paradis et al. Alternate antagonism with paradoxical translation behavior in two aphasic patients. Brain and Language, vol. 15, no 1, pp. 55-69.

A. N. D. Haksar

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