Two Heads Are Better Than One
Is translation an art or a craft? Yes. There is a definitely a technical side to translating – such as the grammatical structure of a sentence in a given language and just the basic knowledge of the corresponding word in the target language from that of the source language. But, I definitely feel that there is an art to it as well - that is when experience and knowledge in both the source and target language are very useful. The common thought is that translating into ones native language is the ideal scenario because it is easier for the translator to produce an end product that is readable and comprehensive for someone that is reading it in that target language. But, I feel that equal experience and knowledge of the source language can be very valuable, as well.
We just finished an entire book, and the author loved to used terms and idioms that you definitely couldn’t translate literally and convey the intended meaning of the author. On top of that, there were several words that had different connotations, depending on the context, that greatly influenced which word would best express the meaning of the original word. It was times like these that I was thankful that my wife and I can team up to do the translation. She is a native Spanish speaker born and raised in Mexico, and I am a native English speaker from the U. S. We feel by having these two different backgrounds we have been able to deliver to our clients a finished product that we can be confident in, as far as handing to them a document that accurately represents the original document but in another language.
The author of the book that we just translated liked to use terms like “knock off” and “get your arms around …” which have both a literal meaning and connotative meanings. Did you just knock off something onto the floor, or did you buy a cheap imitation? Did you try to hug someone, or did you try to understand a concept? Which is the right one to reflect the thought of the author? How about the term “wife beater”? Are we talking about someone in an abusive relation or a type of undershirt? Choosing the right words will definitely impact how the finished document is understood! The context, of course, is the key to figuring it out, but without knowledge of the source language, choosing the correct word(s) becomes a challenge. The artistic part of translating is figuring out those subtleties in meaning, and then choosing a word in the target language that conveys that same thought, while still trying to maintain the “colorful language” used by the author. It is said that, “Words in a second language are in black and white, while words in the original are in color.” To “carry across” (the literal meaning of the word – Translate) some of that color from the original language to target language is part of the art. The key in being able to do this is having a familiarity in both the source and target languages.
Culture is another factor to consider to help carry over the meaning to another language. I’ve had the privilege of living in Mexico for several years, and I have found that experience to be invaluable in being able to translate documents between English and Spanish. Visiting Costa Rica and having friendships with people from other Spanish speaking countries has also helped me to learn the many variations from region to region that can be found even within the same language. The same can be said for English. Although I have not visited other English speaking countries, having lived in different regions within the United States, I have learned that there are differences in word usage from place to place even within the same country. Watching TV and seeing programs from or about other countries can be helpful in learning how words are used in other places. So next time, someone is accusing you of watching too much television, just tell them that you are doing research!
When we receive something to translate, my wife and I team up, and we go over the original English document looking for these types of terms and idioms. After reading the context around the words in question and figure out what the author is trying to express, I explain it to my wife, which is then able to choose the word or words that best help paint the same picture in Spanish. If you are not blessed with such a spouse, partner, etc., I would recommend that you either find someone – although you do not necessarily have to marry them – that you can partner with that has the experience and knowledge of the source language and culture, or gain that knowledge and experience yourself.