Tag: translator

Translator as “Bookfinder”

In the not so distant past the military used scouts, sometimes also called “pathfinders” (Merriam Webster: path.find.er n (1840): one that discovers a way; esp: one that explores untraversed regions to mark out a new route — path.find.ing n or adj.), to find their way through unknown territory. Literally, these were people that could find a path not visible to anybody else. During a recent conference on translation, a certain question appeared in several different sessions: what actually is the job and/or function of a translator?

The answer to this question appears on first sight to be simple and obvious, but many of the attending translators and agencies presented widely varying definitions and concepts. This motivated me to write this little article and express an idea, I had for quite a while now. I.e., translators should also (or maybe even predominantly) be “bookfinders” in analogy to the above mentioned pathfinders. Below I will try to explain why.

I have been a translator for about 30 years and during this time spent nearly 100% of my working time with activities, involving the rendition of a certain meaning expressed in one language into another. Sometimes, in particular when the source text is of rather poor quality and/or ambiguous, this also involves a more less significant portion of text interpretation and re-writing. Nevertheless, the basic idea is always the same: change A into B. Very few, if any, people I happened to work with over the years have ever questioned or even challenged this view. This is simply considered to be the job and function of a translator.

Yet, if you are a translator for any specialized field, have a professional interest in extending your horizons, conduct a little research in your own or maybe even other fields of expertise, then you will certainly do some reading.

This puts the translator in a unique position. He/she is not only capable of professionally handling and evaluating two or more languages, but will be reading reference books on certain topics in these languages. Sometimes there are equivalents or even translations of certain valuable references, but most often not. Under these circumstances the translator can evaluate several books that might be worth translating from both linguistic and technical points of view.

I believe that a look at the currently available selection of translated books shows clearly, that the choices are definitely not always “professional”. They are made by publishers based on information and recommendations of sometimes questionable origin and mainly commercial considerations. This provides the general population with a selection of translated books influenced by a possibly biased and – naturally – profit orientated choice made by publishers. But this could also mean, that the average person has access only to a rather distorted view of the world.

Today, the internet offers access to the so-called information highway carrying more information with an incredibly short turnover time than anybody could ever handle. Yet, fast access to a terrifying amount of information could also block the view for the more distinct, practical, comprehensive and interesting information a book can provide. After all, reading should also be fun.

While access to the information highway may often prove to be very helpful, who would like to live in a house with the front door opening right onto the highway? Personally, I prefer the quiet small back roads. This is, where books come in. It takes much longer to publish a book than to publish and update a web site. Naturally, books are always somewhat “behind their time”, but that does not reduce their value.

For example, I am a native German living in Japan. I know of literally “uncountable” translations of German literature, science books etc. available in Japanese bookstores. Yet, whenever I visit Germany and wander through large bookstores, I can find at best a handful of Japanese books translated into German. A very illustrative little episode happened, when I visited the annual Tokyo International Book Fair a few years ago. There I asked a German publisher if they might be interested in the publication of translated Japanese books. The representative at that booth said: “No, why should we? Publisher XXX already has published two books.” This is hardly representative for a nation that publishes around ten thousand new books every year!

Thus, in spite of the omnipresent information highway and Japan being a superpower with a major impact on the world economy, intellectually it still remains largely uncharted territory (a sort of a black hole) for the people of other countries, because there is so little tangible (books that you can take in the hand in contrast to virtual material on the internet) information about it available. I firmly believe that the same situation also applies to quite a number of other countries.

Now, here is a field, in which translators could offer a real contribution to international understanding: selecting and recommending books worth of translation. The translator who recommends certain books might even do the entire translation. In many cases this would be not only be advantageous for the translator, but also the translation itself and thus the reader.

The famous “common place” is NOT common

“Translation is not about words – translation is about what the words are about.” 

Throughout modern history a lot of things have been termed “common place” and been referred to uncountable times. Common place means that something is common, natural and understood by everybody. Yet, by definition that has to be restricted to specific people, cultures and times. Given this common place background, it might be worthwhile to think a little about the translator’s job. S/he has to transfer material, usually present in written form, from one language to another. Doing so in some specialized area with heavy use of technical terms can be a rather clear-cut endeavor, precisely because of the technical terms. Mostly they define in very succinct ways what there is to be said among specialists who know what they are talking about. Admittedly, this form of straight communication may at times be endangered the very nature of the “specialists”, who are so good at what they are doing / researching that their minds sometimes jump ahead of their writings, leaving the translator (and reader) wondering how to fill in the gaps. The real problems start, when you are talking about something considered very simple, namely common place concepts. So, if I as a German in Germany for example call to my family “let’s sit down to dinner”, it would be natural, or common place, to think of people sitting on chairs around a table. Yet, that may not be true for regions outside Europe and America. Here in Japan, if I use the same words to ask my family to sit down, that would mean sitting with legs tugged under on the floor. The same person uses the same words and they still mean different things. Please observe that “common place” refers to a place, where people share “common ground“. Elsewhere in the world people may sit down to dinner, but do neither really sit on the floor or chairs nor use a table. This is the time when the “common sense” and finesse of the translator kicks in. S/he has to decide where the source material originated from, where it is headed and what it is being used for. Often the translator does not have all this information. Also, if a person/translator has a working knowledge of the target language, but does not live or has been living in the region where the particular language is spoken, s/he may not be completely aware of all the aspects of sometimes verbally not expressed common places.