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Translation 101

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Sun Mar 15, 2015 8:22 pm
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Demeter says...

YWSers come from all over the world and speak a ton of different languages, which is amazing and something that we should all embrace. If you speak a language other than English that you're capable of writing in, why not share your heritage/skills by writing something non-English and translating it? I study translation between English and Finnish, so I thought I'd write a little crash course on this wonderful art!


I like to think of translation as code-breaking. You have a word or a phrase or a sentence in a foreign language, and you must decipher the unknown elements into your target language so the meaning of the original is transferred and understood.

Translation is sensitive. It may seem like all it takes is to know two languages well enough to transfer meanings, but it’s important to have some knowledge of the translation science and things to look out for, so that the end result will have the care and subtlety that it requires.

There are two rough main directions to consider when translating something: word for word and sense for sense. Word for word literally means what it sounds like - you replace each word in the original with the equivalent word in the target language, naturally taking heed of the grammar rules in each language. This would work well in a language class at school, where the test subject is to understand what certain words mean in the different language. Sense for sense isn’t confined to the singular words so religiously, but instead aims to create the same effect, the same meaning, as the original work does in the source language. This is ideal for translating a literary work where nuances and tones are exceedingly important.

One of perhaps the most difficult things to achieve in translation is a translation that doesn’t look like a translation. If you can detect things like foreign sentence structures, awkward phrasing, or obvious loan words when the target language has a perfectly valid equivalent of its own, the translation has not succeeded in what a good translation always does: being invisible. Translation is one of the few things where the less you notice it, the better it is. Just like in writing stories or poems you want your readers to enjoy the ride without having to get caught in a lack of punctuation or unoriginal metaphors, the readers of a translation shouldn’t even notice that they’re reading a translation, even if they know that they are – which is most often the case.

Cultural elements sometimes make this difficult. Things that are perfectly natural and mundane in Finland, like sauna and dish-draining cupboards, are strange and foreign pretty much everywhere else in the world, so how to prevent foreign readers to feel distant from a text where these elements appear? The answer is, you probably can’t. There are a couple of different approaches to this problem called domestication and foreignisation.

If you choose the domesticating strategy, you “translate” the strange foreign element by changing it into something that is more typical to the target culture. This also applies to foreign names and places. In the first Finnish translation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, for example, the translator chose to change Alice’s name to Liisa, which is a perfectly normal girl’s name in Finland in the way that Alice is in the English-speaking countries. By changing the name, the translator made it easier for the Finnish children of the time to relate to a heroine with a recognisable name.

Foreignisation is when you intentionally leave the foreign element in the text, even when knowing that the target audience may react differently to the text as the readers in the original culture. For names and places, this strategy is often the standard in Finland (excluding children’s books). This isn’t done to confuse the readers, but rather to remind them that the story is set somewhere else and to respect the original culture.

Just remember: the translator must consider each occurrence separately, and often the end result is a combination of the strategies or something in between – there is no right or wrong way to do it (as long as you have your facts right).

The one thing that you should ask yourself if you face difficulties while translating – or even if you don’t: would the author have written the text like this if he/she knew the target language? If the answer is no, try to recognise the part that seems out of place and see what you can do about it. If the answer is yes, you’re on the right track.

If you’re translating your own text, try to imagine it in the other language rather than meticulously replacing words. Translation is not just helping as many people as possible understand a text. Translation is recreating an artwork in a different culture.
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Sun Mar 15, 2015 10:07 pm
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Lava says...

Thanks a lot, Dems! <3
Pretending in words was too tentative, too vulnerable, too embarrassing to let anyone know.
- Ian McEwan in Atonement

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