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What is translation? This might be the first question that all translation courses start with. Back in my high school, this wasn’t a question to me at all. “Translation is just putting words from one language into another. So long as one knows the words, the job is almost done.” Yet, several years later, after having received the professional training for some time, I would hesitate to answer the same question. One of our professors says, “You won’t understand translation, unless you practice it.”
So I started to practice, together with my classmates. What we did at the very beginning was translating single sentences. I thought that it was like a word game – look up the new words, choose a definition, piece it together with definitions of other words, and there comes a translation. Yes, with some authoritative dictionaries in hand, it shouldn’t have been hard, especially when sample sentences are given to illustrate the meaning of the words, and the translation is readily there. Through such exercises, my vocabulary gets enlarged, and moreover, I come to learn more about the meaning and use of words, for instance, a walking gentleman is not a gentleman who is walking and a church key is not a key to any door of a church. We are familiar with the meaning of the words respectively, but when they are put together, the meaning is completely different. Very often, we put their literal meanings together, and thus get a wrong idea. Therefore, it is always important to check it up in dictionaries. But sometimes, even with several dictionaries on my desk, I failed to give the translation of sentences that were composed of fewer than ten words, none of which was new to me. I’m mostly impressed by this sentence “What shall I go in?” I took it as “what kind of job or work shall I go in”, until the professor added another sentence “for the party tonight”. Putting them together “what shall I go in for the party tonight”, obviously this “what” suggests the clothes the speaker is going to wear. Another example is “What can I do for you”, which we hear frequently in our daily life. But when said by a sales person and a close friend, the translation varies a lot. The sentences themselves are not that difficult, nor the translations, if we know the context or the specific speakers.
So translation concerns not only words, but also the background information. The more we know about the context, the more accurate the translation will be. The translation exercises also bring me a deeper understanding of the social values reflected in the language. The simple word “siblings” can be translated into more than a dozen Chinese versions, with regard to the ages and genders of people the word refers to. This is because for more than two thousand years, Chinese have always attached great importance to courtesy, and the age differences are bound to classified titles, which reflects the status, power and influence one has in the family. And family members should address each other with the fixed titles. The native English speakers usually call their family members by name, for they don’t have such a strict system strengthening ranks and genders. But they have their own way of showing courtesy, so they often speak in a quite polite and mild way. To get the implied meaning of their words, a Chinese might need a second thought. When they say, “It was very nice talking with you”, we may naturally take it as a compliment, and an encouragement for further conversation. But, in fact, the speaker has omitted the later part of the sentence “but I must leave now” that suggests an end for the talk. But for the translation exercises, I might never notice these subtle implications. Some say that to master a foreign language, one must study its literature. I shall add that it is equally important to study the translation between the foreign languages and the mother tongue, because by this close comparison, we will be aware of the differences in them, which lead to further discovery of the causes rooted in the cultures and values of the two societies. I think it should be through this way that we be able to obtain an in-depth understanding of the languages and much more beyond them.
The interesting case is that, even with precise interpretation of both the language and its connotation, our translation may not be satisfactory. Our professor had once been given an English introduction of some kind of fire engine, and he had been quite responsible – making every terminology accurate, the language highly equivalent, all strictly following the original text, and few days after he handed in his work, he was invited to the firehouse to explain how to operate the new machine, of which the firemen had no idea even after reading his translation. I guess he had done a brilliant translation loyal to the English version, but unfortunately a poor Chinese introduction for those firemen. And there I got a question that should translation be author-oriented or reader-oriented? If the translated version failed the purpose of the original piece – to influence the readers in its designed way, like informing, persuading, entertaining, arguing, or whatever, then what is the meaning of it? When a translation is done, it should be an independent being, because ordinary people will not read it while referring back to the original piece, (if they understand the source language, why need a translation?) and compare how faithful the translation is, whether its diction is equivalent and elegant. All they are looking for is the ideas contained in this very piece in hand. Therefore, we must have a clear picture of our target readers, analyze their vocabulary, receptivity, and then the translation itself alone may make sense. When I applied for a part-time translating job last month, the company staff told me “Our product is from America which has not yet entered the Chinese market. We are still applying for licenses from the National Bureau of Science and Technology and other state departments. We need translations on its English introduction – to Chinese experts, to civil officers, and to our future customers. Apparently, the 3 versions must have different focuses and language styles. The speaker was not a language major, but his remarks were very enlightening to me. I think in translation, we also have something like what we have in writing – the audience issue. On writing down very word in our translation, we should always bear in mind the readers’ response. We translate for people not for language. If a bridge beautifully structured cannot fit into the ground on the other end, can it still be called a bridge? A successful translation should be one that helps the readers get the author’s ideas most clearly and comfortably, one that bridges the most effective communication. Therefore, translating can be regarded as a comprehensive and considerate program on communicating.
It is an interesting journey approaching translation. We often follow the route that starts from “what” to “how” and finally reaching “why”. I wonder what effect it may be if we reverse the process: first set the goal, and then choose the passage, and when looking back, it is all there that what the whole thing is. Perhaps this is the approach to translation on a higher and more professional level. Translation is not that easy – I must say now after some practice. Or to be exact – good translation is no easy task at all, as one of our teachers always reminds us that, “Excellence is a habit”. However, it is a task worth challenging, for only in translating have I experienced and enjoyed such intimacy with languages.
[ Last edited by hiy2004 at 2006-6-11 01:15 AM ]