What goes through my mind when I translate?

Me translating, 05:00 GMT one day.

Good question.

I started this blog for selfish reasons. I wanted to express myself again on whatever popped into my head. I had not written any bad poetry for years, or anything one could call creative beyond letters brimming with descriptive detail to friends and relatives. Clearly, something had to change.

What I had done was type my fingers to the bone translating other people’s words.  Am I resentful? No, not at all! There is, however, a certain fidelity to one’s source text that has to be observed. The urge to insert a smiley here is very great, by the way.  Even if a source text word has twenty possible synonyms in the target language, the context narrows that possibility down to two, say. Then, with the incisiveness of a butcher cutting up a carcass, we choose ‘the one’. A great deal of deliberation is often required before one can be so incisive.

It is in the realms of deliberation where thoughts extraneous to the translation itself occur. If I call these thoughts “stray thoughts” you would be justified in thinking I suffer from a lack of concentration when working.

Not so. Stray thoughts are immediately boxed up, tied with string and shipped off to the “later” department. Imagine a storeroom full of higgledy-piggledy boxes, all strangely wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. Some even have layers of dust on them. Their contents, by contrast, are colourful, clean, wild and crisp. but no-one – not even me – can see them.

Why, why, why, I ask you, with tears in my dark brown eyes, are there so many dusty, dull boxes? It is because of the translation imperative. This means two things, really.  It means that it is imperative for translators to translate.  It also means that when translating, it is imperative to meet the deadline. The deadline. With unforgiving finality – even if it is days ahead, it looms and will not stop glaring at you until the job is out the door. At which point, if your God has been gracious, you have one or two more deadlines peering at you down the pipeline.

I notice in the industry that the word deadline has been replaced with a more innocuous word, superficially, anyway. Delivery. This word is designed to induce less panic in the translator, but achieves the same result: it screams: you must meet the deadline! Delivery, as a concept, is worse. A deadline implies the translator hurtles at speed towards an arbitrary, man-made concept which you cannot see, touch, hear or smell in order to achieve the desired objective: a completed translation. Delivery, on the other hand, strongly suggests that one has to give birth as well. Instead of merely finishing a job, one now has to produce something. If this creation walks and talks in Technicolour® and Dolby Digital®, all the better.

A typical detail might read thus:  Delivery by Thursday [date], 08:00 CEST. Deliveries are deceptive. For one, for those of us currently living our lives in GMT +1, this deadline really means “Thursday [date], seven o’clock in the morning”. No, not quite. What it really means is, “Wednesday [i.e. the day before the date], preferably before midnight GMT +1 or CET, your choice”.  I do hope for your sake that you figured this one out before agreeing to do the job.

The truth is that I do not know what goes through my mind when I translate.  All I know is that is does go through. And whatever it is, it is quite a lot. And sometimes it is so intense that once the deadline is met, all detail of it seems to vanish from my memory, only to appear in garbled form in a dream two weeks later, or present me with a pleasant surprise when I do an administrative review once a week.

I do know that I retain what I have translated. The proof is that I can still find, after all these years, the precise paragraph in the precise text where a word, or phrase, or idea occurred.  I can also spot an editing change in “my” translation a mile away. What does sometimes seem inextricably lost to the shifting sands of time are those thoughts that run parallel to the translation imperative. Hence the need for boxes, brown paper, and so, so much string.

© 2012 Allison Wright

The word in bold appeared in the previous post.

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