Aha! Nataly Kelly: 10 Ways Translation Shapes Your Life

Nataly Kelly: 10 Ways Translation Shapes Your Life.

So many have shared this article one way or other today. I am simply joining the crowd by reblogging this excellent article.

So much of the time, translators remain invisible.

We are the unnamed writers of press articles, we are the ones who fixed the clause numbering errors in a business contract, the ones who worked right through the night so that drought relief or flood relief could reach those in need, the ones who worked on your birth, marriage and death certificates, your education qualifications, driver’s licence, and police clearance reports, customs documentation, tender documents, your medical insurance claims, your patent applications, your marketing material, management training material, and even the ingredients on the side of that tin can you have just consigned to the trash.

We all know that bad translations exist. I am not talking about those. I am talking about good translations, particularly because I still cannot get rid of the image of possibly being served hot goat dung on a plate in the suave ambience of a French restaurant. This delightful possibility came to my attention about a month ago. I would postulate that hot goat dung presents a cogent argument in favour of the idea that there is indeed a difference, after all, between and a good translation and a bad translation. In this example, it is most unfortunate that my olfactory imagination had to be involved.

Good translators remain invisible. We are, after all, not supposed to intrude upon the text. Unless it is the kind of literature which requires a little of the “foreign” flavour of the original, the idea is that most translations should “read like originals”. Translators know that there are huge debates spanning decades, if not centuries, on the few statements I have already made. I am not going to talk about that either.

Those of us who have been around for a few years have more or less configured our own viewpoints, and through experience have crafted our own set of invisibility tools; a process, I should add, which never ends, and finds itself being constantly refined.

One of my first  Aha! moments about what the translation process involved came when I was still a student, reading Jean Cocteau’s play, Orphée (Orpheus). In it, he uses the device of mirrors to represent his characters passing from life to death – from this world to the underworld – and back. The characters walk through the mirrors. During a lecture on this play, I commented that this process was not unlike translation.

At the time, I felt that translating was much like bringing a source text from “the underworld” into the clear light of day of the physical world in which we are obliged to live at least some of the time. To explain further: the “beings” (in this case, texts!) have been intrinsically altered, but are still identified as “the same”. The reaction of my fellow students (“weird”) and even my rather odd lecturer (“plausible, only if you stand on your head and squint sideways whilst looking at something”) has meant the almost all other Aha! moments since have not been given voice. They have, however, been used as tools to hone my skill.

Cocteau aside, our invisibility is our triumph. Confidentiality agreements prevent many of us from saying, “Look! I translated that!” – even to those closest to us. It passes unnoticed.

If it passes for “an original” – and no one suspects it is a translation – then we, as translators sit back and look at the final product in utter privacy, and muse to ourselves that the pursuit of excellence is indeed worth the effort.


I wish all translators, interpreters and language teachers around the globe a happy International Translation Day.


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