Shoes, and translation

Translators know the affliction only too well: the compulsion to edit, edit, edit.

We edit even when we are not called upon to do so. If I am that mythical being we call “the average translator”, then I can safely assume I am not alone in this affliction.

Portuguese television has many programmes with English content. This means there are lots of subtitles to process. As one who still has much to learn about the Portuguese language, this is a useful resource for me, since there is an abundance of very good subtitling out there.

I am convinced, now, that I do not watch the same programme as anyone else within my immediate circle. For a start, I am processing the English audio at the same time as I am reading the Portuguese subtitles. I am not looking for errors, but I do pick up the occasional disparity between the two, which has me wondering just how much of what we utter is actually intelligible to native speakers of any given language. I seem to have taken this compulsion one step further now, though. At the risk of being thought completely nuts, I shall now confess that I have recently taken not only to processing the English to Portuguese transfer and making a mental note of expressions and/or grammatical constructions in Portuguese not familiar to me, but also to back translating the subtitles and rewording the English narrative. I do this for fun. It comes naturally to me. I have never once thought to myself that this would be a useful exercise with the objective of improving my level of bilingualism in this language pair. It simply happened one day, and continues to happen – as the little boy in the movie, “Sixth Sense” says – ALL THE TIME.

This happens with mainly with documentary programmes, but is not confined to this genre.

If the programme is monolingual Portuguese, I tend to stay with the one language only, until I start questioning the validity, or reasonableness of what the speakers are saying – and then the whole translation-editing-translating dance whips up into a frenzy.

Yes, it is all very entertaining for me. And gratifying, occasionally, when I hear myself uttering Portuguese expressions in conversation which I know I have not learnt through formal study.

There are other variations on this theme. Sometimes the film is in French or German, with Portuguese subtitles. This adds one more layer of interest for me, but does exhaust me somewhat because without meaning to, I end up juggling three balls: two foreign languages and my mother tongue.

I have only once been seriously done in by this compulsion. The circumstances were, however, unusual. At the time, I was working on an intense German-English translation, with a fairly tight deadline and I was already stressing over my ability to complete the work in time. I was tired, and could ill afford distraction. I had, however, made a previous commitment to attend a screening of a movie on some priest whose life was the embodiment of charity, in the original sense of the Latin word, caritas.

I had erroneously assumed the film was going to be in Portuguese. It turned out to be in Italian. Not a language I know much beyond the rim of a pizza. With Portuguese subtitles. This was a dirge of a movie, and tragic in the sense that the priest was never, ever given a parish of his own and treated very badly indeed by the Vatican in my view. What really did my head in was the tiny subtitles on the tiny TV screen placed at some distance from where I was sitting. I could not see very well with tired translator eyes, even with my specs on. My mind filled itself instead with the Italian audio (which had me skirting into my scant knowledge of my much-forgotten Latin, thence to English). All this was happening while I was struggling to keep up with the rapid-fire miniscule Portuguese sub-titles, fend off the boredom factor, fend off the fatigue factor, and fend off the German-English translation queries swimming around unresolved in my head. Never again!

Mentioning all this has been triggered by a friend receiving a review of one of her storytelling performances. She questioned why the reviewer had said, “Pure entertainment this show is not — it’s often more an artistic education workshop than a theatrical performance.”, as if something that is not “pure entertainment” is undesirable.

I replied that I would have rephrased that sentence. And gave her my edited version. She said that even thought she had never seen any of my work as a translator or editor, she thought my rewrite praiseworthy.

I thought back on all the translations I have done which my friend may have read without realising that they were translations and without realising that the person who did the translation was me. I decided, despite our vastly different backgrounds, professions and geographical locations that it was entirely possible that she had, at least once in her life, read something that I have had my hand on – without either of us being aware of it.

You should see the uncomfortable chair this cobbler sits on; probably has done for years.
You should see the uncomfortable chair this cobbler sits on; probably has done for years.

That is why I include here a picture I took of the cobbler who repaired my handbag on Friday. He was unaware I was taking the photo, just as I am unaware of whether or not the last pair of shoes I noticed on someone else were repaired by him.

By the way, I shall be compulsively editing this post later. Read-through number one proves what a poor, caffeine-deprived typist I am.


2 thoughts on “Shoes, and translation

  1. OMG, if I lived in Portugal I’d want to hang out with you all the time. Freaky, how me-like this post is (despite my lack of anything but fake-German!). Stumbled upon this quite by chance – love your writing!


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