Today I want to write about translation, the language we use to speak about translation and the brotherhood I feel like we should become.

I have just finished reading Is That a Fish in Your Ear? The Amazing Adventure of Translation by David Bellos. The book is a compendium of interesting information and food for thought. And I’m always hungry, you know? Really. All the time.

Also, while we are in this confessional mood, I think you need to know that I forget everything I read within a week or so. I wanted to develop on some of the things I read in this book, and there have been many. However, bearing in mind what I just said, I chose one of the last chapters in the book (one I read last night) about the language we use to talk about translation.

The author’s view is that we too often use the language of passions to speak about translations and criticise them. In his own words:

Possession, appropriation, making something your own — these are words from the language of passions. What then of desire and its natural companions, jealousy and hurt?

It’s a curious fact that much translation commentary in Western languages contains unmistakable signs of anger and hurt.

This definitely made me think. When we talk about translation, we often use insults and adjectives to talk about our feelings and perceptions. We say a translation is “horrible”, we say “it hurts to read it”; we talk about translators as “traitors” and “ignorants”.

It’s been a while since I decided to take up arms against anyone willing to badmouth a translator, an interpreter or either of these professions as a whole. I think that what Bellos is pointing at has taken me one step further in that direction.

I now understand the importance of using academic and objective language when assessing somebody else’s work, backed up by dictionaries, term bases and style guides. It is a lot easier to say that something doesn’t sound right, than it is to look up the reason why you feel that way.

Trust me. I know. I’ve spent hours looking for ways to justify a particular correction. At this point in my life, I’ve read so many style guides that I feel like I know less than I did when I started. Being a copy-editor has helped me turn my comments into objective statements backed up by evidence. And the more I read, the more I realise that there is too much to know and I’m lagging behind.

Translation is serious business. If we don’t talk about it in ways that show that we know what we are doing, how is the public going to take us seriously? I’ve got another quote from the book for you:

When it comes to defending the profession, translation commentators lead the field in throwing most of its work in the direction of the garbage dump.

Betrayal. I feel betrayed.

I’m not saying I consider all translations to be equal. I don’t think all translations are great. But I think that what distinguishes a professional linguist from the rest is the ability to comment on it objectively, always pointing out ways to improve. We need to be constructive in order to create a community that stands up for one another. Maybe if we start respecting each other the world will find it easier to recognise our efforts.

About the Author Agustina Marianacci

I’ve been actively studying the English language since the age of 5, when my mother decided that speaking English would be an asset for me in the future. I don’t think she anticipated how much of an asset and what an enormous part of my life it would turn into. I’m now a full time English-Spanish translator, editor and interpreter living in Wellington, New Zealand, blogging about languages, this beautiful profession and other such things at translationswitham.com.

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