may be the most stay-at-home translator you will ever meet, having lived my whole life on these shores with just a few vacation trips abroad. My connection to other languages was forged through literature and imagination. As an eager reader, I have always enjoyed the journeys afforded by all good fiction. Starting with the Mexican hat dance in kindergarten, I was thrilled to learn whatever I could about other countries, other people, other languages. Otherness has always held an unlimited attraction for me.
As soon as I could talk, I was initiated into a lifelong love affair with words. My parents had little interest in the rough-and-tumble material world, concentrating instead on those aspects of life they considered important. So our household revolved around words. There were often discussions about the right word to use, and no one in my family ever doubted the importance of those choices. The power of words, books and reading was an article of faith for my motherperhaps her most deeply felt belief. Fiction was her lifelong refuge, and in the last few years of her life, she read one book every day.
a translators most important skill is writingin the target language. Every translation should sound as if it never existed in a foreign language.
Unlike reading, writing was not second nature to me; it was my hardest-won skill. Lucky for me, I had relentless teachers, and we were not distracted by the excess of options that threatens to overwhelm today's students. When I was in high school and college, we had time, and only time can produce a good writer. There are no shortcuts; writing is learned by doing. During my years of concentrated education, the ability to write clear, interesting prose was the hallmark of an educated person. Does anyone still hold that belief today? Or is it that there is no longer great value placed on being educated?
After college, there was a long period when I regarded writing as no more than a painful necessity. Eventually, the skill took on a life of its own, and during my ten-year stint with a big insurance broker, I became a virtual writer-in-residence. Most business types I met during my corporate years were ready and willing to crunch numbers or wheel and deal. In these circles, writing was considered a specialized skill. I, too, could do numbers, and even earned the MBA to prove it. But it was my writinga skill in surprisingly short supplythat attracted notice.
By the time the company I was working for started falling apart, I had accepted my identity as a writer. How, I wondered, could I get paid to write outside the universe of this company and my particular job? Reporting didn't interest me, and technical writing seemed a bit too... well, technical. The idea of translation came to me in a flash, and then everything happened very fast. When the axe actually fell, I was already enrolled in the NYU SCPS Translation Certificate Program and taking a couple of courses. I will be forever grateful to my former employer for giving me the shove I needed. I could never have left my well-paid (and not wonderful) job under my own steam.
As I see it, a translator's most important skill is writingin the target language. Every translation should sound as if it never existed in a foreign language. The reader should never trip over strange locutions that would not come out of the mouth of a native speaker. Annual reports, court cases and descriptions of historic monuments all have their own cadences and rhythms, and I find all this writing "creative." Working in the annual report genre, for example, is a discipline much like sonnet or haiku writing. There are rules to be followed and limitations that may chafe. To the extent that we can describe the end product as literature, its quality is linked to the discipline observed. For translators, of course, there is the additional discipline of the source text to which we are tied.
If a translator has turned a sow's ear into a silk purse, she may have wandered too far from the original text. I'm sure it is a common experience among good translators to produce translations that are more lucid than the originals. This is what happens when you place clarity of the writer's message ahead of strict adherence to the original. It is a fine line we walk. When the original text is confusing, I consider it my job to gently comb out the tangles so the reader stands a chance of understanding the intended meaning. I will add the caveat that clarification of translations is a slippery slope; translators are generally not asked to improve the source text. There will always be a tug of war between the better version one could have written oneself and the real-life text one agreed to translate. This is an everyday struggle for the conscientious translator.
Most of the time, I am perfectly happy to be an intermediary; in fact, I have played this role all my life. Even as a child, I often had the experience of hearing two people talk past each other and noticing that I was the only one who understood both sides. What I would do then (and still do now) was restate each person's case in a way that the other one could understand. This is a fundamental disposition that underlies the practice of translation and interpretation. A person who longs to be in the spotlight might be frustrated by the intermediary role that we translators/interpreters customarily play.
Sometimes you know you have brought something into the world that didn't exist when you woke up that morning, and this newborn document brings you pure joy. There are also times when our work is dismissed, often by people who haven't a clue about the process. Others deem translation to be a task appropriate only for (presumably uneducated) immigrants, not for well-established, educated denizens of the United States. There are also those who do not wish to recognize that we are their voice, and that without our intervention, their ideas would not exist in the target language. For me, the excitement and power of creation is much stronger than any negative experience. I know when I have produced a thing of beauty.
Shall we talk about loneliness? I can assure you that my dog knows all my deepest thoughts about every imaginable subject, including who annoyed me today and why. This is not because of her unique canine intuition, but because I have told her about all these things and much more. If the pots and pans and shower curtains could talk, they would have stories to tell as well. One surprise: I am never lonely when I am translating. The concentration lifts me up and away, and alone is just how I want to be when I am hard at work on a translation. It is when I take a break from the work or finish an assignment that I miss the coworkers. Spending too much time alone may not be ideal, but the translating task itself is close to ideal. Who else in the history of the planet was ever paid to do such interesting work?