The Translator as a Writer

The Translator as a Writer

The following is the text of an email sent by John Stroman, an experienced patent translator, to the JAT mailing list. There have been a lot of discussions about the advantages of native speakers in certain aspects of translation and I thought this email hit the nail on the head.

Nishiyama Sen once described the ideal interpreter as a window, an almost invisible entity lying between the source and the recipient that allows the source image to pass through to the recipient with as little distortion as possible.

I think the same concept holds true for the ideal translator.

Rather than hurling bricks, I think we should take a step back and remember that translating is a subset of professional writing just as interpreting is a subset of professional speaking, but with the added condition that because two different languages are involved, the image passing through the window will inevitably be distorted, much like the fuzzy images we see of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon.

Even among native speakers, some people obviously write and/or speak better than others. Generally people who are very proficient in their native language will also become very proficient in a foreign language if given enough time and opportunity to learn one, AND they are highly motivated. They can become bilingual specialists, but their language skills will rarely be perfectly balanced.

So let’s abandon the notion that a native speaker of the target language will always translate more competently than a non-native speaker. Such a person may write better than a non-native speaker, but not necessarily. Some people are just poor writers in their native language. Conversely, a native speaker of the source language will likely have better comprehension, but may not be able to express concepts as smoothly as a native speaker of the target language or may not be as astute mechanically. A professional translator (i.e., professional writer) who is a native speaker of the target language can be expected to make fewer mechanical errors in the translated output, but one who is a native speaker of the source language can be expected to comprehend the source language better. Choose your poison.

Different translation tasks require different levels of comprehension and output. Several years ago I was asked to review the J>E translation of a chemical patent by a very prominent NES translator. The translation was beautifully written; in fact, much more eloquently than I could have done. In the examples section, however, the translator wrote that chemical A was added to a solution containing chemical B although anyone with a chemistry background would immediately grasp that such a procedure would result in an explosion.  The original Japanese simply stated that the two were added and mixed together, so no true chemist would make that kind of mistake, but the translator lacked such a background and “improved” the Japanese sentence to make it sound better in English.

Many people with some competence in a foreign language are either forced by their employers to translate, or they mistakenly become freelance translators even though they cannot comprehend the source language really well and/or are poor writers in the target language. Give me a biomedical translation, and I’m right at home. Telecommuncations or finance?  Forget about it. I don’t understand these fields at a high enough level in my native language.

I think the most we can say when we encounter a bad translation is that the translator was ill-equipped to handle the job, and we can only speculate about the reason.


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