Friday, January 18, 2013

"You know, all those dictionaries aren't going to do you any good."

The translator was entering the university classroom, not to take a class, but to take a grueling, three-hour, pencil-and-paper translation exam. She was wheeling in some of her dictionaries behind her. Her husband (or very dedicated boyfriend) was carrying the rest, a box of dictionaries which, I would have reason to know later, must have weighed in at 50 or 60 pounds.

As she was heading to the back of the classroom to take her seat and settle in, the exam proctor felt compelled to say, "You know, all those dictionaries aren't going to do you any good." (It's a hazard of the profession that I can't be sure anymore that those were his exact words, but that I am certain that that was his meaning!) I thought it was a cruel thing to say, especially to someone about to take an exam. He might as well have said, "You know you're probably going to fail, right?" That comment, too, would just as easily have passed the "Is it true?" test, and still scored similarly poorly on the question of "Is it kind?"

It is even more common to see other candidates sitting with perhaps two thin dictionaries that, together, are not even close to being complete; the kind of dictionaries that, for every word, will translate two or three of its meanings for you, but not all twelve—or fifteen, or twenty. These are the kind of dictionaries that are far more likely to get you into a jam than to get you out of one. You wonder, "Are these people fools?", "Are they not translators?" (not meaning at all to imply here that being a fool and being a translator are, in any way, mutually exclusive), "What are they planning to do on the business/legal or medical/technical section?!"

Dictionaries are useful, and helpful, and the best ones truly will get you out of jam after jam. When it comes to translation tests, and translation in general, the proctor was right, they aren't going to do you any good. More accurately, they aren't going to magically enable you to translate if you haven't learned how already.

In the popular imagination, by which I mean in the imagination of people who speak only one language fluently, the difference between languages comes down to a difference in words. That is, if there is a word for something in your own language, there must be an equivalent word for it in every other language. When those bricks came tumbling down on the Tower of Babel, and none of the workers could understand each other any more, it was because God filled each of their heads with different words for the same things. Instead of one word for "dog," now there are thousands. And if you want to say "dog" in a different language, you just need to find a bilingual dictionary, look up "dog" and say whatever you see written next to it.

Up to that point, often enough, that is true, except when it isn't. The real error, though, is the belief that you can do the same thing with phrases or entire sentences. Take the simple case of "My name is _____." As you might recall from your high school Spanish class, the Spanish sentence is "Me llamo _____." I can't tell you the number of times that I have heard people say, and proudly too, "Mi llamo es _____." Inwardly I shudder, outwardly I smile. They are trying. They are saying "My I call it is ____." It sounds wonderful in Spanish. Really. In Spanish, "me" doesn't mean "my," and "llamo" doesn't mean "name." "Me llamo" means "I call myself" or "I am called."

The truth is, and I hinted at this earlier, translation has almost nothing to do with words, anyway. It has everything to do with meaning.

A translator, a capable one, does not look at the words of a sentence and set out to find meanings for each of them. He looks at the sentence, thinks about what it means, thinks about the effect it produces on the reader, about the intention of the author, the purpose the translation is trying to accomplish, then ignores the words, ignores the sentence structure, mentally explodes that sentence to smithereens, forgetting about it. Then he takes everything he just thought about and creates a brand new sentence that, for a native speaker of that language, will convey the same meaning and achieve the same purposes as the original sentence.

There will be plenty of opportunities to explore that idea later. For now, just know that all those dictionaries aren't going to do you any good.

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