In the past a translator’s goal was to be invisible – but in the modern age translators are asked to take a more prominent role in the work.
Translation is perceived differently in the different industries that employ us. In the business world, no one is particularly concerned with honesty or passion – they just want the data in the words conveyed to people who speak another language. In the world of arts and writing, though, they generally demand that translation services preserve not just the meaning of a work, but also the underlying meanings and emotion.
One attitude that all translators encounter in their professional work is the desire that they be ‘invisible.’ In other words, that no one reading the translation be aware that any translation has occurred at all, that the translated text read naturally and fluidly, with the same tone, style, and meaning as the original. In fact, for some time this concept of ‘The Invisible Translator’ was considered the ideal – the goal for all translation professionals everywhere. We were supposed to be so good at our job that no one would ever guess we were there.
Luckily, I think, this attitude is changing in the modern day. A more complex theory of language has taken shape, one in which we realize that concepts are shaped by how they are presented. You can, for example, stay true to the meaning of a text while imbuing your translation with a tone that puts people off and makes them reject the text’s ideas. As a translator you have the same power as the original writer: You can shape the way facts are perceived through your choice of words, the style you adopt, and the decisions you make regarding idiom.
The flip side to this argument is more positive: As translators we are responsible for taking the original intent of the source text and not simply conveying its original style and tone faithfully, but conveying the meaning and ultimate goal of the text in a modern translation that is easily understood by the target population.
Meaning over All
In the new theory, matching the exact style of a piece is less important than achieving its goals. Of course, the first stop then has to be understanding those goals, and that’s where things always get muddy, because the goals of a piece of writing usually lie with the author, and are usually buried deeply enough as to be hidden. After all, can we truly ever know what Shakespeare’s goal was when he wrote ‘Hamlet’? Aside from entertaining an audience, of course. Or perhaps that was his only goal?
You see how the modern translator has their work cut out for them. We are no longer simply a technical vessel for the literal words, but in charge of protecting the intent of a work as it moves from one culture to the next. Exactly how to go about accomplishing this remains up for debate – and that debate is quite vigorous.
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