This time, one young girl asked me if anyone who knew two languages could be a translator, because she knew Japanese as well as English. And everyone was a bit surprised when I said no. Why not? they asked. Simple: because high quality translation is not just substituting one word for another over and over again. There’s negotiation involved.
What to Lose
If you’re like these kids, your first question is: what do I mean by negotiation? Is there a person sitting across the table making deals with translators about words? Of course not. The negotiation is purely with yourself, and with the languages you’re dealing with. What it comes down to is this: Every translation is reductive. It is impossible to maintain every allusion, subtlety, and reference from the original in the target language. Something will be lost – and the negotiation you hold with yourself is what will be lost.
The Humble Rat
As an easy example, let’s consider the word rat in English. Rat has many uses. It can mean, literally, a medium-sized rodent with a long tail. It could mean a mouse, too, in error – or, perhaps, on purpose for literary reasons, as with a character in a novel who mistakes mice for rats or to demonstrate their ignorance. It can also be used as slang, to mean someone who informs on their fellows to the police or who is generally untrustworthy, or as a term of disdain for people a narrator considers lower than themselves. I have encountered these uses of the words myself.
So how to translate this? In Italian, rat is ratto. Simple enough, but in Italian ratto does not necessarily have all of the subtle shadings and implications of the English word. So do I stick with the literal translation – absolutely correct, but perhaps lacking in implied meaning – or do I do something else there, preserve more of the implication and less of the literal? You see: a negotiation.
A lonely negotiation, of course, as most of us work alone and must rely only on our knowledge of both cultures and our experience to be able to render a translation that works on all levels. I rather think I talked that young lady out of a translation career that day – but perhaps it was for the best!