Translation can’t be summed up in a single theory of how it’s done, because in practice it’s always different.
In just about every discipline or industry in the world there’s a bit of daylight between what you learn in school when preparing for your career and working life and what you actually wind up doing – the practice of it. That’s why we don’t simply launch from our graduation ceremonies into high-paying executive jobs where we’re given lots of responsibility and freedom – because no matter how well educated you are, in translation services or some other skill, you need to be seasoned with real world experience before you can put all that academic theory into practice.
In fact, I’d argue this chasm between theory and practice is wider in the field of language translation than elsewhere. Translation is an imprecise science, or a very codified art, depending on how you look at it – but one thing is a certainty: Your theory has to be flexible and able to adapt and change, because there is simply no single unified theory of translation that will work with every single text you encounter in the real world.
Tonal and Non-Tonal
One reason your theory on translation has to be very flexible is the fact that not all languages work the same. If you stay within a Romance/English bubble, you can develop a theory of translation involving maintaining the precise meaning of words and sentences, because despite being different language they will share a great number of characteristics and even word roots and grammatical constructions. That means such a theory is relatively straightforward to apply.
But what about translating a tonal language into a Romance language? Suddenly there are no clear matchups between words and grammar – suddenly maintaining meaning becomes much more difficult because you can’t simply recast sentences. There may in fact be absolutely no similarity between the languages in terms of structure, grammar, and vocabulary at all. You’ll have to come up with a whole new theory, no matter what they taught you in school.
Art and Poetry
Another factor is the ‘unreliable narrator.’ Many theories of translation assume that every text you’re working on is straightforward and ‘honest’ - that is, it means what it seems to mean. But many writers, whether in poetry or prose or even political speeches or advertising copy, seek to deceive, or deflect, or to bury their true meaning and intention under misdirection and imagery and subtlety. How do you handle such writers? After all, you can come away with more than one meaning or interpretation from the text – which do you translate, and can you even maintain the other meanings with your own skill level?
You can’t have a single theory on translation. You have to approach each text as its own animal and develop a theory on the fly and then apply it – and if it doesn’t work, you’ll have to go back to the drawing board and keep trying until you get it right.
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