Essays:On translation

From Bestiary of the Hypogriph

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Many people recommend (almost insistently) on reading always the original material, but: is this insistence warranted?
On our conclusion, it is. On the general and current state of things, at the very least.
This is to say: It is true as a statistical recommendation (reading the original if able is better, statistically speaking) - But not "in principle".

Why not in principle?
The premises from which this conclusion usually steam are most often flawed than not. Borges, for example, on the contrary claimed that a translation can surpass the original (he was known as an early age translator from English to Spanish of many key works, and then as a sort of authority on classical English and a connoisseur of the ancient forms of the language).
Borges may have very well been right. There is no perennial principle, actually a formalism, that states the original must be "better" than the translation. In fact, both are sometimes considered different texts... why must the source material be better than the derivative? As we recognize that in sorts of spinoffs a history, concept, or text, can be re-explored, enriched, reimagined, or even condensed... and that the result of this difference can make the "inspired" better than the "inspiration"... why can't we recognize that the same changes can happen, albeit very slightly, over a translation?

However, the problem on translation comes from other angle. It's not, as it has been misrepresented, of a "necessary loss" to bring it into another language (which could very well be a gain) ... but rather about the quality of the translation and the work from which it comes into being.
There are many "approaches" to translating a work, and some of them may very well be fruitful. But the problems a translation faces are not always evident from the point of view of "theory". For example, they may be executive, budgetary and/or time related.
As such, many translations are given to translators, formal or informal, which lack the necessary understanding and expertise of the source material.
Translation is regarded as merely a technical task; a substitution of grammar and vocabulary from one set into another, as if we were talking about computer programs written with different command "codes" and/or libraries.
This is made explicit with the dominance of "automatic translator" programs, which are only rudimentary, and economize necessary tasks. It's not that all tasks inherent to a good translation are impossible to realize for a computer (though that is another debate). Rather, it is that automatic translation is mostly based on economy of resources, and not quality of output. A barely readable text will be counted as a success if little enough was done to translate it. Believe it or not, the same thing applies with most translations.
Economy of resources, and speed of availability, have become more important than the quality of translation and its readability. One could almost argue than this has been the case for mostly the history of mankind.

Not only have I read horribly translated books and articles, but also live conferences and other real-time translations suffer from he same kind of problems. The translator is not suitable and does not have sufficient background to be up to the task.
But that is not all. It is also a problem with the theory behind translation itself; with its flawed assumptions.
Texts are translated as "without interpretation", which is actually impossible. If anything, a translation which does not attempt to interpret its text (or that attempts "not to interpret it") will be further from its intended meaning. Every translation is a sort of re-interpretation, intended or not, as it will read differently from the original. But in the capacity of translation... it is most often done fragmentarily, on-the-run, as translating a series of fragments. A series of apparently unconnected grammatical-linguistic modules. But this is not what a text truly is. An integrated text is a single semantic block. The beginning of a story can be translated wrongly if one does not know the end, and the two translations may not coincide if done separately. To do a right translation, the *meaning* of the translated text must be taken as a *whole*. This is what must be translated accurately, even above the apparent replication of grammar and vocabulary... which contain an infinite number of variations and distortions from language to language which will make the intended meaning come equally distorted or even unintelligible. And here is where both machine and human have been mostly consistently failing in thousands of years. Thus, it is truly recommendable in most cases to read the original if possible. But there is another capacity to reconstruct meaning. For example, on translated texts, and by knowing at a native level both the translated language and the one of the presumed original (not in sight), sometimes reading the translation can provide hints for the reconstruction of the original phrasing, context and intention of the author. That is, even a bad translation can be somewhat "fixed", if you understand the background and language from whence it came from. However, this is possibly a waste of precious time, effort and resources as compared with the possibility to read the original or to have a good translation done.

In the future, I hope we get to heuristic, holistic methods of translation (whether by automated programs, humans, or thinking machines) that can reconstruct meanings more than just switch words from vocabulary libraries and grammar substitution. This kind of approach may bring the possibility to research and bridge the gap better not only between human current human languages, but also with lost languages, dead ones, logograms, ideograms, etc. Yet we can also approach in this way the communication with other animals, with programming code, and with internal sequences and thought itself; and between them without intermediaries. This exciting capabilities are not impossible, but only a stepping stone into more universal means, ways and systems of mutual understanding.

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04/06/2015 Hta 15:29 HS