Number one for English language teachers

Tuesday 25th January: To translate or not to translate

Type: Reference material

In her seventh diary entry, Maria Alamanou describes the perils of translation in Greece

Today I am in one of those bizarre existentialistic moods I usually fall into for no apparent reason. My friends and family, indeed even my colleagues and students, all of whom know me too well for their own good, have grown used to such traits by now and scarcely pay attention, knowing that they will soon blow over. But this is different; it’s persistent and vexing. I’ve been going around all day murmuring: ‘To translate or not to translate?’ My loyal assistant, Clare, has opened up her bag of tricks and has been trying to bring me round with time-tested remedies: she breaks awful news of all sorts of emergencies that supposedly call for my undivided attention and goes as far as to warn me that we’re almost out of paper and board-marker ink. No good! I’m unfocused and with every intention of staying that way.

As I go by the front door mirror, I catch myself smiling. That’s surprising. I don’t usually smile when I’m in this sort of stupor, that’s how everyone can tell I am not being my usual self. ‘To translate or not to translate? That is the question,’ I hear myself saying, and then suddenly breaking into laughter: ‘Or maybe Much “Undo” About Nothing. Yes, this is definitely more to the point.’ A sudden flashback comes into being and in my mind’s eye I reread the quotes that are to blame for my present state of mind: ‘Etienne Dolet, the French humanist and translator was executed in 1546 for adding 3 (three) words to a translation from Plato’. And another: ‘One customer once threatened a translator with non-payment because she had written 'sewage sludge' instead of 'sewage slurry' ‘.

What’s absolutely hilarious is that while I was reading the quotes, I believed in justice again and realised that the unfortunate subjects in question had had it coming for being negligent in the line of duty. You see, translation is such a perilous and misunderstood field. Even more so, here in Greece. Given the standard of some translation work I’ve seen over the past years (the last one being the translation of Orwell’s 1984 into Greek, by a reputable Publishing House, mind you), I keep wondering how we’ve been able to make ourselves understood in English all these years. Since I became a professional translator myself, I’ve been lucky enough to come up with the answer: precariously!

Lately, standards are slowly starting to look up, and it’s a great consolation, but still, translating/interpreting work in Greece leaves a lot to be desired. Therefore, it’s only natural that I should be amused by the aforementioned gems I happened to come across. But, having a good time and witnessing criminal activity in action are two very different things. I’m serious now. If only you knew how easy it is for a translator to find him/herself behind bars, and how many lawsuits have been brought against professional freelancers and agencies alike under the charge of deliberately conveying misleading information, you wouldn’t be laughing at me and my moods. Take it from me that it’s a profession infested with occupational hazards, for I should know: my sister is a lawyer!

‘This is all too well’, you must be thinking, ‘but how does it tie in with your gloomy existence?’ Well, it’s hardly a day or two since I handed in my latest translation masterpiece under the general title: ‘Mathematical Probabilities’. Mathematics has never been my strong point so, as soon as the commission came along, down came my dusty Comprehensive Encyclopaedia of Mathematics and into it I delved, hoping to catch up on years of lost school knowledge. By the time the translation was over, I had been transformed into a younger – and brighter – Einstein! Well, maybe not quite, but I knew I was halfway there.

I was glowing with pride while I was handing in the printouts and the disk to the man who had been so nice as to entrust his future with me (it was a dissertation). But then the unfortunate incident with the December-January issue of the Linguist came along and the quotes started me thinking: ‘What if an equation and a variable as I understand them are not an equation and a variable at all by all mathematical standards? Could I possibly end up like Etienne Dolet, given the fact that we’re not sure he went into such thorough research as I did before he took on Plato?’ If you don’t hear from me in the next fifteen days or so, you’ll know the answer.

Note: The quotes come from The Linguist, an Institute of Linguists’ publication.


 

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