What if translators weren't invisible...

For today, wander along with me on a thought experiment and ask, what kind of world would it be if translators weren’t invisible. A world where we give them more attention than they seem to get now. What kind of world would it be?

What do I mean by translators being invisible? I’m thinking primarily about how there’s a built in assumption in the common way of thinking about translations — that when you read/listen to a translation, you are experiencing the original work. Essentially it means the ideal translator is effectively invisible. They work their magic without being seen, without being noticed, and all that shines through is the original work in all its original glory.

Taken to the most absurd of extremes, you could say that if you took two perfectly ideal translators and gave them a single work, both would independently come out with the same result — there’d be insignificant differences but your experience of the work that is translated would be the same.

Now, no one truly believes this to be completely true or even possible, we all have notions of ‘good’ translations and ‘bad’ ones, and a sense that these things are more or less relative. However, the assumption is still there, lurking in the background.

When I read The Odyssey in high school, I read Homer’s Odyssey, translated by so-and-so. I don’t remember the name of the translator, but I do remember Homer. If someone asked me have I read some “Homer” I wouldn’t hesitate to say that I have. I don’t know the slightest speck of Ancient Greek, and it doesn’t matter to me in the slightest. While I’m intellectually able to know that there are many translations of Homer out there with their different characteristics and merits, I’m still satisfied that having read one rendition, I’ve satisfied the conditions for saying “I’ve read Homer.” The translator him/herself is like this sheet of glass in front of my eyes that I ignore unless I think about it.

It’s like I have this trust in the translator for transmitting the original to me. The more I think about it, the more I’m amazed by how strong that trust is. It’s one I wouldn’t really question unless I was motivated to do research into the original for some reason and only then would I start comparing translations, and perhaps delve into the originals and become a (bad) translator myself. It would only be through the comparisons that the faint shadow that is the translator would slowly appear before me in front of the original work.

What things does the translator have to do to appear invisible? If they were to become visible, what would we notice? The easiest answer is that there’s a difference in “style.” A woefully inexact term for “the way they do what translators do.” Things like the broad goal of making the translation read as if it were written by a speaker of the local language with natural idioms, or instead being as precise as possible, abandoning readability for other reasons. Specific word choice and all the other little differences that separate authors. How to deal with different cultures, and how to explain things (or not). Even deciding when a word is “untranslatable” and therefore must be “imported.”

So after this long exposition, I’ll return to the original question. What kind of world would it be if translators stopped being invisible. More precisely, what if it was openly accepted that no matter how hard they try, translators will inevitably be injecting their own interpretations into a work.

I’m not talking about translators themselves stopped trying to be invisible, for they’re intimately familiar with these issues and know how impossible it is. They already know, pick their interpretations, and make the best of it in their own way. What I’m asking is: what if the world as a whole threw out the invisibility assumption altogether? Does accepting the inevitability up front open up some different possibilities? Do we lose anything?

Perhaps it would spawn a better sense of how works relate to each other. When we stop pretending that the translator “isn’t really there”, can we at least now admit that translators do work that isn’t merely “derivative” but also in a true sense “creative”? How often do we follow the works of a single translator as avidly as we follow that of an author? I’d love to see a world where both were equally possible.

Can we finally put a stop to random comments of “you’re doing it wrong”? It’s just another way of saying “you’re not invisible enough, your mistake made you visible.” With that aside, we can sit down and figure out what is it about that translation’s particular creative decisions led to the problem. Sometimes it will be a true error of misunderstanding the original, and sometimes, it’s a conflict of choices with no clear winner despite very serious debate. Right now, all “you’re doing it wrong” errors seem to imply the former, and very rarely do readers seem to admit the latter is a possibility.

But what do we lose when we abandon the illusion of invisibility? I’d venture that the great trust I mentioned earlier is weakened. If I listen to the interpreted speech of a great official on the news, I’d have this hanging doubt of “is that what they really said?”, has the interpreter slipped a few changes here and there? I would hope that the code of ethics they follow and the checks and balances in society guard against that, just like it does now, but you can’t help but wonder just a little, right?

It’s like the field of ethics, all the extreme positions seem to have blind spots, while no one can agree on where the moderate position should be. I believe that adding just a little bit more soft relativism to the world of looking at translation would be a good thing. Right and wrong, good and bad, are much deeper questions than most people think, and sticking to black and white definitions hurts us all. That said, I’d hate for us to fall into the pit that is strong relativism where everything goes because you can’t compare anything.

Wherever that magical spot of common understanding and appreciation is, I’d like to dream that we’d move closer to it someday…


  1. 10/18/2008 01:57 AM | #

    For one thing, translators would never be unemployed.

    There’s an embarrassing amount of work that only translators can do, and that’s just concentrating on real life.

    See, the whole translator thing irks me greatly. It relates to religion somewhat, but that’s for another day.

    If you really want to experience the original, then you’d better prepare yourself for at least 10 years of learning the language the original work was written in, and probably another 5 to fully understand all the themes of the work.

    And as for that magical spot of appreciation and understanding? Don’t bet on it. It’s far easier to wipe out humanity than for humanity to get along.

  2. 10/31/2008 09:44 PM | #

    Those “on-the-fly” translators don’t get paid mega-loot for nothing, but I think translation and meaning only goes so far, culture barriers are probably a large wrapper around this entire issue.

    When going from fluency of language to fluency of culture, there is some major treading. I just think that translating culture is probably a much more difficult thing, thus a broader space for translators to become visible.

    The problem is, say a translator leaves in some culture, but the viewer is unaware of 95% of cultural elements, how do they perceive it? Then in the case of someone who is more aware of the culture and actually prefers it untampered in the translation; how do they feel? or what about when zero culture is left, but the viewer actually wanted the culture?

    The simplest case I can think of is one of those expressions like, “いただきます”.

    Unless the translators can translate such things, and even the more complex 100%, there will be visibility; personality in the translation. Commercially, U.S. companies like to weed out culture, so I’m guessing their desire is to be transparent, but why the need for transparency for all parties?

    If I saw a fan-translation that took out all culture, I’d be shocked, and if I saw something similar on another work, without knowing the translator, I’d assume it was the same one.

    In general, the fluency of culture and cultural output of all translators will determine the visibility of a single translator. There is some sort of contrast effect, but commercially and professionally, I think they generally try to eliminate all culture in order to limit the constrast, and I think that’s the only way to preserve transparency.

    imo, losing the culture debilitates a work, and then we’re simply left with Plato’s Allegory.

  3. 10/10/2009 03:22 AM | #

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