Just a translator.

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

I have spent the past year and a half translating a book. It is a very long book, immensely difficult in terms of both language and subject matter, and I can’t quite believe that I’ve actually done it. At times I didn’t think I would manage it. At times I wondered how I had gotten myself into this. At times it seemed like the whole thing was about to consume me. But now it’s done, and—barring some unforeseen catastrophe—by next year there may be a book on the shelves of your local university library with my name in it.

As the translator, mind you. Just the translator.

In my life as a translator, I have had people (sometimes jokingly, sometimes not) ask me if I’ve ever considered becoming a “real” writer instead of “just” translating other people’s writing. Even when people don’t ask outright, I feel it is often the unspoken thought lurking behind any discussion of translation between a translator and a non-translator. The value placed on producing an original piece of writing is certainly not equivalent to the value placed on producing an original adaptation of that piece of writing in a different language.

From the non-translator’s point of view, translation may seem to be nothing more than “typing in a foreign language”, substituting one word for another, like a machine. A non-translator may assume that for every source text (the text to be translated) there must be a canonical target text (the translation), and the translator’s job is merely to pound out the right words and be finished with it. The common preconception is that someone else has done all the hard work of researching and writing, so the translator “just” has to transpose the completed work from language to another. And how hard can that be, right?

It’s a matter of ignorance—and I really don’t mean that in a derogatory sense, I mean it in the literal sense of not knowing something, of simply not being aware of or understanding what the process of translation actually entails. As a professional translator, I feel it’s my duty to help educate people, to dispel the myths about translation (anyone can do it! machines can do it!) and make others more aware of the difficulty—and the value—of what it is I do.

The problem is that I find it almost impossible to convey the difficulties and the intensity of translation to someone who is not a translator, and particularly to someone who may only be familiar with a single language. How do you explain what it’s like to look at a sentence in one language and see a hundred possible permutations of that sentence in another—because there are always permutations, sometimes endless permutations. There is rarely a “right or wrong” in translation,* rarely a one-to-one correspondence. You can almost always express something this way or that way, use this word or that word, this phrasing or that one. But even if you have all of the permutations at your fingertips (which, let’s face it, you never do—the human brain is not a brute-force computational machine), you have to choose, and to choose you have to understand—understand who the original author was writing for, who you’re writing for, what this particular word might mean in this particular context, what that phrasing might do to the rest of the paragraph, how everything hangs together—and just what it is that you’re really trying to say.

And how do you explain the frustration when you don’t see the permutations right away and instead have to throw the full force of your semantic and syntactic knowledge at a problematic sentence, sifting through vocabulary and idioms, combining and recombining, switching this word for that one, shifting clauses around, making one sentence into two or two into one, hacking away and hacking away at it like a sculptor, until you can finally step back and look at what stands there on the page and say, “Yes, that’s it. That’s how that needs to be said”—or rather, yes, that’s how that could be said, and that’s how I choose to say it.

Every act of engaging with a text—even just reading—is an act of interpretation. As we read, we interpret what we think the author is trying to say. And because all interpretation is subjective (based on our personal knowledge and experiences), all acts of engaging with a text are subjective. Texts don’t always trumpet their meaning at us—we have to negotiate their meaning. So reading is one level of interpretation, and translation is several levels beyond that (very few people will engage as intensively with a text as a translator will). Translation moves beyond interpretation back into the realm of expression: As a translator, I have to interpret the words and the deeper meaning behind them and then re-express that meaning for an entirely different audience using an entirely different set of tools (the “tools” in this case being the tools of my target language). The source text is the original author’s—but in the translated text, the interpretation is mine, the words are mine, the choices are mine.**

Translation exists in a hybrid zone between production and interpretation, originality and adaptation. When I look at the book I’ve translated, I see my thoughts and words on the page, but at the same time I see the author’s thoughts and words. I see all the work and research that the author put into the book, and I see all the work and research I put into it, the hours and hours (and hours!) I spent poring over reference books, the weeks and months I spent chipping away at sentences, circling the tortuous corridors of grammar, leaning so close to the computer screen to hear what the text was trying to tell me that I thought I might be sucked into my computer. And the final product, the translated book, is something that is both mine and not mine, the outcome of both my work and another’s—my achievement, but an achievement which springs from the achievement of someone else.

Analogies are a good way of helping people understand things, but I’ve struggled to find an analogy that really grasps the nature of translation and its hybrid character. The best I’ve been able to come up with is this: Being a translator is something like being a classical musician. The relationship between the translator and the original author is akin to the relationship between a performing musician and a composer. The musician doesn’t make the initial decision as to which notes go where—that’s up to the composer. But interpreting what the composer is trying to say musically and conveying that interpretation to an audience—that’s up to the musician. Without the composer, the musician has nothing to work with; and without the musician, the composer’s work is dead on the page.*** Just like a performed piece of music is both the performer’s and the composer’s, a translated text is both the translator’s and the author’s. Many authors might not agree with this—but I suspect authors who are also translators would.

So, I have translated a book. I have performed the music. I may be “just” the translator, but without me there is no translated book, there is no music—so I think I’m ready to drop that just for good.

* Obviously you can get meanings wrong when you translate, but assuming you’ve got the meaning right, there are often countless ways in which you can express that meaning.

** Sometimes the interpretation and the choices are made in conjunction with the original author, but more often than not the translator is left on her own.

*** In the context of translation, the original author’s work isn’t “dead on the page” to the original audience, but it’s dead on the page to anyone who can’t read the original language. Similarly, some people can look at a written musical score and “hear” it in their head, but I’m pretty sure most people can’t.



Thanks for sharing your point of view on translating. I’m reading 1Q84 right now and was just telling my husband that I think the translator has done an amazing job. And, it’s an amazing job because it seems like the work was originally written in English. Obviously it wasn’t, but having read quite a few books that have been translated it always seems like there’s a point when you know the original author didn’t mean for it to be so flat or so stilted. So far, there’s been none of that in Rubin’s translation.


I love this. Ich leibe, er, this.

Posted by Jamie


I love the analogy. And what is analogy, but just another way to translate an idea, though (generally) in the same language.


I feel your pain. I speak two languages moderately well, but I find translation to be an extremely, extremely hard and bothersome task. I’ve done translations of both my own and other people’s writing, mostly technical. It is neither work I particularly enjoy nor I am particularly good or fast at.

My uttermost respect goes to those people who do that professionally; and the idea of being a simultaneous translator – a person who can listen, speak, follow a conversation and be competent enough in a field to understand the subtle meanings and how to translate them just boggles my mind.


The metaphor of translator as a kind of classical musician with words seems very apt to me, a literary translator and board member of a chamber orchestra. Like classical musicians, we get little respect from the folks who value “originality” over craft and quality. And we can be just as anonymous as the highly-trained men and women in their monotone orchestra uniforms. In culture that worships celebrity crackpots, that much competence is boring.

Posted by Jan Reinhart


Thank you, Jan, I’m delighted to hear from someone with a foot in both the translation and classical music worlds! You’re absolutely right, translation as a craft (and as an art) is something that’s generally unappreciated and/or misunderstood.

I recently wondered if the media coverage of machine translation has made matters worse, as the non-translating public has been told for years now that we’re on the brink of human-equivalent machine translation thanks to more and more powerful computers. I think this leads people to believe that translation is purely a computational problem to be solved, when in fact it’s a creative and even an artistic endeavor.


I think “false consciousness” dominates popular notions about the replacement of translators by computer apps. I was dismayed to see Bat Conservation International, an important public advocacy group, fall for such nonsense with their website. The result: automated translations that range from embarrassing to incomprehensible. And this at at time when outreach to Latin America should be at the top of their marketing agenda.

As you and I know, the day that computers can completely replace human translators — the day they can actually think on their own — is the day that computers will replace humans generally. It may come. Some like Ray Kurzweil even long for that day. I am much more ambivalent.

Posted by Jan S. Reinhart

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