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A Brief Introduction To Language Translation

It is probably important to begin by specifying what exactly language translation is and, perhaps more importantly, what it is not. Known simply as translation within the industry, it is the process of taking a "written" message in one language (the source language) and expressing it in another language (the target language). It is not, as is often incorrectly assumed, the same as Interpretation which is facilitating conversations between people. Think the United Nations, the European Parliament, live debates and meetings. Language translation, on the other hand, only deals with the "printed" word.

Most people's only direct experience of language translation will probably be from using one of the many online machine language translation systems. The free availability of such systems has fundamentally reshaped the web by allowing us all to browse websites written in a host of languages. This is all the more so for people who don't speak English since the bulk of material on the net is still written in English.

Nevertheless, whilst machine language translation systems are great for getting a rough idea of what a text is about, virtually all serious language translation is still done by human beings hammering away at their keyboards. Indeed, the whole concept of machine language translation is based on the assumption that a language can be broken down into a set of rules and that there is in a sense a "right translation". In reality, however, language translation is more an art than a science and in the words of Professor George Steiner, emeritus professor of comparative literature at the University of Geneva, "inadequate ninety percent of the time".

This inadequacy stems from the very anarchic nature of languages. Every language has its own grammatical structure, idioms, writing style, not to mention cultural and political heritage. The translator needs to be able to take the subtleties in the source text and transmit those very same subtleties in the target language. It is not simply a question of getting a dictionary and taking it one word at a time. Indeed, if you're struggling to understand the source text, you probably shouldn't be translating it. Not only are you going to get some of the major concepts wrong, you are more than likely going to miss a host of subtleties.

For good translators the challenge is very rarely understanding the source text but rather expressing the meaning in the target language. Most people probably don't realise that the secret of a good translator is above all her writing skills in the target language. The better her writing skills, the better she can hide the fact that the text is indeed a translation.

A translation should not, however, be viewed de facto as a watered down or somehow adulterated version of the original. Whilst this can indeed be the case, the strength of any individual translation ultimately depends on how good the translator is. A case in point is Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude where the author is on record as saying that he preferred Gregory Rabassa's English version to his own Spanish original. As a translator, you don't get a greater compliment than that.

 
 
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