Thursday, July 13, 2006

A Translator's High

Something interesting is happening with this translation experiment.

Over the past three years – ever since I went back to translating full time – I would look at my translation and cringe. It was correct. It was equivalent (drastically so). Community members would say that it was eminently readable. I kept getting more and more work, so I assume the agencies and their clients were satisfied.

I was not. My language was dead. Like a floating corpse floating on muddy water, it had but a semblance of what is used to be.

I had my theories. Apart from 12 weeks in the Middle East, I have been away for almost 11 years. My contacts with the community are limited to an occasional phone chit-chat. Sure, I listen to radio and watch Arabic TV online, and I pay through my nose to have books shipped from Egypt and Lebanon, not to mention grabbing whatever our decrepit State Library has. But all that, for sure, will not be equivalent to living permanently in Cairo, nu?

This experiment with translating Ata’s book was an eye-opener. I have done 5 pages and the language is an elegant, as smooth and as concise as my Arabic has always been. And it has not at all been a painful process – I sweat far more over a WorkSafe brochure than over his sociological introduction.

So what happened that was different?
(1) The original English, written by someone who like me learned it as a second language, is clearly structured. Nothing sloppy. Nothing ugly (typos notwithstanding). Good academic English, and not “staff will serve tea and bikkies for single-mums with prams”.
(2) I am translating for my own pleasure. True, I will probably submit it to my colleague D. for editing, but D. is my peer and a translator like me, not some community halfwit whom I need to please. I don’t have to dumb the language down, and more importantly, I can play with the text. I have more literary freedom, as long as the meaning is equivalent. I can do what I can’t do with community crap brochures and info: add those small qualifiers that in Arabic make a difference between “native” and “translated”.
(3) I am not using my word processor. Because handwriting, and especially in Arabic script, is an act of aesthetics, I need to concentrate on what I am doing. I write first in pencil, then ink it. As I ink, I re-read the sentences and change them. With word-processing, in ugly Arial, I glance at the text, check for spelling and off we send the crap. No art involved, no art produced.
Has anyone written about translation as a psychological act?

A good friend of mine responded to my thoughts with a link to an article by a Czech translator, in which he puts forward a number of interesting theories:
(1) That no matter what, no one can translate for 8 hours a day every day. Well, I used to do 14 hours a day, every day, for stretches of 3 to 4 weeks at a time, and can still do it (into English, though, not the other way) unless I am physically unwell. Vitek says that "is something about the translating activity that causes your brain to stop working properly after a certain finite quota of mental energy has been exhausted." I agree. Although my partner thinks that all I do is sit and type and occassionally leaf through voluminous dictionaries, I feel extremely exhausted after translating. And although I don't have the "confusion in your brain after you have read a passage in one language and just before you attempt to reconstruct it in another language" and the "blank, a vacuum or complete chaos in your mind", which needs to be "bridged over to arrive safely on the shore of a different language" I get these feeling AFTER the event, often being unable to string a sentence in ANY of my three "native" tongues. "The effort that translators must expend to overcome this chaos may explain the fatigue that they seem to feel after a long stretch of work," says Vitek.
(2) He also quotes another (Japanese/English) translator to the effect that "good translators are like tennis or piano players-they have to be born with a gift. You can become good if you work hard, but if you do not have the gift to begin with, you will never be a very good translator or a very good tennis player. The gift is probably more important than anything else." That, of course, makes me feel mighty superior already, since I first started translations out of sheer anger at a mangled book :-)
(3) The last theory is the one I agree with most. You have to be in the mood to create good music or good translation. This is why in-house translators are either very emotionally balanced people or long-term martyrs :-) I, for one, cannot translate if I am worried, stressed, physically in pain, after a heavy dinner, or bored. I used to be able to put in hours of good work when bored, to keep my mind alive, but these days it seems that my mind needs to go and look at different places and interesting scenes, or listen to a live performance, instead of reading or writing. I have a perpetual fear of going blank up there one day and not wanting to write or read a single word more.

According to Vitek, "good (and bad) translation is like pornography, we usually know it when we see it." I am not very sure if I find this definition edifying, but it sure is very apt.

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