Dr John Jamiesons talks translations


Dr John Jamiesons talks translations

On a recent trip to Germany, I saw a sign in the underground/overground train I was travelling on, reading as follows: Keine Beförderung ohne einem gültigen Fahrausweis (or words to that effect). Translated more or less word for word, that means “No transport without a valid travel identification”. What could be clearer than that?

Yet somehow I have never seen a sign bearing exactly these words, or anything closely resembling them, on any form of public transport in New Zealand. So let’s imagine we were commissioned to translate the sign into English, and ask ourselves how we would complete this translation journey, and what destination we might finally arrive at.

Translation researchers sometimes talk about the “think aloud protocol” technique (thereby scoring a linguistic own goal by using “protocol” in its Continental European rather than English sense). According to this method, the translator writes down more or less what goes through his or her mind while grappling with a translation task.

I too am a translator, so the following is a mock think-aloud protocol based on the way many of us appear to translate.

According to the mishmash of linguistic and cultural methods that many of us use most of the time, we might ruminate as follows: “’No transport’ – that sounds a bit weird, ‘transport’ in this context sounds a bit like you’re transporting something – pigs, chickens, pots and pans, nuts and bolts. You can’t say ‘no transportation’ either, that sounds like convicts on their way to Botany Bay. So what is being transported here? Well, it is ‘us’, I and all this other lot sitting in the carriage. So should I say ‘you cannot be transported’? – they tell us to translate German nouns with English verbs, don’t they, but it still doesn’t sound very good. Maybe you can say ‘no transport’ after all.

“But ‘no transport’ sounds like a general prohibition, a ‘thou shalt not, never, no how’ sort of argument. Yet presumably it’s talking to me, here and now. It’s not a universal message but a contingent one, so to speak. So what on earth am I going to say?

“Hang on a minute, if the cargo being transported is not something else, but me and my mates, then maybe ‘transport’ isn’t even the word at all in English – let’s see if ‘travel’ works. No, ‘no travel’ has got connotations of never leaving home or something. Let’s just park this phrase for the moment, and go on to the rest of the sentence.

“What’s this ‘valid travel identification’ business? – well, German often uses more abstract terms than English to refer to tangible subject-matter – think of eine Vorlage bearbeiten as compared with ‘translate a text’. So they’re talking about a ‘valid ticket’, for goodness sake, so let’s just say that. ‘No transport without a valid ticket’ – can you say that? Well no-one can argue that it’s wrong, because that’s what the German says, so let that be my translation. No-one could possibly misunderstand what it means.”

 It seems to me that the demands of working with translation memories, whereby a text consists of ‘old words’ and ‘new words’, to be charged at different rates, tend to make us think along the above less than creative lines, resulting in admonitions such as ‘no transport without a valid ticket’.

This has left the gate wide open for the transcreation method, which transforms the translator into some sort of Delphic oracle, who goes into a trance and produces a text transfigured and transformed according to the unique and specific cultural imperatives of the target audience – and accordingly charges like a wounded bull.

It is my belief that previous generations of linguists who were imbued in the classical languages – Greek and Latin – were perfectly well able to translate idiomatically, without engaging in any such mystical practices.

My own homespun translation method endeavours to achieve the same goal – and works something like this (again in the form of a think-aloud protocol):

“‘No transport without valid travel identification’, eh? Now, what would the German sound like? Where would you put the stress? That is the same thing as asking what is known content here, and what is new or unknown – because known content tends to be unstressed, while new, not previously familiar content, takes the stress. It’s pretty obvious here that Keine Beförderung ohne einem gültigen Fahrausweis is known here – you can’t ride a train without being transported, befördert, so this bit is unstressed. The important thing is therefore the bit about ohne einem gültigen Fahrausweis –which of course means ‘without a valid ticket’.

“Now, the essence of my method is to treat language not as one sort of a thing, but two sorts of a thing, just as respiration comprises both breathing in and breathing out. Stressed content generally requires a fairly literal, transparent translation – in this case, ‘without a valid ticket’.

“Unstressed content, on the other hand, in a sense doesn’t matter – here I can say more or less whatever comes into my head as a native speaker of the target language. So how about these ideas?”:

All passengers must hold a valid ticket.

To ride this train you must have a valid ticket.

Please check you have a valid ticket for this journey.

Hey you! Got your ticket?

The ‘whatness’ of the message is conveyed with my translation of the stressed content (which, I repeat, is generally quite straightforward to translate). The ‘howness’ of the message is conveyed instinctively, according to what community of readers I want to define.

Instead of getting bogged down in how to translate the word Beförderung, I more or less ignore it, and just say whatever comes into my head.

This method has two crucial advantages. First, it is more or less effortless, and gives me lots of options to play with, rather than the sense of constraint and compromise associated with the first protocol. And secondly, it’s very fast – trust me.

To summarise: my personal rule is to ‘translate like an interpreter’. That means hearing the spoken flow of a written text, and translating accordingly. Try it sometime – it’s a lot of fun, and can enable us to provide a better and more cost-effective service!

PS: There is nothing unique about this - I realise that the world is full of translators working much along these lines. But it’s not very full of them, sad to say.