Reflections of a translator

As many of you know, I am slightly obsessed about languages. About a year ago, I began turning such passion into a job, and started working for several translation agencies; I passed exams and interviews, and my work is regularly reviewed for accuracy.

Despite what some people think and claim, it’s not just a matter of reading in one language and writing in another: especially when dealing with legal or technical documents, even a short text can require a substantial amount of research. Of course, over time it becomes easier, as one learns where to look for reliable information, and simply stockpiles commonly used turns of phrases to look up in a pinch.

I have worked on projects big enough, sometimes for huge companies whose products you most likely use or have used—I cannot be any more specific due to non-disclosure agreements I have signed—to realize, first-hand, that translation is way more than that. Each individual project, no matter how big or small, has its own peculiarities. Translating a mobile app for children requires a different approach compared to the technical manual of a safety valve testing rig, for instance, and a certificate of pending charges has very little in common with the product descriptions of an online shop specialized in DJ equipment.

While mistakes can happen, translation is one field in which striving for perfectionism is a very basic requirement. It is true that once the project is delivered, never hearing again from the client is a good sign (it means everything went fine and no revision is required!), but sloppiness is never a good way to start. This is especially true for certified translations, a field I recently started working on.

Knowing that a translation is going to be certified by the agency means that, as a translator, I represent the agency; and the agency is solemnly claiming, to the full extent of the Law, that the translation faithfully matches the original text. Nothing is allowed to go wrong. And this opens up a whole new can of worms for each project: should I use the American date format, with the month before the day, or the European date format, with the day before the month? Should I use the British or the American spelling, if I’m translating into English? What is the best way to rephrase this without drifting too much from the original, while at the same time being fully clear for the reader? And what if something simply does not exist in the countries where the destination language is spoken?

It can be daunting. And it’s a good idea never to feel too confident, for overconfidence is the root cause of catastrophe (“look ma, no hands! look ma, no teeth!”). I was lucky to have wonderful supervisors and coordinators for all the agencies I work with: they guided me as I took my first few steps and encouraged me, putting up with my incredible level of early paranoia. Sometimes I still worry when I pick up a job: the customer may not be clear in her requests, or something may be unreadable if it’s a scan, or I may just have no idea how to translate a specific passage until I research it in detail.

But I always made it work, and it’s very rewarding on many levels. Sometimes I stop and think about what I do, and what it means to me—why I love it so much. Translation is the ultimate tool for communication. When you speak one language, your message has a limited pool of potential recipients: those who understand that language. By translating it into other languages, the pool grows considerably, and your message gets one step closer to being universally understood.

As a translator, I am enabling people to achieve that goal, whatever their message may be. It’s often commercial in nature: press releases, apps, websites. Sometimes, however, it’s not: I have translated texts for charities, for projects that involved or were targeted at kids. I distinctly remember one Sunday morning, when I almost accidentally picked up one such job; I couldn’t stop myself, and left a comment to the customer simply thanking them for what they were doing, and for allowing me to be a small part of it.

And then of course, there’s the other kind of material: the certified documents that end up on the desks of notaries, lawyers, ambassadors. Each one of these, no matter how small or short, make me feel honored, and that’s for a simple reason: because they all tell a story. Sometimes the customer shares a few basic details: “I need this to apply for citizenship”, or “this is for my son’s passport”. Other times I can infer it: a university transcript is the prime sign that the student is packing to work abroad, for instance.

Yet many times, there’s not enough context to tell what it is for, and my imagination runs wild. I wonder why this person with a French last name is requiring his father’s birth certificate to be translated, or what the property mentioned as being for sale looks like, or whether there is any update on the prognosis described in this medical report. I wonder, and imagine, and dream. Like when I was thrown all the way to a hundred and thirty years ago, trying to read the gorgeous but amazingly cryptic cursive of a birth certificate from the 1890s. That was barely thirty years after Italy was united into a single country. That was before the first modern plane flew. That was before the world knew what the Great War was. That was when school was something for the rich, and the common folk couldn’t even sign a certificate because they simply couldn’t read or write. I have no idea why this stuff needed to be translated, or what the customer’s ultimate goal was; I cannot come up with any reason beyond genealogy research.

But at the end of the day, as curious as I am, I do not even want to know. I’m content with knowing that someone’s communication need was fulfilled, and I was the one who enabled them to do so. That’s why I do this.

Languages: the strange case of Pirahã and Aymara

In my last post, I wrote about the connections between language and thought, ie. linguistic relativity / determinism.

In today’s highly globalized world, languages get mixed and evolve at a much faster pace than ever before. English, for instance, is no longer only divided into British, American and Australian English; we could say that there is a variety of English for any other natural language: Spanglish, Chinglish and so on. When French was the de-facto lingua franca of diplomacy (and, by extension, of Western Europe), it was not substantially modified by other local languages. When English replaced it, after World War I and especially after World War II, it started changing immediately.

English, especially its American variety, was not only originally used for international diplomacy; rather, as the United States rose a superpower in many fields (technology, business, etc.), one could argue that its language became widespread from the bottom-up. The average Joe in most other Western countries was exposed to American words: they wore blue jeans, they put coins into juke-boxes, they went to a bar. As English words became naturalized over time, this ultimately led to the creation of what could be easily considered a series of creoles that are for the most part mutually intelligible.

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