Why translate?

Why would I want to do translation work?

The arguments against are pretty powerful. It’s a distraction from the ‘real’ work I do, the work of teaching and research.

And it’s a pain. Long, tedious, and often frustrating. There are few things worse than facing the conventions of another language and realizing there is no way to elegantly translate their meaning.

It’s like going through footnotes for copy-editing purposes. While a dentist fills your root canal. And Jeremy Clarkson sings Britney Spears greatest hits in the background.

I exaggerate. Perhaps Jeremy Clarkson has a beautiful voice.

Translation does have some real advantages. It does make me get inside the head of another reader. It forces me to write new ideas in someone else’s words. It gives me sympathy with positions I previously misunderstood.

(Just look at the insight and intellectual sophistication of a translator much better than I will ever be, Arthur Goldhammer, talking about his understanding of Alain Corbin’s ideas: http://bit.ly/1IrHs2Q)

It also makes me realize how many words I skip over when I am reading in French. A bad habit left from my days as an undergraduate literature student, perhaps.

I come across the word epopee. I know vaguely what it means. Something to do with dolls, right?

No, that’s poupée.

It actually means ‘epic’. Good thing I looked it up.

Epic doll?

This week I have considerably expanded my knowledge of French terms from early-modern Russian history. Life skills!

Translation has other advantages as well.

It has given me insight into idiomatic usages. Apparently (I never knew this before) the French use the words for ‘upstream’ and ‘downstream’ to talk about chronologies, before and after an event.

I don’t want to skip over the most important point: translation can pay, literally. I mean, not a lot. But for people like me at the start of their careers, and in an increasingly difficult job market (http://bit.ly/1FMjASX) translation is one type of flexible work that requires very specialist skills (both language competence and historical knowledge) and looks good on an academic CV.

Or, you know, you could sell your organs on the black market.

2 thoughts on “Why translate?

  1. You are right. Translation is about getting into someone’s mind. It is time-consuming and fastidious, but ultimately rewarding. I sometimes wonder how historians who work with only one language can acquire the same sense of ‘being another person’. They probably do, but through a different medium.

    Because I now work in the UK, I write less often in French, my native language. I end up translating from Japanese into English, but with a slight feeling of being a fraud. Or am I? I think, however, that this very process of translation helps to clarify my thoughts. By ‘skipping’ my native tongue, ideas are first reduced to their simplest form before re-gaining their complexity.

    I am also wondering how theoretical works on translation (Paul Ricoeur?) can be useful for historians.

    Keep posting!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. If you can get someone to pay you significant money for translating, you are doing better than most. Especially if it´s for translating literature.

    But would have thought you have many other calls on your time?

    Also you might come upon more of those epoxy words.


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