The translation process includes reading text, processing it and then writing it differently, sometimes maintaining the literal form and other times paraphrasing to maintain the meaning of the original text. Content can be translated into another language or even into the same language using other words. Writing down thoughts is also a form of translation. For example, at this moment I would like to express a thought and search for the right words and syntax to express it in a certain way that the reader may find interesting or even thought-provoking. What is it if not a translation process?
It could be said that the process of perceiving reality and forming judgment is also a type of translation process. Expressing in words the perception of reality involves interpreting impressions into thoughts and translating them into words. In the same manner that judgement by perception may be biased, translation may also be wrong and unfaithful to the source.
When observing reality, for example, when observing a certain person, I don’t see the person; I only see my interpretation of that person. To really see someone, all layers of that person must be observed from the make-up of the small particles, the physical aspects, family and historical backgrounds, hidden subjective emotions, social and political connections, and all the ecosystem surrounding that individual, all at the same time. But I can’t, because it’s not possible. I am only exposed to a simplistic layer cultivated in my mind impaired by conventions and social rules that we all play by. We talk in a certain way, dress and act in a fashion that might hide the true self and make us see only some representation of that specific person*.
In addition, all of my life experience affects my perception, which has a huge impact on how I see that person. Despite this, I automatically and unconsciously create perceptions about that person. It happens very quickly under the assumption that I see and know all there is to see in order to make judgments. We should be aware that our ability to judge accurately is limited and biased.
Not to mention that my eyes may deceive me, maybe I’m delusional, maybe I’m even in the “matrix”, and totally “off” about how I see things. It turns out that our perception of reality is not as stable as we think, even though we assume that what we see with our eyes is a complete, accurate and sufficient picture for forming a judgment about another person.
If we could only be aware of this superficiality, it would teach us some modesty, help us recognize this weakness and it would become a filter for better critical thinking with less biases.
The translator has a perception and is biased like everyone else. But the essence of the translator’s job, similar to the role of a spokesperson or an ambassador, is simply to convey the message as is. This is a position that forces modesty on the role of the translator to completely represent and act as a mouthpiece for the content.
This is why the term “faithful to the source” is critical in translation and the copyright belongs to the original author and not the translator. However, sometimes being faithful to the letter of the source may impair the translation flow. The challenge, therefore, is to find the balance between accurately conveying the meaning of the source language while still producing a native-level translation.
Being faithful to the source does not mean a literal word-for-word translation. Sometimes it means being faithful to the message conveyed in the source text by moving away from the literal form, adapting to the readers’ culture, going beyond language translation into the realm of translating from culture to culture. Sometimes the translation focuses on the literal form of the text and as a result changes the meaning. An example of this is the translation of poetry or rhymes where literal translation loses the “rhythm” of the text. But in all of these cases, the translation attempts to adhere to the sacred principle of being faithful to the source.
In general, being overly faithful to the source creates a literal translation that might sound a bit off. A literal approach loses symbolic innuendos, metaphor, or depth. The translator must look for the spirit of the text during the translation process and not cling too much to the literal form.
Modern literal translations of the Bible or other religious text are influenced by scientific progress, characterized by literal analytical thinking, which suppresses deep, less literal interpretations. On the other hand, the fundamentalist thinking in modern times stems from a certain kind of literal thinking that forces the believer to follow the scriptures to the letter. At the same time, the anti-religious thinking, among other things, rejects the Scriptures because the literal works of Scripture are unacceptable to science. These three types of literal thinking show that literal interpretation has a range of opposing influences.
Sometimes differences between languages express different meanings. For example, the book To Kill a Mockingbird is told from the point of view of a young girl named Scout, whose character, during the course of the book evolves from being a “tom boy”, dressed and behaving like a boy, to becoming a girl who wears dresses and reveals her femininity. The English language is a gender neutral language, where nouns or verbs are genderless. For example, the verb “walked” can be used by both male and female, and the word “child” could also refer to both a boy or a girl. However, there are languages that are gender specific, such as the Hebrew language. When reading this book in English it is impossible to tell until about page 60 whether Scout is a boy or a girl. And as Scout evolves and discovers her femininity, so do the readers. But when read in Hebrew, Scout’s gender is revealed immediately in the beginning. This example demonstrates how the reading experience of that book may be quite different if the book is read in different languages.
In a language-to-language translation process, some words may have a one-to-one translation in the target language, but there are words that have ambiguous meaning that can be translated in different ways. The translator decides, based on a personal judgment to prefer a specific translation. This process is influenced by knowledge, ability, and perspective. Ultimately, the translated selected words are set subjectively, forming an interpretation that forces on to the reader a specific unique experience. When looking at certain written words we cannot perceive them as merely a collection of signs that mean nothing. The words and the language impose themselves on us.
Gilles Ménage (a French philosopher 1613-92) once said that translation can be beautiful or faithful to the source, but it cannot be both at the same time. Jorge Luis Borges said that the quality of a translation may even exceed the original work. He encouraged the phenomenon of multiple translations into the same language, and even preferred cases where the source is not true to the translation. He described that as a child he read the book Don Quixote in the English translation, and when he read the Spanish source later in his life he described it as a pale imitation.
The accuracy and fidelity to the source in translation is a principle that forces the translator to sanctify the source, to study it in depth and to minimize personal interpretation. This approach is worthy and should be adopted in other walks of life. It teaches modesty which could prevent us from making quick and harmful superficial perceptions.
The translator and reader experience is subjective and may even change over time. According to Borges, every book as long as we didn’t open it is merely an object. And only when we open it, when the contact with the reader occurs, something new happens. Furthermore, a particular reader of a particular book never reads the same book twice. The book changes because we change (like the River of Heraclitus). The text is forever dynamic and has no fixed meaning. The meaning is created in the reader’s mind and changes over time. Just as we read a certain book at the age of 20 and again at 40 we experience reading the book differently. Similarly, when translating complex content we find ourselves translating it differently over time, and so it is with the rest of our life’s insights.
* I heard the gist of this paragraph in a lecture by Jordan Peterson.