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A competent translator...

02 April 2008 Wednesday

A competent translator shows the following attributes:


A competent translator is not only bilingual but bicultural. A language is not merely a collection of words and of rules of grammar and syntax for generating sentences, but also a vast interconnecting system of connotations and cultural references whose mastery, writes linguist Mario Pei, "comes close to being a lifetime job."

The complexity of the translator's task cannot be overstated; one author suggests that becoming an accomplished translator — after having already acquired a good basic knowledge of both languages and cultures — may require a minimum of ten years' experience. Viewed in this light, it is a serious misconception to assume that a person who has fair fluency in two languages will, by virtue of that fact alone, be consistently competent to translate between them.

The translator's role in relation to a text has been compared to that of an artist, e.g., a musician or actor, who interprets a work of art. Translation, like other arts, inescapably involves choice, and choice implies interpretation. English-language novelist Joseph Conrad advised his niece and Polish translator Aniela Zagórska:
[D]on't trouble to be too scrupulous... I may tell you (in French) that in my opinion "il vaut mieux interpréter que traduire" ["it is better to interpret than to translate"].... Il s'agit donc de trouver les équivalents. Et là, ma chère, je vous prie laissez vous guider plutôt par votre tempérament que par une conscience sévère.... [It is, then, a question of finding the equivalent expressions. And there, my dear, I beg you to let yourself be guided more by your temperament than by a strict conscience....]

A translator may render only parts of the original text, provided he indicates that this is what he is doing. But a translator should not assume the role of censor and surreptitiously delete or bowdlerize passages merely to please a political or moral interest.

Translation has served as a school of writing for many authors. Translators, including monks who spread Buddhist texts in East Asia, and the early modern European translators of the Bible, in the course of their work have shaped the very languages into which they have translated. They have acted as bridges for conveying knowledge between cultures; and along with ideas, they have imported from the source languages, into their own languages, loanwords and calques of grammatical structures, idioms and vocabulary.