At university, I taught English to ESOL journalism students eager to improve their conversational skills and gain crucial translation skills. During one exercise, we translated a short BBC article from each student's original language into English. One French-speaking student, who was struggling with English grammar, struggled to passage on the life and subsequent execution of a prominent political leader. After twenty minutes of careful work, the student presented his translation to the class. While much of the passage went swimmingly, a particular sentence stuck out: "In 1978, he and his colleagues were hung over. " I explained to the French-speaking student - and the rest of the class - the difference between the sentence "He was hung" and "He was hung over." Everyone burst into laughter and, certainly, was reminded, again, of the importance of prepositions in the English. While this mistake injected humour into the exercise, it also brought to the light the ultimate purpose of translation: to capture nuances in communication. We also know that these same words can also have another meaning which I will not discuss here.
Language contains nuance in its grammar, its syntax, how it is used in everyday speech, how it is written, and the broader cultural meanings that it has accrued through history. The work of translation is not simply between a translator and a text, but among the translator's first language, the language of translation, and the historical and cultural nuances and differences that occur between the two. Translation provides vital pathways of communication and understanding. It enables an individual who does not speak, read, or write in a particular language to gain a small window into the worldview the language creates and cultivates.
Translation has also been the great preservative of knowledge throughout history. Had Greek, Indic, Aramaic, and Egyptian texts not been translated into Latin, it is doubtful that the Roman Empire would have been able to build on the vast bodies of knowledge of the peoples over which they ruled. Translation nurtured some of the greatest works of literature. James Joyce, one of the best loved Irish writers, was ambivalent, as a young man, about becoming a writer. An insightful teacher encouraged the young Joyce to study Greek and Latin and, also, to learn Norwegian. Joyce, who was quite adept at learning languages, soon became fluent in all three and quickly devoured Henrik Ibsen's plays. "A Doll's House" made an indelible impression on Joyce. Months after teaching himself how to read and write Norwegian, Joyce wrote the famous playwright a letter. Soon Ibsen and Joyce began a correspondence that would last till the end of the iconic playwright's life. And Joyce began writing "The Dubliners." As they say, the rest is history.
Translation is the life-blood of literature and culture. It builds and deepens exchanges of ideas, traditions, and rituals among diverse cultures. It fosters ways of looking at and imagining the world that did not seem possible before a particular book, poem, sign, artefact, or art work was experienced. Translation is not something that happens silently between a reader and his or her text or a traveller and a brochure or a young journalism student and an article. Translation happens between, among, and with us all.
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