Translators convey ideas, not words

Translation is really nothing more than communicating ideas or messages, regardless of the words, or the number of words, used in the source text. In fact, translation has absolutely nothing to do with words, sentences or even paragraphs.

Where most translators fail, that is those who translate into a language that is not their native tongue, is that they swing from each and every word in the source text, like Tarzan in the jungle, using every branch and twig they can find as crutches on their way to something that resembles a target language translation. It goes without saying that such a text will not have the quality of one written by a native speaker of the target language, because relative to the source text, it will be excessively literal and fail to reflect the idiomatic idiosyncrasies of the target language in question. (What is more, the literalness of the text will more often than not cause serious misunderstandings and misinterpretations.)

By the same token, such transliterations may also flow from a translator’s insecurity about the source language. Unfortunately, there are way too many out there who call themselves translators who, even though they follow the professional rule of translating only into one’s native language, have never really acquired a proper and thorough understanding of the source language, and therefore feel intimidated by it.

Not to put too fine a point on it, translation should be the reserve of true bilinguals, people who are at ease and comfortable in, as well as knowledgeable about, both the source and target languages. Most bilingual people, including those brought up in this manner from the day they were born, are not true bilinguals. Take Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau as an example. He’s considered bilingual in English and French, but in reality, he speaks neither language. He suffers from third language syndrome in both languages (and that comes on top of his speech impediment).

The secret of translation, if we are to call it that, really is no secret at all: if you want to be a professional translator, you have to be fully at home in both the source and target languages. And you must never ever think in terms of words, sentences or paragraphs, but only in terms of concepts, ideas and messages. Once you start quibbling over words or sentences, you have already lost not only the battle but also the war.

Author: Werner Patels

Translator - Thinker - Writer

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