Gaining Weight, Losing Hair: Translation as Art

As she translated Les Misérables, Julie Rose said that she feared gaining weight and losing her hair as happened to Victor Hugo when he was writing the story.

It is often said that translation is not only the exercise of converting one word from one language to another, but also of expressing a culture. For Julie Rose, and I believe her concern expresses it well, translation reaches beyond conveying a culture. The translator almost becomes a medium between the author (not only the book) and the translated document.

It is also said that the better the translator knows the source language, and its culture, the better the translation will be. Of course, this is evident. Rose’s experience adds the presence of the author to the translation exercise. The better the translator is acquainted with the author, the more faithful the translation will be. Sometimes the translator will read other writings by the author to make sure the source text is clearly understood and therefore the target document faithful to content and style.

This is true for literary translation of course, but not totally absent from technical translation. Though knowing the author of a technical source text will not matter as much as it does for a literary translation, it is still true that the more familiar the translator is with the science of the source text, the better his/her translation will be.

A translator does not need many years of work to verify the above in his/her own practice. What often appears at first as a simple, easy exercise—“I already speak both languages,” may think the novice, “how difficult can translation be?”—very quickly takes all the colors of any art project. And that is exactly what makes translation exciting and can keep a translator motivated for a long time.

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