Translation is Treason

Translation is Treason, or so I’ve been told…

I am so excited to let you guys know that one of my books is now out in Spanish! How cool is that?

What’s even better, I got to work with and get to know Teresita in the process. She is such a delight that I wanted to give you the chance to get to know her and take a peek into the surprisingly complicated process of translating a book.

So, let’s begin at the very beginning. How did you get interested in translating books?

 I usually have lots of work, but much of it has to do with school documents. Schools, as you know, are off in the summer so I usually search for something interesting to do during that time. I stumbled, quite by accident, on Babelcube (a site that matches translators with authors) and found that Abigail Reynolds, whose writing I love, wanted to translate one of her books.

I contacted her and told her I had never translated a book but that I hated most translated books because they read… well, translated. In my humble opinion, a translated book has to read as if it has been written in the translated language, so I aimed for that. And that’s how I got into translating books. Yours (Remember the Past) is my third and I really enjoy this kind of work, even if I don’t think I will be able to quit my normal translating job to do this full time. It is also an opportunity to put wonderful stories within reach of people that do not read in English.

How does one prepare to be a translator?

In my day, in my country, one did not really prepare to be a translator. If you knew enough of two languages and had enough vocabulary or were willing to learn it, you just started and experience did the rest. Nowadays, you can go to college and study to be one. I have been translating for almost 25 years, I started because it was something I could do from home and I could get as much or as little work as I wanted and still be able to go everywhere with my children. (MG here—I did something similar when my kiddos were small!)

Just knowing how to do something doesn’t mean you’re good at it. What does it take to be a good translator?
To be a good translator you need to be willing to read, or at least to learn a little, about most anything. (MG here—wow that sounds a whole lot like writing!) Now with the internet this is a lot easier since you can find glossaries and information about everything and there are sites where translators help one another with terminology and things like that. But still, you have to keep reading and learning.

This is obvious a lot of work, so hopefully there are things you enjoy about doing it.  What do you enjoy most about translating and what makes you absolutely crazy?
I really enjoy translating almost everything. I have always craved knowledge and translating you learn about lots of things. How to behave as an employee, how to work appliances and electronics, about legal problems or decisions, about health care, about kids with learning problems, even about hair do’s and stables for horses! (MG here–No wonder we get on so famously—I’m the same. My family calls me a wealth of (often) useless information)
The thing that drives me crazy is translating strings and lists of words with no context.

There’s an old saying that ‘translation is treason’ because it is so difficult to convey the meaning from one language accurately to another. Why is it so difficult? Can’t you just translate word for word and you’re there? (going to duck and cover now…)
It really is difficult to convey the meaning from one language to the other. As a matter of fact, it is difficult to convey meaning in the same language from one country to another, even from one region of one country to the next.(MG here—or in my house from one room to the other…)

There are things that are absolutely impossible to translate! They make no sense whatsoever in another language. If we translated word for word, a lot of translations from Spanish into English and vice versa would sound, to say the very least, weird. You may understand them, but just barely, because we construct sentences very differently, for one.

I’ve always heard there were two basic approaches to translating, meaning for meaning and word for word. What do they mean? Is one way better than the other?

To translate “meaning for meaning” is better because that’s what is usually intended when we speak or we write. We seldom want to convey words, we want to convey meaning. In literature this is especially important and one has to adapt the expressions to what is usually used in the language you are translating to, even if you don’t use the words that are written. If you translate word for word you end up with really funny things.

What about humor and things like idioms? It seems like those would be particularly difficult to deal with.

 Those can be pretty tricky. What is really funny in one place can be a big insult in another. Jokes don’t usually make much sense because they rely on (sometimes quite) a bit of naughtiness or double meaning, which is almost impossible to translate. As for sayings, most have an equivalent in the other language; the problem is to find the right one. Still there are some that are untranslatable.

 I have to imagine there are some interesting mishaps that go along with translating. What are some that you’ve encountered?

In translating you don’t usually get into mishaps because you have time to proofread what you translate, you can check with dictionaries or ask around. When people use machine translations, (using Google Translate. Systran, etc.), you sometimes get hilarious results. For example, I once found a site that offered circular saws. For some reason (I imagine that to save some money) they decided to translate the site by one of this machines and ended offering “círculo vio” which would translate back into English more or less as “the circle saw” (because saw is not only a cutting blade, is also the past of the verb to see) and translation machines normally use the most common translation for the word. As you can imagine the translation was very funny. (MG here- This is why I’m convinced that if you need directions translated, you ought to go to the folks to do Lego directions. No words, all pictures that even I can follow!)

But in interpreting, where the interpreter has to find the meaning of everything while the other person is still talking, and sometimes while he/she is still talking too… well, you could find some interesting interpreting mistakes in YouTube, some funny and some embarrassing. This is especially true when the people talking use slang or local versions of the language, like people of the Southeast in the US or from certain neighborhoods in Mexico City. To all the interpreters out there, you have my respect.

What’s the most interesting experience you’ve had translating?
I think that translating books it is pretty interesting because you have the chance to get a little creative. But I really think that, aside from strings (those are used in computer programming) and lists of words with no context, I find my work interesting on the whole because I love to learn about everything.

I am so thrilled we got to work on this project together. Since a substantial chunk of my family are Spanish–speaking, it is really special to me to be able to present one of my books in Spanish. I really hope to work together again in the future. Thanks so much Teresita!


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    • Agnes on February 18, 2017 at 12:31 am
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    As a non-English person who reads a lot in English these days(years) I have thought of the problem of translating a lot. My work and family commitment and lack of formal training in the area would not allow me to try it myself, but I have tried to translate sentences in my head. And have felt outrage in the way some Georgette Heyer novels were translated to Hungarian. I think the main issue besides learning the information to understand the nuances of meaning in a foreign language is to have good command and good style in your own language. I’m so happy to see your book has such an excellent and dedicated translator and an opportunity to be available in another language! Congratulations!

    1. I think you’re right, Agnes. It’s easy to underestimate how important the translator’s proficiency in their own language comes into play in translation.Thanks!

    • Katherine Schmitt on February 18, 2017 at 6:32 am
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    My BA is in Hebrew Language and Literature. I have lived in two very different Israeli cultures (a kibbutz — a communal farming settlement) and academic (at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. My translation skills are woefully inadequate as modern Hebrew (a) requires knowledge of Biblical Hebrew, even if you don’t think you need it and (b) requires the slang you acquire by growing up in Israel — day to day Hebrew and the Hebrew that comes with military experience. I’m probably missing other nuances, but this is what became clear to me when I tried to make some practical use of what I thought was a pretty good education! To this day I enjoy trying to translate both Hebrew to English and vice versa. I then seek help from Israelis I know. What an education! I still dream in Hebrew and awake hoping I didn’t stick my foot in my mouth. The point is, you have the ability to translate if you have the humility to ask for help! I love my academic education but that was just the beginning. I absolutely applaud your translation skills.

    1. Wow, what amazing experienced, Katherine! I bet you have some amazing stories to tell!

    • Carole in Canada on February 18, 2017 at 9:19 am
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    Congratulations! What a delight to meet your translator Teresita! Yes, one of the companies I worked for here in Canada had to use French translators for any published documents/speeches etc. There is difference as well in the Parisian French to French Canadian. Also, my mother-in-law is from Germany and still talks to my husband in German from time to time (I took it in high school and still understand/speak some of it). However, sometimes he has to translate and there are words/slang that you cannot just find the exact same meaning for in English.

    1. Just like English isn’t the same between English speaking countries, or even parts of those countries, other languages vary too. I’m from the south and when we say ‘well bless your heart’ not everyone from above the Mason-Dixon gets what that means. I can’t imagine trying to translate that into another language! LOL

    • Lynn char on February 19, 2017 at 5:16 pm
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    Living with a language teacher (Spanish and French), I have learned a lot about how languages work and are very different from each other and English. My daughter says her brain now thinks in all three languages at the same time. Her brain always chooses the shortest word for something no matter the language. This is only when she’s thinking of course, she generally speaks to me in English lol. She agrees translating is hard and she always knows when her students have used an online translator for home work!

    1. Those online translators are something aren’t they? I’ve seen them take perfectly coherent paragraphs and turn them into absolute gibberish! Thanks, Lynn!

    • Suzan Lauder on February 19, 2017 at 5:32 pm
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    Thanks so much for this message, Teresita and Maria!

    1. Thanks, Suzan!

  1. Excellent interview, ladies. Thank to have more JAFF available to the international community. Well one!

    1. Thanks so much, Joy!

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