Miguel de Cervantes compared translated text to the back side of a tapestry: although the figures are seen, he said, they are full of threads that obscure them.
Mind you, he said that—or, rather, he had Don Quixote say it—in 16th-century Spanish. ¡Qué de habilidades hay perdidas por ahí! ¡Qué de ingenios arrinconados! “What clevernesses are lost this way, what ingenuities cornered!”
Hang on! That doesn’t make sense: how do you corner an ingenuity? I get what Cervantes is going for here, but “cornered” isn’t right… let’s see… ah, okay, my Larousse dictionary also gives “discarded” for the verb arrinconar. “What ingenuities discarded”—yes, that’s what he’s saying: those little puns and nuances that don’t always translate. Phew.
Translation is complicated.
Cervantes knew what he was talking about. I learned this early in my career, when I worked as a project manager and sometimes English editor at a translation agency. My colleagues and I assigned jobs of all sorts to professional translators in just about any language you can imagine. For a time, I was the only native English speaker in the office, so the jobs that went into English generally passed through my hands. As it turned out, editing translated text is also complicated.
Translated text is often translated by non-native speakers, the idea being that a native-speaking editor can sort out any infelicities. If that’s you, you’ll be dealing with several factors that go beyond what you’re used to if you usually deal with monolingual jobs, even if you work with non-native speakers often. For one thing, you don’t just have an author to deal with: now you have an author and a translator, both of whose intended meanings you need to divine, understand, and respect.
Depending on the circumstances, you might or might not have access to the source text; you also might or might not have any competence in the source language. (In an ideal world, translations would all be edited by someone who’s fluent in the source language and a native speaker of the target language. We don’t live in an ideal world.) You may also need to localize things like currencies, measurements, and government institutions.
Either way, you’ll need to make the translation read well to native English speakers, smoothing out the wrinkles that too literal a translation can introduce. Spanish, for example, treats its adjectives very differently than English does, and approaching it literally can turn “the Spanish Mineworkers’ Union” into “the Union of the Workers of the Mines of Spain.” Accurate, perhaps, but it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue in English.
There are cultural factors, too: idioms, analogies, sensibilities. Translated literally, they’re likely to confuse readers. If a French character bemoans that “the carrots are cooked” (les carottes sont cuites), the English editor would be wise to substitute an English idiom with a similar meaning, like “that ship has sailed” or “no use crying over spilled milk.”
There’s also the question of length: if there’s a layout or other space constraint, does the translated text fit? Some texts get much shorter when translated into English (Romance languages, for example); others, like Chinese, grow much longer.
And those lost clevernesses Cervantes mentioned? Depending on what the translation is for (is it literary? an advertisement? an instruction manual?), the translator may decide to take some liberties and produce a text that’s less literal but incorporates a similar sense of wordplay or humor or invokes a similar mood. If so, does the text produce the intended effect? Are the jokes funny? Is the style similar? Classicist Emily Wilson, in the preface to her translation of The Odyssey, describes capturing Homer’s moods, images, and metaphor, but “in a style that echoes the rhythms and phrases of contemporary anglophone speech.” It is (so to speak) an epic task.
If you’re interested in learning more about editing translated text—not to mention localization, transcreation, and monolingual texts with large foreign-language lexicons—I hope you’ll join me for the Master Class “Editing Translations” on December 13, 2018, where we’ll discuss all this and more.