If you’re reading this blog you may already know things about translation and interpreting and therefore this post might be obvious for you. Or maybe you don’t know anything about these subjects, because you’re a “dancing reader”.
Anyway, I am here to write about reverse translation and interpretation. You know, it’s this thing when you write a translation or produce a speech from your mother-tongue into one of the languages you have learnt during your life. In my case, this would be reading in Spanish and translating into English, French, German or whatever. And the same when it comes to interpreting: I listen to a speech in Spanish and I talk in French or English (I can’t even think of German in this case).
I just want you to know that… this thing exists, and it has a name, but it shouldn’t. Translators and interpreters work with their mother-tongue as an active language, and the rest are their passive languages. This means that they should always translate and interpret into their own language (in my case, into Spanish). I am fully aware that this is not exactly how the real world works, but I also know that it is what happens in most cases.
Why am I telling you this? Well, because, as a student of Translation and Interpreting, I have been asked more than once to translate things into English or French. Or even worse: FROM English TO French. My first reaction to this is usually something like: “wait, you want me to do WHAT?” and then I explode in rage, saying that I can’t do that, that it is impossible and blah, blah, blah. My “client” would say things like: “but why not?! You’re almost a translator, aren’t you?” So my second reaction is: “oh, ok. You don’t know WHY I can’t do that!” Because I DO speak many languages. I do, and you know it. You know I can read books in other languages. You know that I can go to a foreign country and speak with the people and that I can listen to the radio in there and understand it! Yes, I can. Wow, that’s awesome, yeah! Well, let me then explain why I can’t do the work you’re asking me to do.
- When you're doing a reverse translation (or interpretation) you are never completely sure of what you are writing (or saying). When you’re writing your own essay in a foreign language, you will surely find difficulties, but you can overcome them by writing something different or by not writing anything at all. But wait! What happens when it is a translation? You can’t change what the original text said, and obviously eliminating sentences is not advisable at all! So what do you do? See? You have to find a way to solve the problem, and it can obviously not be the best option. Actually, and using my little experience, I can almost assure you that it WON’T be the best option. From a native’s eyes, there is always room for improvement!
- If you really care about doing your translation properly, you will have to check EVERY SINGLE SENTENCE out. I have read a ba-zillion novels in French and I am pretty sure I can speak and write it quite well. But still, I need to check out everything I write. I have to make researches of frequency simply to make sure if I’m right. Even in those (rare) cases when I KNOW I am right, there’s always a tiny, minuscule possibility of being wrong. What do I do? I google!
- You will never, ever be able to know a foreign language as well as a native speaker. They grew up with it. They read their first books in that language and their parents and teachers taught them everything using that language. They will always be able to find this “something” in your text which just doesn’t “sound right”.
- Oh, and the culture! What is the culture you know best? Yours, isn’t it? And you don’t even know everything about it. Haven’t you heard some days ago an expression in your own language that you had never heard before? Well, I have. Many of them, actually! And I also learnt a word that people use in Extremadura, but not in León. Translation and Interpreting are about expressing ideas in other languages, not just words. You have to be perfectly capable of understanding your own culture. What if there is a sentence without connotations in a language but you know it will surely offend someone if you keep it with the same words in the target language? Or even worse: what if you DON’T know that it will offend someone?
- This one is related to interpreting. The situation is even worse when you are interpreting, and so much worse when it’s simultaneous interpreting. People with more than one first language are very rare. If you have two, it means that you have the same level of knowledge in both languages. And if you are an interpreter, you have to know your first language(s) very well, so you should be able to speak in different registers without much trouble. If you only have one active language (like normal people who are not interpreting gods), it will be very difficult for you to produce a correct speech in a foreign language, because you won’t really have time to wonder if what you’re saying is completely right or not!
- And finally, translators are not human dictionaries, ok?! So stop asking them how to say lenocinio, palimpsesto and oclorancia in English; because they might not even know that they are in Spanish! They are not human dictionaries: they are humans that know which dictionaries to use!
I hope things are clearer now!
PS.: I’m not even going to tell you how many times I have used the dictionary or Google to write this blogpost. And I know there are mistakes. I’m so sure of it! ;)