Sunday, 27 January 2013

Literal vs meaning-based translation

I belong to an email distribution list at work where government translators can pose questions or initiate discussions - technical or otherwise. Most of the questions/issues, unfortunately, belong to the 'otherwise' column not because they're frivolous (some questions and issues cut right into the heart of the profession) but because there is little appreciation of the more technical aspects of translation: elements of grammar, the historical developments of some terms (etymology), ideological issues...

There was a heated exchange recently after a question was posted of what to call the new GN (Government of Nunavut) department whose name in English is rendered as "Family Services" (what used to be called, Social Services). Some translators wanted a literal translation "services geared towards families" (or something roughly to that effect).

The problem, I pointed out, is that a literal translation of something like the old social services function would be highly disrespectful of those whose families have been broken up (ostensibly, in the interest of the child) with no real prospects of appeal, that many Inuit elders were against 'departmental adoptions' when no real efforts have ever been made to seek out solutions from and within the communities nor shown any respect to IQ practices (IQ = Inuit Knowledge and values).

The example above is kind of glaring but there are more subtle considerations that touch upon the very notions of 'literal vs meaning-based translation'. Often, the problem arises in literal-based translation simply for the lack of basic understanding of how grammatical elements work together to make sentences meaningful. Some translations rely upon dictionary entries, but without the ability to discern and navigate through multiple entries, the first entry is often used without regards to whether it is a noun, verb, adjective or adverb.

In an episode of the TV comedy show called, NewsRadio (super karate monkey death car), the proprietor has written a book that's become a best-seller in Japan so he's commissioned a translation from Japanese back to English to try and exploit the success of his book. His original title was: "Jimmy James, Capitalist Lion Tamer," but it's been back-translated as "Jimmy James, Macho Business Donkey Wrestler".

I've used this TV episode's example before in an earlier blog entry but in the context of an infamous Harper public policy announcement in Davos where no one outside of Canadians really knew anything of the back-story. Without context and awareness of the detailed discussion on the issue of old age pension, Harper's announcement would actually seem to make sense; but, we, in Canada, knew and know better. Much of the translated material in Nunavut has that same quality about it.

Things are either left unexplained in anything resembling satisfactory or a back-story is missing entirely. And it is not just translations of government documents in which this occurs, for it also happens daily in the Inuktitut version of the news. The insidious part of this type of practice is that analysis and contexting is missing. But how can anyone know something that was never brought up in the first place?

I'm not placing blame on anyone - let me be clear on that.

What I am criticizing is the system (the abstraction of our great homeland, Nunavut) and the lack of appreciation of cross-cultural communications' pitfalls from both sides. I'm a subscriber to the old linguistic principle that anything that a human being ever thought of is translatable into any other human language (to varying degrees of success, of course, but the principle applies and has in my mind and awareness proven largely successful). This principle requires a bi-cultural awareness and appreciation of linguistic subtleties (ideology, class/social systems, political values and agendas, philosophical outlook, etc.) inherent in all human languages.

In my long, storied career as a policy analyst for various Inuit organizations and the GN itself, I acquired a nasty reputation of being 'difficult to work with' and a rogue, basically. That my reputation worked for the 'other side' never really helped the Inuit cause, for which I'm truly sorry. I'm a hot-head and impatient to begin with...

Now, when I see the monster rearing its ugly head, I try and steer clear of its line of sight, though I have to be more careful as a couple of close-calls with some of the participants in the distribution list have illustrated to me.

I had a very interesting discussion the other day with two colleagues of mine stemming from another issue that arose from skeptical questioning from another colleague who was absent then (which I tried to avoid largely from self-interest and selfish considerations, I'm ashamed to admit). I felt safe in bringing it up in the present company because I knew without a doubt that they'd understand where I was coming from. I brought out a technical issue that I thought was missing in much of the translation discourse: appreciation of "first principles" as the basis of a given discourse.

It's the knowledge of first principles that have generated the best viable terminology in acquired technologies and know-how of Inuit: whether it be hunting equipment or engines and parts that Inuit require in hunting or making clothes. This practice and its principles can be applied to other areas of what I call, non-indigenous know-how (legal, politics, health&medical knowledge, science and mathematics, anything really).

In translation work these 'new' concepts can easily be explained properly in foot-noting or generation of glossary of neologistic terms at the end of a given document. The trick is appealing to first principles to make the discourse logically productive and contextually consistent. Being a translator is not just having a job, it is nothing less that educating oneself on the underlying structures of the discourse and building up an appreciation of the given discourse's historical developments the better to convey its depth and reason for existing.


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