lundi 27 mai 2013

More on language

I watched « The Interpreter » last night. A good, sophisticated story and I was impressed that the crew was able to film in the real United Nations. What really spoke to me in the movie was how the Nicole Kidman character, who plays a UN translator, viewed the sanctity and power of the languages she worked in. There were some quotable lines which, sadly, I did not note down quickly enough to remember.

I work primarily in one language—English—during my day job. But I have a second job as a freelance translator where my brain toggles between French and English (I translate both towards and away from the target language) continually as I work. I translate in two specialty areas: the pharmaceutical industry and technical manuals for software (which is the height of irony, considering what a non-geek I am). Both areas demand critical accuracy (if I were to mistake “voie rectale” for “voie orale”, the patient would be in big trouble) although I would opine that translating technical prose is a little less demanding, due to the amount of repetition these manuals consist of.

The real challenge and satisfaction for any interpreter or translator is when we are able to perform the language shift, in the Jakobson sense, of manipulating not only the words (the signifiers) but (and more importantly) the intent (the signified) that exists beneath, behind and inside the logical and grammatical structures of the source language. This is much more complex than it seems to the layperson, for it demands a thorough knowledge of both the source and target culture’s history, politics, and gender dynamics, to name only three domains any good translator has to be able to reference.

Take the example of a simple French word, gare. Translated into English as “train station” what do those two words signify? If you are an average American, “train station” will evoke architecture of another century, of an earlier America. You might even include, in your mental image, a station master checking a pocket watch and shouting “all aboard!” If you are young, you may have never boarded a train in your life, and therefore would have an even more-removed and antiquated simulacrum of what a train station is, fed by media and Harry Potter films.

But for the French, whose country’s arteries are made of steel, the word gare connotes nothing but another of their daily objects. Its appearance in a text is not remarkable and does not send the reader into a wistful daydream of a bygone era. (Let me specify here that I am talking about veritable train stations, and not subway or commuter train stations.) The meaning of that simple word is something completely different when considered within the cultural context.

I don’t think sanctity of language is limited to the fields of interpretation and translation. I know that even working in the monolingual sphere, I often have difficulty making what I want to say become what my listener hears. So when you are reading my blog and thinking “what in the world could she possibly mean by that?” just chalk it up to a grand misalignment of symbols, signs and referents. In pop culture terms, I’m Venus and you might be Mars.

3 commentaires:

  1. I love language. I took French for years and years in high school and college, but I didn't really take it seriously. I wish I had now. :(

    I would like, at some point, to take French again. To me, it's such a beautiful language and it always makes me feel...I dunno...classy. ;)

  2. Languages are so, so fascinating. I minored in Japanese in college (trying to brush up on it again at the moment) and I'm learning French. It's so frustrating and enjoyable at the same time!

    Love your post.

  3. I love this, I translate too and I'm always fascinated by the creativity involved in even the simplest translations. So many ways to get it wrong - my pet peeve is staying too close to the original, it takes such a lot of mental agility to really find the exact parallel in the other language, usually quite far from the original. Pleased to have found your blog!