Sunday, May 11, 2008

Translation and Interpretation

The field of translation and interpretation can be very challenging. Interpreters and translators need to ensure that their words are easily understood and that they convey the meaning of the original language. Besides the words of the original language, they must also concern themselves with the proper level of formality, politeness and emphasis.

No two languages are identical but the more similar two languages are to one another, the easier it is to translate/interpret from one to another. Many translators and interpreters agree that it is easier to translate and interpret from English to French and vice-versa than it is from English to Russian and vice-versa. The reason is that English and French are more similar to one another than either is one is to Russian. Closely-related languages such as Norwegian and Swedish, Italian and Spanish and Czech and Slovak are much easier to work with than distantly-related languages such as English and Hindi, German and Polish, and Icelandic and Portuguese.

The most difficult material to translate and interpret must be poetry and jokes. Poetry is difficult because literary devices such as rhyme, rhythm and alliteration are often language-specific. Jokes are often difficult to translate because many involve puns which are also language-specific. For example, the pun "Seven days without water makes one week" plays with the word "week" which has the same pronunciation as the word "weak". This pun can mean that seven days comprise one week but also that a person who goes without water for seven days becomes weak. Such a pun only works in English.

Translation and interpretation are challenging because words have multiple meanings. The German philsopher Max Freude once said, "Nur im Zusammenhang des Satzes bedeuten die Wo:rter etwas". This means: "Only in the context of the sentence do the words mean something." The English word "fish" applies to both the live and dead animal, but in Spanish "pez" refers to a live fish and "pescado" to a dead one. The word used depends on the context.

Two techniques which translators and interpreters use are compensation and paraphrase. For example, many languages have a formal and informal second person singular you. English, however, does not. To compensate, translators and interpreters may add a formal title such as "sir" and "madam" to convey politeness or use informal words such as "hi" to convey informality and friendliness. In the case of an expression for which the target language has no equivalent, translators and interpreters may paraphrase. The Portuguese language has the word "saudade" which has no exact English equivalent. It can be paraphrased as the feeling of missing a person who has left.

It is often the case that one language has more specific vocabulary than another. The English word "sibling" has no equivalent in Dutch. Thus, the translator and interpreter would require more information to determine whether to use brother or sister. If they did not have the required information, they could simply use "brother or sister". Interpreters, unlike translators, have the advantage of being able to ask for more specific information on the spot. Translators, however, have the advantage of more time.

Machine translation, though it has greatly improved over the years, still has its problems. A well-known example involves the sentences "Time flies like an arrow" and "Fruit flies like an apple". The two sentences appear to be very similar but are in fact very different. The first one uses the verb "fly" and a simile expressed with the preposition "like". The second one uses the plural noun "flies" and the verb "like". Unfortunately, machine translation cannot account for these types of differences.

The best translators and interpreters require great skill. They know that they must consider much more than the meanings of the words themselves. This involves the level of formality, politeness and context. For those cases in which exact translation is insufficient, two techniques which they may use include compensation and paraphrase.

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