Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Cap guns and translation/Le pistolet à amorces et la traduction

"A cap gun or cap pistol is a toy gun...

As I was reflecting upon the mechanism of translation, I remembered how fascinated I had been, when around the age 8 or 10, I received a cap pistol for Christmas. In addition to the novelty of the item and the noise it could make, I was immediately intrigued by how it worked. I had noticed several screws in the metal and proceeded to take the gun apart, revealing the springs, ratchets, and magazine for the cap tape. Over the next while, I attempted many times to put the gun back together, without success. Finally, one day, things fell literally into place and I was able to put the gun back together.

I am realizing that translation is a bit like that too, and that may be the reason that I like it so much. Indeed, one has to completely understand the message, be able to recognize its component parts, be able to see how they work with each other, and then put (back) a translated original, making sure that the parts are similar, that they work together properly, and that the whole piece holds together.

In commercial translation, one does not always have the leisure of unlimited time but a conscientious translator will demand and allow enough time to disassemble, analyze and assemble the piece again. Machine translation can remember the parts, can line them together but so far has been unable to reason and therefore to think things through.

I have read about machine translations from English to German or Danish, which stick to the English syntax (word order), therefore completely taking the German or the Danish "spirit” out of the text. It is this feeling that one has reading some of the recent translations from Chinese into English. The words are there but the meaning has been missed. Do you wish to send out messages without "feeling"? Hire a machine, it will be fast and cheap and the reader will probably be insulted. Great for repeat business!

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