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Brief Discussion on the Important Quality for a Translator

“What do you think is the most important quality for a translator?” I’ve been asked the question for several times. “Carefulness.” I answered. It’s true that to be careful is very important in translation, especially when we come across numbers. If we’re not careful or are half-hearted, we may miss the important details, or mistranslate numbers. But now, I think it’s not the “carefulness” the most important quality we possess in translation, but our command of both English and Chinese. In other words, we’ve got to grasp English and Chinese essence and use them fluently, to be a qualified translator.

Being as a “professional” translator for a total of two years, I’ve seen and translated much “translationese” myself. For example, what I found in the translation version of Steve Jobs: A Biography:

他能够在苹果的DNA中融入设计的敏感、完美主义和想象力,使之很可能,甚至此后几十年,都是在艺术与科技的交汇处成长得最茁壮的公司。

The original is:

And he was able to infuse into its DNA the design sensibilities, perfectionism, and imagination that make it likely to be, even decades from now, the company that thrives best at the intersection of artistry and technology.

When we read the Chinese version, we may feel uncomfortable about “苹果的DNA” and “使之很可能,甚至此后几十年”. It’s not authentic Chinese, but a word-for-word translation. Even if we know that Steve Jobs is a great man, we may lose interest in continuing reading the unintelligible book. Let’s see a better version:

他把设计的感性、完美主义和想象力,都注入这家公司的基因,所以在数十年后,这家公司很有可能继续在人文与科技的交会口发展、茁壮,成为最成功的一家公司。

This is aTaiwanversion; it is more literary and better for understanding.

More examples: for “family member”, “家人” is better than “家庭成员”; for “they are good questions”,  “这些问题问的好” is better than “它们是都好问题”,etc.

English is a structural language, fine works of which often uses lots of long sentences with many clauses to express the meaning without disorder; while Chinese stresses less in grammar, and uses sentences with clear logic relations, it tends to use short sentences and adopts a freely flowing style of writing. The two languages are of completely different styles.

All in all I want to prove here is that a well command of Chinese and English is the most important thing in translation. To achieve this, we’ve got to understand the original language first and write down the meaning in target language, as the two are so different from each other. If we translate word for word, the reader may feel uncomfortable and get confused about what you mean. To translate a masterpiece is easier said than down. It requires us not only lots of editing and modifications to the completed work, but also profound cultural knowledge about the two languages. We need a strong willpower and a lot of reading and practice. Let’s get started now!

 

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