Translators should always keep in mind the purpose of translation
By Cao Minglun
I still remember when I was in middle school I was reading the classic short story “Magi’s Gift” by O. Henry according to translation in the 50s, however I was not able to understand one of the sentence in the last paragraph, especially the last part. It wrote: “Since they are wise, their gifts certainly are clever, therefore it may also come with some kind of right to be able to exchange by receiving the same thing.” I asked privately a Chinese teacher that has only just got back to the podium, but although the persecution of the Culture Revolution has lightened a bit, the door towards the outside is still closed, the teacher who didn’t have much understanding on American culture could not answer my question indeed. It’s not until that I mastered English myself when I finally cleared up this puzzle. In recent years I saw some new translation of that sentence, such as “as they are smart people, with no doubt their gift will be a clever one, and if you run into exactly the two same things, they may also have the rights to exchange”, or “As human beings are wise, with no doubt that their gift is their wisdom, and it may also bring a qualified acceptance of feedback.” Although the translation and readers has been renewed for a whole generation, but I am sure that up till now, readers who read O. Henry according to the new translation will still get confused like the author experienced in those years.
So I thought of a question: in nowadays which is nearly half a century later, despite translation theory becomes more and more advanced, translation principles become more and more scientific and there’ve been more and more translation skills system, the development of the translation quality, though, seems does not match with the development of the theory, principles and techniques. The possible reason of which is because some translators neglect the purpose of translation when they focus on theories, principles and techniques. Some are even just “translating for translation’s sake”. So that the author find it necessary to remind the beginners that while we are exploring the theory, principles and skills, we’ll have to bear in mind the purpose of translation, which is to let the readers that do not understand the source language get to know, understand and appreciate the ideological content and text style (first in meaning and secondly in style) of the target language after reading your translation. In view of this, even though the author this time is trying to translate fragments out of the famous American writer Willa Cather’s masterpiece “ah, pioneer!”, and although the translation of this fragment can be discussed from a cultural, historical or stylistic point of view, the author finally decided to talk about from the perspective of purpose of the translation.
Needless to say, if beginners translate by themselves this fragment before referring to the reference translation, it’s most likely that they will translate the “our half-sections” in the 5th paragraph as “half of our sections” like some of the translation that has been published. And translate this paragraph “We borrow the money for six years. Well, with the money we buy a half-section from Linstrum and a half from Crow, and a quarter from Struble, maybe. That will give us upwards of fourteen hundred acres, won’t it?” out of the 8th paragraph spoken by the heroine as “We borrow the money for six years. Well, with the money we buy half of the land of Linstrum an also half from Crow, and maybe also a quarter from Struble. That will give us upwards of fourteen hundred aceres, won’t it?” But such translation is sure to confuse the readers, because here the 3 “half-sections” and 1 “a quarter” is an uncertain amount, so how to tell for sure that they’ll add up to over 1400 acres? Besides, the novel has confessed that the people who was willing to sell the land is to give back to the Wild and go back to eastern city to make a living, then how will they only sell a half or a quarter of the land? So we can tell that there must be some problems in translating the “half-section” and “quarter section”.
(To be continued)