Purpose of Translation part I


Translation is linked with an awareness of democratic potential: it is a weapon against obscurantism, the realization that the material, social and cultural inequalities often associated with ethnic and linguistic group as have to be at least drastically reduced. And so you have Canada, Spain, related to free interlinguistic communication, and the publication of their statures in all their national languages.

And so you have the North-South gap, the need for developing countries not only to assert the written expression of their own languages (all countries are more or less multilingual) but also to determine the role of languages of international communication as a means of importing aid (Band Aid, Sport Aid, exam aid – it must multiply). And so you have the problems of Nigeria, Malaysia, India vis-à-vis English, particularly when Tamils support English against Hindi and some Catalans even support English against Castilian Spanish.

And so you have the formation of world-wide, continental and regional organizations, the official as important as the counter-official, such as Amnesty International, all dependent on translation and interpretation for the conduct of their affairs.

It is a long way – but it is only about 50 years – from the time when translation was largely an activity of literary scholars catering for a cultural and leisured readership remote from the market-place. The millennial discussions about the difficulties of translation – inadequacies, impossibilities, splendours, miseries, treacheries, artificialities, complexities – still persist but they are pathetic, confined to a restricted though important field: authoritative, philosophical, literary texts.

Read Also: Trans – Purpose of Translation part II

The new element now is the why, what grounds, for what purpose is a translation required? I’m not saying that the ‘why’ is more important than the ‘what’ – the function than the substance – the now fashionable view of some translation theorists and clients particularly in West Germany.

One dosen’t normally translate Messer, Kolnisch-Wasser, Lufthansa adequately as a ‘cutting-tool’, ‘a freshener’, ‘the German airline’; this suppression of the substances leaves the way open for all kinds of ambiguities. What remains true is that in time but not in importance, function comes first, and is always easier to specify than substance or essence, which maybe culturally bound.

I have often defined the two purposes of translation as accuracy and economy, begging the obvious question of whether accuracy refers to the content of the source language text or the true facts of the matter, or even the sub-text, the intended effect on the reader. What I now want to propose and re-order are the five wider purposes of translation, and then to relate them to translating.

The first purpose is to contribute to understanding and peace between nations, groups and individuals. Note that this formulation puts more emphasis on the pragmatic than on the referential component of translation – the effect on the readership, the manner, the style, which is scoffed at by many technical translators – the difference between the neutral and the polarized sense.

More concretely, it means that however a word such as “sack” may be disguised as: “rationalisation”, “redundancy” “getting rid of the fat” ”early retirement” ”voluntary severance” – at the receiving end, the sack is the sack and neither sacquer nor sabrer nor rausschmeissen has the same sickening effect – the unique monosyllabic English deverbal noun.

The second purpose of translation is to transmit knowledge in plain, appropriate and accessible language, in particular in relation to technology transfer – defining technology not in the old sense of applied science, but as all the means and knowledge used to provide objects necessary for human sustenance and comfort.

This is the most obvious task of the translator, the dragoman, as the indispensable concomitant of trade, barter, free exchange, gifts – first mentioned separately in the literature by Schleiermacher. This should be seen as the translator’s routine occupation, validated in a healthy international community by commercial and co-operative treaties where, since law comes into it, translation problems immediately multiply.

The third purpose is to explain and mediate between cultures on the basis of a common humanity, respecting their strengths, implicitly exposing their weaknesses. This does not necessarily mean translating every cultural expression by its cultural or functional equivalent.

It means at least an awareness of the irrationality of attributing good or bad human qualities to animals, e.g. dragons, Chinese or European, of the possibility of administering beneficial as well as injurious cultural shock through literal translation, which can expose irrational customs as well as pretentious language; for a Soviet, ‘social life’ means ‘Party work’; in chinese ‘how are you’ is a straight enquiry after a person’s health and ‘how old are you’, ‘what do you do, how much do you earn, are you married’ are all questions which may open up a normal conversation.

Language can conceal crimes with generic words/euphemisms such as ‘organise’, but literal translation canshow up the depths of one nation’s culture by converting it into words where emotions that have no target language connotations are exposed in their absurdity and grotesqueness. You can see this when you consider the macho and manly language devoted say to boxing or even horse-racing.

Respecting a people is paramount, but its culture cannot be respected in the same sense, it may be vicious in one particular or another. There can be something sobering and human in translating the excessive cultural expressions of one language into the less besotted language of another through literal translation.

The fourth ancient purpose is to translate the world’s great books, the universal works in which the human spirit is enshrined and lives: poetry, ogy, sociology and politics, of individual and social behavior. These are the works which, in principle, should be retranslated for each generation, where the universal outweighs the cultural. Yet here the translator has to resist the temptation to be too explicit, to reduce the metaphor, the symbol, the connotation, to sense; the translation, like the original, is written to delight as well as to instruct.

The fifth purpose is as a general aid or as a skill required in the acquisition of a foreign language.

Needless to say, these five purposes, which may be crudely summarized as the political, the technological, the cultural, the artistic and the pedagogical, may overlap, and indeed converge in the translation of this or that text. Further, it would seem peculiarly pointless to rank them in any order; the technological, sometimes the political, may be more urgent, the artistic the more enduring, at one time or another, all may be equally important.

(to be continued)