Published: February 6, 2009 (Issue # 1446)
Hey, all you translators out there — ever notice that the people writing about translation are mostly people who have never translated a word in their lives?
I can’t figure it out. A dance critic may never have danced Giselle, but he knows something about the art of dance.
Translation theorists don’t seem to have ever tried rendering a text into another language. In fact, they might tell you — in the words of one memorable theorist — “the text doesn’t exist at all.” Try telling that to your client.
Translation theory gets screwy on the subject of “translatable” and “untranslatable” words. Since there are no exact equivalencies between languages, nothing is really translatable.
And since it’s all relative anyway, nothing is really untranslatable. Oh, right. Tell that to a translator who has spent the afternoon on one word that defies translation.
Take, for example, the lovely word îòêîñ. If you are buying new windows for your Russian apartment, you will be offered the service of îòäåëêà îòêîñîâ — finishing work on the something-or-others. You flip open your dictionary and find that îòêîñ is a slope, which doesn’t fit. Then you open specialized dictionaries and find jamb and reveal.
Then you open your English architectural dictionaries and read definitions like “the outer side of a window frame.”
Then you smoke three cigarettes trying to envision the outer side of a window frame.
By now you have figured out that in deep-set Russian windows, îòêîñ is the inner wall stretching vertically from the sill to the top of the window enclosure and horizontally from the window to the room wall.
You have also realized that the windows in your U.S. home don’t have any îòêîñ because the walls are a measly five centimeters thick and the windows are set flush into them.
In desperation, you start calling English-speaking friends who might know something about architecture.
By this time the sun has set, you’re not taking calls from your client, and it’s time for another cigarette run (and since it’s after 5 p.m., make that a cigarette and booze run). Finally, you decide that whatever an English-speaking architect would call îòêîñ, a nonspecialist would call it the “inner wall of a recessed window.”
You hate it, but you have just calculated that, due to one word, you are now earning 14 cents an hour for this translation. You type it in, attach the translation to an e-mail, and hit “send.”
And then you curse translation theorists down to the 12th generation.
Then you fantasize about making one of those theorists translate your window company text.
— Michele A. Berdy