Apparently universities all over the U.S. are starting to offer translation and interpretation services without providing any training to students on the science, art, craft (or whatever else you decide to call it) of translation. Nor is there an interest in training. At a recent conference on the ethics of translation at UMass-Amherst, participants pointed out that the gap between theory and practice is also on the rise on a global scale, where translators (if trained at all) are often certified after a non-intensive 6-week course that covers basic techniques such as “mapping” or consistency in translating the same word. It is of interest to note that many of these instant professional translators are sent to war zones, the U.N., to courts, to places where accuracy is key, and ethics are perhaps even more key.
Why are ethics key? Translators are always caught between two or more camps and they must be prepared to negotiate between their personal views, what is expected of them via a contract/commission, and they need to realize that they are always asked to do the impossible: to find equivalent words between two languages, so that text one means the same thing as text 2 as is received by the audience in the same way. Basically, the untrained translator is doomed to fail, and in that failure he/she may start doing things without a plan, things that can backfire and have “real” consequences for people and entire groups of people.
Do we need theory?
The logic seems intact: better trained translators will make better informed translations, and the world will be a safer place to live in. But there are holes that need to be addressed and responded to: we need to openly look a the other side to create a recorded dialogue on the topic.
The first hole appears in relation to theory. College-student translators and professors of translation, folks enrolled in one of the few translation studies programs in the U.S. or somehow connected to those programs, seem to defend theory and theorizing translation. The idea is that you can’t be a good translator if you don’t explore the theory, the position of the translator, the roles that the translator has played in shaping literary and cultural systems, in fashioning change. Likewise, you can’t be a good translator if you don’t reflect on the ethics of translation; if you don’t constantly remind yourself that you might be doing violence to a text or a language or a culture. Simply stated, you ned to know the implications of your translation, your location, and your position in order to put out “ethical”, good translations.
But my first question is, can we recognize this and then move on? And more importantly, is insisting upon theory/theorizing our discipline making translation an exclusive practice? Is saying that people should equip themselves with theory also saying, “you really need to go to school and ‘get white/Western’ in order to do this”? Is demanding a role for theory filtering out the people who really should be translating — those from the so-called “margins” whose lived experiences have trained them at negotiating between camps far better than any university could do — those who have a “real” command over multiple languages and the ways those languages are used on a daily basis?
Bridging the gap between theory and practice sounds like a good project, but is there an edge of classism, racism, and arrogance in that call?
Jacob Dyer-Spiegel @ www.lenguamente.com (2008)