Subject-matter knowledge is not just “important” to translation. It’s the very essence of translation.
Buried deep in the bedrock of every profession are certain truths that are universally understood and accepted by modern practitioners. In medicine, for example, those include a recognition that the human body exists in a physical universe subject to the laws of science and not to a fictitious universe of mysterious spirits accessible to the chosen, pre-ordained few, a concept that had dominated human medicine for millennia.
As a result, medical doctors strolling through a cocktail party today would never encounter questions from their friends, patients or colleagues about the effectiveness of specific spells, incantations or charms in their medical practice. Mysticism and superstition in medicine have been duly and effectively discarded in the proverbial dustbin of history.
Not so for translation.
We translators can spend decades of rigorous effort in the lead-up to our translation careers – and certainly during such careers – developing the crucial subject-matter expertise essential to the translation enterprise.
This process involves learning highly complex concepts in science, technology, philosophy, law, finance, business, music and dozens of other fields through immersion in the lab, lecture hall, classroom, production line, fabrication plant, trading floor or boardroom.
This prolonged effort is crucial to our ability to precisely convey all these concepts across language barriers.
But no matter how many fields we master as translators, awaiting us at that same cocktail party will be the eternal question that has been asked of translators since the Tower of Babel:
“How many languages do you speak?”
It’s a question that suggests an innocent, almost whimsical notion of translation as a low-stress career of light reflection, picked up effortlessly while flipping through phrase books and sipping sweet tea in the afternoon shade.
The reality is rather more sobering. In my case, for example, I’d arrive at such parties after having worked out certain issues in my translation work such as the principles underlying optical excitation of Rayleigh waves by interband light absorption or coherent acoustic resistance to an electron-hole plasma or approaches to calculating the electronic structure of alloys.
So my response to this friendly question of “how many languages do you speak?” would be a bit playful and would always be delivered with a smile:
“I speak science.”
Words or ideas?
It’s not the fault of our polite party-goer asking the “how many languages” question, since it’s just an attempt to strike up a friendly conversation.
And there’s no help from our culture, either – especially in the U.S. – where translators are looked upon with deep suspicion as these bizarre mythological creatures of ambiguous progeny whose field of endeavor is certainly trivial and should have been rendered mute by automated translation decades ago.
At the core of this fallacy is the ancient and somewhat quaint notion that translation is just about language – about words.
This can’t be true, though, because language itself isn’t even about words. The words of language are just the symbols we manipulate to paint meaning into our world — to project pictures that convey the underlying message, concept or idea.
So translators do not translate languages or words. They translate ideas.
And in today’s commercial translation market, that means we translate the ideas of people who are deeply invested in some highly complicated activities and are willing to pay us to convey them.
A solitary focus on language
What happens if a translator understands the languages, but not the ideas? How do those translations work out in the real world?
Short answer: Catastrophically.
The translation world today appears to be overflowing with novice (but certainly well-meaning) translators flailing about in dangerous waters infested with their own conceptual blindness. This is an inevitable outcome of the persistent and wrongheaded solitary focus on language to the exclusion of content.
It’s why students entering translation studies programs would be well advised to learn a great deal about the world before attempting to investigate ways to convey that knowledge – which is exactly what translation is – lest they end up conveying a disturbing and very costly lack of knowledge, an outcome that embarrasses both the novice translator and the poor unsuspecting client who, after all, thinks translation is just a matter of “speaking a foreign language.”
Russian has no words for that
One of my favorite stories that nicely illustrates this dilemma originated in an inquiry we once received from a U.S. manufacturer of a water purification system based on a novel yet straightforward technology that they wished to sell in Russia. The company had hired a translator – a Russian woman – to translate their technical documentation from English into Russian. They were getting nowhere with this approach and called me up to see if I could determine why.
“Every time we give her documentation to translate she says ‘Russian has no words for any of that,’” the manager told me. “Then she gets on the phone and speaks Russian all day with her friends. I don’t understand how she can speak that much Russian and not be able to translate what we need her to,” he said. “Is it true that Russian has no words for water purification?”
I assured him that Russian has a highly sophisticated technical lexicon, and in any event, it was unlikely that the language of Mendeleev – the author of the Periodic Table of Elements, after all – would prove utterly helpless in the face of reverse osmosis.
It was certainly possible that this woman was simply unaware of the technology (or was feigning ignorance of it), but in practice her apparent complete lack of any technical awareness was derailing the company’s efforts for reasons having nothing to do with language.
Line or link?
A more problematic case are translations that describe a world that doesn’t, can’t or will never exist.
And that happens because the translator doesn’t have the real-world knowledge to know what doesn’t, can’t or will never exist.
There are countless thousands of examples of this phenomenon. One is the word “liniya” in Russian, which means a physical telephone line such as a hard-wired copper landline. Unfortunately, the exact same Russian word also means a radio link to a remote terminal, satellite or cell tower, which is what cellphones use.
The only way to know which is correct is to possess the most rudimentary knowledge of telecommunications.
Alas, there never seems to be a limit to the English translations of this word that describe a world in which a physical copper wire is magically soldered to a satellite orbiting at an altitude of 42,000 kilometers.
It’s certainly true that even the most experienced, careful and knowledgeable translators will find themselves in uncertain subject-matter territory at various points throughout their careers. It’s one of the many reasons to involve an expert colleague with greater subject-matter expertise in the review process while getting up to speed on technical concepts – a process that can and does take years.
In the event that I’ve failed to be convincing up to this point, consider again the title of this blog post:
Translation is not about words. It’s about what the words are about.
The message here is that translation is about meaning, not about words. To illustrate this idea, I use the same words in both sentences.
The only reason the meaning conveys is that the sentences are in different frames of reference. It’s the meaning underlying those frames of reference that delivers the idea.