What Translators Can and Can’t Do

posterfix-449x700I watched “Arrival” this weekend. For the uninitiated, it is a movie about aliens arriving on Earth and the world’s attempts at communicating with them. The main character, Louise Banks, is supposedly one of the best linguists in the world, a translator whose work has greatly helped the United States, and naturally she is recruited to translate the alien language. Whether I liked this movie or not is besides the point, what I want to address in this post is the portrayal of Loiuse.

While I’m absolutely thrilled that there’s a movie that paints us translators as the real MVPs (because let’s face it, we’re not the most exciting bunch around), and sheds light on the importance of languages… during run time, I was just thinking, “Um. That’s… not how translation works?” Now that some time has passed since I watched it, I think I can finally put my finger down on what was bothering me.

Translators can translate one language into the other, provided that they do know both languages before hand. 

Translators cannot translate a language that, until two days ago, had not existed and there is no record of it anywhere. They cannot be expected to translate anything that is given to them. They are not walking dictionaries, for goodness sake. I was absolutely baffled when the MC was approached with some voice recording and asked to translate it. Like… are you even for real?  Continue reading

Lost in Translation.

No, I’m not talking about the movie; I just thought it was high time I talked about my field of expertise. What brought this up now? An excellent translation of a German novel that made me wonder whether I would’ve enjoyed the story as much if I’d read it in its main language, and a translation of a Swedish novel that is supposedly hilarious but has so far failed to make me crack a smile.

Back in university, the one thing professors often drilled into us was that translators are mirrors. A good translator would create a perfect reflection of the source text in a different language, while a bad translator might just as well be doodling all over the mirror with a black felt-tip pen. I may not have much experience under my belt, but I do recognize a bad mirror when I see one. Continue reading