Collecting Rent in the Tower of Babel

tower of babel

illustration ©Simon and Schuster
(used with permission)

There are some people who think that translators and interpreters are at worst a nuisance and at best a necessary evil; many a businessmen and lawyer have asked questions about the possible advent of automated translation and interpreting systems.

One of the few fortunate polyglots, the writer Nabokov, wrote, only half in jest:

What is a translation? On a platter

A poet’s pale and glaring head;

A parrots screech, a monkey’s chatter,

A profanation of the dead.

Yet it is likely that, even with all the recent advances in voice recognition and machine translation, translators and interpreters are here to stay. Why? One of the more notorious examples of machine mistranslation is the computer rendering of the proverb, “Out of sight, out of mind” as “Blind idiot”.

Not that human translators are always faultless. One often cited example is the allegedly faulty rendering of the message from the Japanese War Cabinet to the US government during the Second World War. Apparently, the conciliatory and polite undertones of the Japanese message were totally lost in translation. What came next was Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

President Carter’s interpreter’s faux pas during a trip to Poland is another example etched into the annals of interpreting history. The “longing” for friendship with the Polish people was rendered as “lusting”. It was particularly embarrassing after Carter’s disclosure in his interview with the Playboy magazine that he was prone to an occasional lascivious thought.

In this perfectly imperfect world, interpreters and translators are sometimes required to do much more than faithfully translate someone’s occasionally confused utterings into another tongue. For politicians, interpreter can be a buffer against a careless slip of the tongue, or, if need be, even a convenient scapegoat.

It is well-known that in the pre-perestroika days Soviet interpreters had a fairly free hand in shaping their politicians’ speeches, in order to make them more acceptable. Of course, they were occasionally caught red-handed, as it happened during Brezhnev’s visit to London, when a glaring mistranslation was detected by the watchful fellows from the Russian Service of the BBC, who listened to the broadcast interview.

But even at the best of times interpreting may sometime present a conflict between etiquette and fidelity.

I recall how once in California, a visiting Soviet surgeon tried to defend the political apathy on the part of the majority of Soviet scientists by claiming that they were simply too busy with science to worry about politics. His blunt American host retorted by saying, “This is the biggest load of bullshit I have ever heard in my life”. The apprehensive face of the Soviet visitor, who pretended to be so obtuse only because he did not want to lose his privilege of foreign travel, the smell of the Alaskan salmon baking in the kitchen, and the generally genteel atmosphere of the preceding discussion militated against literal translation of the host’s ungracious outburst. Yet, I did translate the mood, if not the literal language, of his remark. The interpreter is not the keeper of his clients’ peace of mind–or the flow of other guests’ digestive juices.

One of the more daunting assignments I had faced was interpreting during a conference of the American and Soviet writers at a resort on the US West Coast. The conference was attended by a number of leading US academics whose profession obviously included linguistic nitpicking.

During the first hour I saw how the bilingual participants at the conference were frantically flicking channels on their headsets, trying to compare the original with the translation. However, at the end of the day, I felt greatly relieved when a formidable looking white-haired female professor of literature from one of the East Coast universities came to me and confessed that she preferred to listen to my Russian translation of one of her colleagues’ speeches (he happened to come from a rival university), rather than the original. “I never knew that he could be made to sound so lucid–in any tongue,” she confessed without the slightest trace of malice in her voice.

Of course, sometime an original turn of phrase or a pun is too tricky to translate “on the fly”. Once, during a discussion on Freud, an American psychologist came up with a limerick that he thought his Soviet colleagues would enjoy.

Young men who frequent picture palaces

Have no use for psychoanalysis;

If you mention Freud

They are vastly annoyed

And cling to their longstanding fallacies.

But perhaps the most demanding interpreting jobs are the indoor “booth” jobs, with you and another interpreter sitting for days or weeks on end in a small and often poorly ventilated cubicle, with headphones perched on top of your head, trying to keep track of some obscure legal, technical or political discussion.

After a few years’ practice, the main danger is not in making mistakes in terminology but in succumbing to fatigue and boredom. There is a peculiar sort of ennui that can overtake a long-distance simultaneous interpreter after many days of virtual non-stop talking, as well as late night receptions, replete with cholesterol and generous doses of alcohol. Just when you thought you could safely go on autopilot, some delegate would decide to make a controversial interjection that would send everyone into a flurry of sharp-tongues repartees. If this happens late in the day, you begin to long for a good cup of coffee instead of the traditional carafes of cold water.

The sound technology, while being continually improved, can be a boon and a bane. Risque comments, even with the microphone supposedly off, are strictly off-limits. There was at least one case that I remember, when a colleague made a comment about the depth of the cleavage of the only female delegate during a conference on “Safety in Marine Environments”. The mike happened to be on, and the comment enlivened the otherwise dull proceedings. The interpreter was never thanked for his contribution–instead he got a reprimand from the organisers.

Different schools of interpreting insist on varying “safe distances” the interpreter must keep behind his or her client during simultaneous interpreting, to avoid mistakes. Yet, there is a sense of exhilaration when one is so confident of one’s skill that one can keep only a fraction of a second behind the speaker, almost breaking the “sound barrier”. The temptation to go ahead of the speaker, no matter how strong, must be resolutely resisted. Any attempt to defy linguistic gravity and to indulge one’s mind-reading abilities will usually lead to a disaster.

Observing famous or powerful people in their private, unguarded interactions with their peers is certainly an eye opener. One learns that often they are not only human, but all too human. There is that famous (and apocryphal) story about Stalin’s fly being open during his meeting with President Roosevelt. When he was discretely reminded by his host that “his bird is about to fly out of the nest”, Stalin, looking despondent, said, “Alas, only the two eggs remain in the nest.”

During the first live satellite hook-up between the US Congress and the Supreme Soviet in the 80’s, it was very instructive to watch the participants on close-circuit television during commercial breaks. The Americans were still trying to outsmart each other, while the Soviets were using their time to thrash out a common line of defence. The Soviets even provided the Americans with advance information about the number of “spontaneous comments” that could expected from them, without ever thinking that there was anything wrong with a bit of stage-managing.

Interpreting for the first time for two teams of heart surgeons was about as close as I had ever come to actually fainting on the job. Seeing a human rib cage unceremoniously ripped open and then held by butcher-like hooks in position was enough to make one forget how to translate “sternocleidomastoid” into another language. The need for quality interpreting during a heart operation is obvious. It may be less obvious in other areas, although the consequences of choosing a wrong person for the job may be just as dramatic.

Alas, the life of a freelance interpreter, no matter how clever or experienced he or she may be, is getting more demanding by the day. The funding of many international organisations is getting scarce, increasing competition for the remaining jobs. Professional bodies, such as the Geneva-based AIIC and the Australian NAATI, are attempting to impose stricter rules and greater professionalism on the field that is at the same time driven by laws of supply-and-demand, just like the rest of the economy. The selling point now is a proven experience under demanding and diverse environments, as well as the necessary connections with conference organisers and one’s colleagues.

As with writing, interpreting and translation require certain flare. Otherwise, the translation would simply resemble, in the immortal words of Cervantes, “the other side of tapestry”. The worst translations of the famous Chinese classic the I Ching (The “Book of Changes”) are by expert Sinologists. They are turgid and unimaginative. One of the most popular English renditions of this venerable Chinese classic is a secondary translation from German. But it is an inspired translation by someone who was a true mediator between East and West. It was Voltaire who said, “Woe to the makers of literal translations, who by rendering every word weaken the meaning!”

Poetry is notoriously hard to translate, although Pasternak’s translations of Shakespeare seem close to being perfect. Joseph Brodsky translated Polish poetry from literal translations done by others, as he spoke no Polish. The Soviet district court judge who was trying him on charges of “social parasitism”, complained about the quality of Brodsky’s translation purely for political reasons. Other, less capable translators can only render a synthetic replica of the flavour and taste of the original, even when they are supposedly fluent in both languages.

In the words of another Chinese classic, the Tao Te Ching, a master craftsman “can fashion a door that requires no lock and create a good binding for a book without using knots”. But perhaps this is too much to expect from mere mortals who are only trying to pay their own rent by collecting the rent in the Tower of Babel. “The plant must spring again from its seed, or it will bear no flower–and this is the burthen of the curse of Babel,” wrote one critic. But another one replied, much more forgivingly:

“Translation is entirely mysterious. Increasingly I have felt that the art of writing is itself translating, or more like translating than it is like anything else. What is the other text, the original? I have no answer. I suppose it is the source, the deep sea where ideas swim, and one catches them in nets of words and swings them shining into the boat … where in this metaphor they die and get canned and eaten in sandwiches”. True, true… But does the writer fish in the open sea, while the translator casts his net in a fish pond? The argument goes forever, reverberating through the clamorous chambers of the Tower of Babel.



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