Language Matters February 2011: Translating – A Dangerous Profession?

Dear Language Friend,

We hope 2011 has been fruitful so far and that we will work with you in the near future!

In the following newsletter we discuss interpreting text during translation and the potential danger that has brought about throughout history.

There are no two languages that are so similar to one another that it is possible to do a word-for-word translation. Because of that, no translation software can translate a complex text accurately and in the appropriate style. Think of all the difficulties that may arise when a text has to be adapted to a foreign culture. Considering this, a quality translation needs to be the product of human intelligence.

Translators do not just have to have expert linguistic knowledge; they also need to have broad social and cultural backgrounds. This experience very often strongly influences the interpretation of the text. Please read on to see that this interpretation bears potential danger when controversial topics are concerned.

Contributed by Doris Anne Heidemann. Thanks for reading.

Violence Against Translators Over The Centuries

Are translators considered an endangered species? They have been persecuted, tortured and even killed over the history of translation.

But what makes translating such a dangerous profession? The answer is obvious. It is the age-old dilemma every translator is confronted with: should (s)he deliver a literal translation that is very close to the original, which might not sound natural, or should (s)he submit a free translation, which sounds nice from an aesthetic point of view but deviates somewhat from the original.

The French philosopher Voltaire compared translations to women, advising that they are either beautiful or faithful, but they cannot be both! If a translator interprets the source text in his/her own way to create a naturally sounding work (s)he may risk being accused of an incorrect translation. This may not be a significant problem if it is a literary piece of work and open to interpretation, but can turn out to be a big issue when controversial political or religious topics are concerned.

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger describes the dangers of translating in the following way: “A translator is like a ferryman, who wants to cross a large river to get to the opposite shore, which he does not know well. His crossing may turn out to be an odyssey and very often it ends with a shipwreck.”

It was not only in the past that translators put their lives at risk: we are still confronted with alarming incidents of violence against translators, as we will see in the next section.


Translator-Martyrs In The Reformation Age

Although there are examples of translator-martyrs as far back as Hellenic and Roman times, we will not go that far back in history but start at the Age of Reformation, when William Tyndale (1494-1536), a leading figure in Protestant reformism, translated the Bible into early modern English. Unfortunately he did this at a time when King Henry VIII had decided that there could be only one correct translation. Tyndale ended up strangled and burned at the stake in Antwerp, Belgium after being found guilty of heresy. He was influenced by Martin Luther (1483-1546), who was also outlawed for daring to translate the Bible into German.

Another religious translator, Etienne Dolet (1509-1546), suffered a similar destiny and was tortured and burned in Paris on the charge of blasphemy after having translated a number of Calvinistic works and a dialogue by Plato. He was said to have put words into Socrates’ mouth by writing that there is nothing after death. The scholars at Paris University accused him of questioning the immortality of the soul. Dolet, though, had chosen not to translate literally but had tried to render the overall sense of Socrates’ work. His principle was that “those who translate line by line are considered to be fools”.

His translation guidelines eventually became widely accepted. In 1709, 150 years after Dolet’s death, the Russian tsar Peter declared himself against literal word-for-word translating as it obscured the meaning of the source text. Despite this progress, translators continue to live in danger until even the present time, as some recent examples will show.


Persecution Of Translators In The 20th and 21st Centuries

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), writer, critic and the first translator of Proust into German, also translated the Tableaux Parisiens section of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal. Benjamin was persecuted by the Nazis for being a Jew, a communist and a homosexual. He fled from the Nazi regime to Portbou, Catalonia. However the Franco government had made the Spanish police refuse all transit visas and send refugees back to France, including Benjamin. Terrified by the thought of repatriation to Nazi hands, he committed suicide with an overdose of morphine tablets on the night of September 25, 1940.

Not that many years ago Hitoshi Igarashi (1947-1991), a Japanese scholar of Arabic and Persian literature and the translator of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses into Japanese was stabbed to death by an unknown assailant in his office at the University of Tsukuba, Ibaraki, on July 11, 1991. This was after Ayatollah Ruhollah Kohomeini had issued a fatwa (Islamic religious ruling) against Rushdie and all those who participated in the publication of his work.

Islamic militants not only allegedly attacked Igarashi but also the Italian translator Ettore Capriolo, who was badly injured. They protested against the Turkish translator Aziz Nesin by setting a hotel on fire during a cultural Alevi festival: 35 people were killed by the fire.

Violence against translators, though, did not prevent Rushdie’s work from being published and proliferated all over the world. In more recent times of social and political unrest many translators have been directly targeted for being the messenger of bad news. Since 9/11 a number of US interpreters have been prosecuted for cooperating with Islamic extremists.

In Iraq, interpreters are often harassed, arrested, kidnapped or even killed for fear that they are spies.


Translating – A Dangerous But Important Activity

As we can see in the examples above, translating is indeed a potentially dangerous profession. In some cases it evokes intense feelings, almost on a religious level, even leading to murder. For many people in many countries, their language is sacred and any attempt to translate into another language is sacrilege.

Every translation assumes the interpretation of language and culture, and every culture has assimilated translations from other cultures in the course of its historic development.

Translations connect opposite shores despite the threat of an intercultural shipwreck. They overcome borders; whether they are of political, geographic, historic, economic or ideological nature. Thus, translating is a dangerous but important activity. And while it is difficult to have a beautiful and at the same time literal translation of a text, translators always strive to come close. The perfect translation is a utopia. Every solved linguistic problem is a further step towards this ideal.

Modern translation technology supports the autonomous, self-confident and responsible translator who serves the original text but does not have to observe it literally. As Umberto Eco says in his collection of essays on translating — Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation (2006) — translators are always negotiating because of the cultural differences they have to overcome.

Translating is not just the reproduction of a message in a different language. A translation is an accomplished work of interpretation, the ideal symbiosis between art and technical knowledge, and its precision is a sign of respect towards both the source and the target culture.

So let’s celebrate all translators and show them the respect they deserve!