So, what else makes a good translator? I think a good translator is driven by a deep curiosity for new things and meaning. That includes everything related to life but in our case, firstly, a curiosity for simple words. Words are simply interesting. They are arbitrary by nature, and yet some of them look and sound so funny. Some of them can evoke deep feelings of all sorts and some of them express complex ideas, like a condensed text. Why are there so many different words and why do lots of them roughly cover the same meaning?
It’s all about the little differences and shades and trying to understand when a word is used in which context, register and style. Words often carry different connotations and their reasonable application can create really specific meanings that sometimes can’t be achieved somehow else. In technical and specialised texts their correct usage is even more important, because if the translator doesn’t apply the correct terms, communication is bound to fail. Maybe with severe financial repercussions.
At the same time it’s important to acknowledge that, even if a translator doesn’t translate words but meanings, it all starts with understanding them first. And we translators face new words almost every day! It’s also interesting that many words don’t have real equivalents in other languages, or that many words share the same etymological roots but have diverted their meanings in different directions over the course of time. So even words that look alike and seem to be easy translations can be quite tricky.
So this is what we translators have to deal with every day – looking up words and research when and how they are used. And hell, sometimes words or phrases act like untameable beasts, I do understand what they mean but they struggle to be conveyed in my own language, at least to a satisfactory extent. Translators have to be masters of researching and gaining knowledge about new subjects.
Sometimes, because of one single word, I have to change complete sentences and reorganise them in such a way that it all makes sense, fits the author’s intent and the intent of the text. It’s bending language the way we need it, using the given vocabulary and structure, to actually create something new, sort of. Unfortunately, sometimes meaning gets lost due to time and space restrictions, when translating text for voice-overs or subtitles for example, or due to the different structure of each language. If two words rhyme in one language and create an intended joke (a common strategy in advertisements) and in the other language the translated words simply don’t rhyme at all, then the translator is certainly facing a mind-twisting problem.
It also takes a love for details to become a good translator. You have to spot every extra space between characters or any missing space after a comma. Should you use a hyphen or a dash in a particular situation? Is oil measured in tons or cubic meters? What’s the right preposition in this collocation? Oh there are different ones, but which one fits to my context? Should the dollar sign be behind the amount or after? The list is almost endless: Oh, all the sentences end in a full stop, but in this one sentence there is none, should I put it behind the translated sentence anyway? Should I use Konjunktiv I in this context? Should I choose the Present Perfect instead of the Simple Past in another context? And, finally, what the heck is wrong with all the German online magazines that use wrong punctuation marks? It’s indispensable that translators develop an ability to focus on all the different details and spot the tiniest mistakes.
Unfortunately, texts are more or less always deficient, which constitutes another problem for translators. Does it really makes sense when an instruction manual tells you to place a certain part on a certain spot, when it clearly should be placed on the other side? Doesn’t this one character use the wrong name to address that other character? A present mind is needed to spot deficiencies of the source text and to deal with them accordingly. Of course, translators have to be experts in the fields they translate. If you don’t understand what you’re translating, your translation is going to be really bad.
There is a final skill or rather the natural gift of creativity, which is very important in translation. Depending of course of the text and its intended function, often there is no straight solution to a problem and only creativity can help out. How can this bit of 6 seconds long speech be crammed into two rather short subtitles that are, on top of that, only going to be displayed for a certain amount of time? In this scene different people are interacting with each other, but one of the lines is actually a thought and no actual speech; how do I go about it? How can this be phrased to meet all the standards? Or how about this case: there is a modified idiom that plays with a certain idea that works by evoking a concept that is only understood in the source culture? You better come up with something that evokes a similar concept, using a (maybe) completely different idiom that (maybe) plays with another idea. It’s even more difficult when the source language is deliberately meddled with, like a funny speech pattern of a character in a cartoon or video game. How can it be transferred? To be honest, I’m still trying to figure out what’s the best approach to render characters’ Edinburgh dialect in Trainspotting.