Sunday, September 19, 2010

Found in Translation

An earlier version of this post was initially posted on my personal blog, There Is No Spoon, in July. It explains my decision to study international relations, translation and interpretation (which ended up also being a decision to go to grad school in Australia!) and my love of language, so I'm reposting an edited version here, since these decisions were crucial to my continuing journey as a wandering student.

I'm four months out, give or take a week or two, from my departure for Australia, and anticipation is building by the day. I've finally bought and broken in hiking boots, found a new rolling duffel after bidding a fond farewell to the most beat-up of the two that saw me through four years of college and nearly three years of post-grad life and - after considerable research - have chosen a pack in which to lug more of my stuff to the other side of the world and been fitted for the right size. I filled out my housing application this summer and am nervously toying with ideas for scholarship essays. I've loosely planned out my course schedule for the two years of my Masters program. I'm so excited, both to travel in a new part of the world and to study subjects I love, that some days I feel like I'm going to burst.

One thing I realized I haven't done, however, is explain my choice in courses of study. My choice of school was one thing, but I haven't touched much at all on why I want a Masters of Translating and Interpreting with a Masters of International Relations in the first place. (On a side note: every time I babble out that mouthful to someone who asks what I'm going to be studying, there's a moment of stunned silence while they try to digest what I've just said. It makes me feel a little ridiculous.) So, here goes...

My one required course my second semester abroad in college was English to French Translation. Translation was a scary word. And, actually, it sounded kind of boring. Why would I want to take someone else's words and plug them into another language when I could write my own, in either language? I dreaded that class throughout first semester, when two of my friends were taking it, despite their protestations that they liked it. About halfway through my first translation, an excerpt from David Sedaris' Holidays on Ice, a light blinked on in my head. This is translation? This is fun! What was I worried about?

Translation became one of my two favorite classes that semester, not least because of my professor, a professional translator in her own right, and one who understands that languages can - and should be - fun. What I learned from her, and through the practice of translating several pages of varying material each week, was that translation is a far cry from something as simple as transposing a word from one language into the matching word in another.

Like people, language has baggage. Words have a history that's tied to the places they come from, the places they're used and the evolving cultures of the people who use them. And finding the right way to communicate not just the meaning of the word itself but all the nuance of its baggage requires an understanding of cultures on both sides of the translation. (Of course, this doesn't apply quite as often or to the same degree when you're talking about translating instructions for assembling a piece of furniture; we've all laughed at the stilted language in manuals for things manufactured in another country.)

Part of the translator's or interpreter's job, especially when it comes to literary translation (which is feared by translators far and wide as the black hole of the industry, in which you lose yourself and never make any money - so, naturally, it's my favorite type of translation) and diplomatic interpreting, is having a firm grasp of the historical and cultural baggage of both the language he or she is translating from, and the language she's translating into. That knowledge, and the ability to translate nuance and background without interrupting the flow of the text - or the speaker's rhythm, in interpretation - is the mark of a good translator. Which means, when you're dealing with a good one, you won't even be aware that they're there (or hardly, in the case of an interpreter), and you'll be able to read or listen to the thoughts of someone from thousands of miles away, with a background that may be radically different from yours, as though they lived in the house down the street.

And that - that bridging of physical, cultural and linguistic space - is why I want to be a translator and an interpreter. I tend to view the world in terms of relationships, between people, between words, between cultures. What's the same? What's different? How does what's different relate to what I know and understand? Usually, what's different has some point of reference to what I know, that makes what might at first seem alien at least something I can grasp, if not fully comprehend. And it's those points of reference, those connections between languages, that let us bridge the gap between cultures and appreciate the lives and thoughts of men and women to whom we may never have given a passing thought, but whose lives - and livelihoods - are inextricably linked to our own.

Our world is getting smaller, and the need to communicate more effectively, more thoroughly and more often with others is growing. Much of the world is in crisis, whether humanitarian, environmental or economic, and that isn't a reality that's going to change anytime soon, especially if we don't talk to one another across the political and linguistic boundaries in which we've barricaded ourselves. There are great ideas out there, in every corner of the world, and translating them, language by country by continent, can only help our collective future.

I dream about a world where every idea - an environmental solution, a discovery in astronomy, a humanitarian cry for help, a literary daydream - races from person to person around the globe within moments of its inception, sparking interest, aid and inspiration. Largely thanks to the internet and affordable international travel, we're closer to that dream than we were thirty years ago, but we still have a long way to go. In becoming a translator and an interpreter, I hope to bring us just a little closer to making that dream a reality.

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