Translation is like teletransportation

long-tunnelAnd now for something borne out of the summer heat…

Imagine a teletransporter. You know, the sci-fi closet that beams you to another spot in the galaxy. You get atomised at one end and put back together, atom by atom, at the other. Translation is similar, except with a very special teletransporter. Instead of building the same you at the other end, our teletransporter builds a you adapted for the place you materialize in. You’re still you, but with some changes, mainly so you can survive in the new place, but also so you can blend in with the locals, if you want to.

Nothing much needs changing when you visit another place on the Earth’s surface, but for trips to the bottom of the ocean or another planet, the teletransporter reinvents you so you can survive. It may have to adapt how and what you breathe and maybe even how you process energy so you can extract what you need from the new habitat. You may get bigger or smaller, stronger or weaker, taller or shorter, depending on the gravity or pressure forces in the other place. Maybe for inhospitably environments, like space or a planet with next to no atmosphere, the machine will build oxygen tanks into your back.

The machine adapts you for survival. But it does not change everything. In fact, it changes as little as possible and works very hard to preserve whatever makes you you. Presumably the teletransporter will preserve your mind and also identifying features like your face, voice and dimensions compared to others. Reconstructing such elements requires a creative streak because the machine has to imprint these features onto whatever physical you it creates to survive in the new place. For instance, it will have to work out where to put your beauty spot on your fish face and whether you can keep your eyelashes in the sea!

And what about body parts and functions not typically found in the living forms of the place you visit? Sea creatures, for instance, don’t usually have arms. Although the machine may decide to equip your aqua version with some. After all, the machine is transporting a human to the sea; not turning one into a fish. Because, as well as preserving you as an individual, the machine also wants to preserve you — as much as it can — as a human. Because looking human is also an essential part of being you. With no arms, you would look less human and be less you. So while for a trip to the sea the teletransporter could give you tentacles, you might feel awkward in them and may not want them, at least no for a short stay. However, if you planned to stay for a long time, you might choose them over arms.

In any case, the machine makes any necessary changes. It adapts vital functions so you can survive and keeps what it can that makes you you — as an individual and as a representative of your species. So you get a carbon copy of your mind and personality and the best the machine can do, depending on your destination, with your face and other identity elements. And the machine also tries to maintain functions foreign to the new environment. You may not need your arms underwater, and you could upgrade them for more efficient tools, but they show what you are. Besides, you might feel not quite yourself without them!

Translation works in the same way. The translation machine (us!) atomises the original and then compiles a copy in the other language, adapting as necessary for the text to function in its destination and be understood by the locals. The amount of adaptation required depends on where we want to send the translation. For instance, translating similar languages, particularly those sharing cultural references (i.e., two languages in the one country), is like teletransportation to a hospitable place on the earth — the text will survive in the new place with little or no adaptation. Translating literally, word-for-word, may do most of the time (and will sound natural). However, translating when the linguistic and cultural landscapes differ to any degree (most of the time) is like going to the bottom of the sea or another planet.

The more different the new place, the more work the machine has to do. We replicate the core identity of the text — its mind and personality — but in a body that can survive in the new habitat. Sometimes we must adapt the vital functions. Because so these functions can do their jobs in the new language, they must materialise as words the foreign reader recognises. Thus, we must choose the words known to do a given job in the new language.

And then we have the functions that the audience won’t recognise. The arms you’d take to the bottom of the ocean. Sea creatures don’t have them, but they show your humanness, and you might feel silly without them. Likewise, a translation often needs to keep its foreign functions — cultural elements you might call them, both to show its roots and what things of its species can do.

What functions we keep, adapt or leave behind will also depend on the reason for the translation. Because while you might take your arms with you for a sightseeing tour of the seabed, you may decide to trade in them in for some tentacles or fins if you’re migrating — to fit in but also to have the most efficient tools for the place. Similarly, if we want to truly naturalise a translation for life in another place, we may leave out or adapt some functions we might keep under other circumstances.

Lastly, our teletransporter must also take into account what it’s transporting. Just as sending an amoeba, a tiger or an iron filing somewhere will entail different amounts of adaptation, so too does translating different types of documents. Translating contracts, for instance, a pet interest of mine of late, is like teletransporting a panda bear somewhere. The complexity and reliance on a particular system means the translating machine has to really smoke its cogs for the document to survive in a new place. And because translating a legal document into English requires negotiating the chasm between common and civil-law systems, rather than just sending our panda to another country, we’re jettisoning him across the solar system.

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Written by Rob Lunn

Rob Lunn is a freelance translator based in Spain. He translates from Spanish and Catalan into English and specialises in legal translation.

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