TED Conversations

Luis Javier Salvador

Translator English to Spanish / Spanish to English,


This conversation is closed. Start a new conversation
or join one »

Are translations a necessary evil?

Hi everybody,

I have been translating for quite some time (including TEDTalks) and always come to the same conclusion: it is not possible to convey all the subtleties and nuances of a particular source language into any target language.

Well, maybe if you get lucky and the source text, because of its simplicity, lends itself to an easy transferral of information and style, then you could claim that the reader might take in up to 99% of its original meaning.

However, just on the opposite side, a translated poem will most likely have much of its original meaning changed, as well as the musicality and the essence of it, thus rendering the resulting text less faithful to the original than any other translated piece of work, in my view.

Sometimes it is very frustrating, because you find yourself on a dead-end, unable to come up with a good translation for certain puns and wordplays that only work in the source language. In my opinion, there is no such thing as a perfect translation, just a valiant effort to alter the original work as little as possible.

But of course, translations are of great importance, as they allow people to access information that would otherwise have been limited to a small population.

What is your take on the matter?

Thank you.

progress indicator
  • Aug 30 2012: Some things are lost in translation; but a lot more would have been lost to a whole lot of people if they were not translated.
  • thumb
    Aug 30 2012: There's probably a mathematical relationship regarding how accurate a translation can be and the size of the target audience. If you (Luis) are translating from english to spanish for your family you can get away with more colloquialisms and therefore probably do a better translation. But if the translation is for a worldwide audience you must stick to Spanish that all Spanish speakers can understand clearly. You lose some of the accuracy but the payoff is that the translation is useful to a wider audience.
    • thumb
      Aug 31 2012: That's actually true!. When in private, it is even possible to tell in-jokes that the rest of the Spanish speakers will not understand.

      The funny thing about translating for worldwide audiences is that you have to use a language that actually nobody speaks (Neutral Spanish).

      To complicate things further, we could add another variable to the equation: time. The more you move away from your own time, the less you will be understood. Let's say you are now writing a book intended to still be understandable by the year 3000 (without the use of a dictionary), then I guess you should strive to write as mainstream as possible, avoiding slang. But who knows? Languages evolve and slang sometimes ends up being mainstream anyway, and viceversa, but I'm pretty sure that the main meanings of words like "love" and "home" are going to stay the same for a very long time.
  • thumb
    Aug 29 2012: Something is, as you say, often lost in translations, but so much more is gained than if translations were not available.
  • thumb
    Sep 11 2012: Probably so but who could learn every language to benefit from world literature.
  • Sep 3 2012: Lius ,
    I agree with you, the loss in translation is inevitable. But there is a kind of of consolation to ease our translators' worries :)
    Let me use a parable that i have found useful. Words are like stones dropped into a pond. What conveys meaning is not the stone but the ripple it sends out. A point of this parable is : if the listener or reader has the organized context in his own mind to grasp the idea, the idea will be grasped, despite the unavoidable ambiguity of words translated from one language to another.
    There is a zen koan match to illustrate the point:
    " A good horse runs even at the shadow of the whip."
    So... do the best you can with what you have and stay in peace :)
    • thumb
      Sep 3 2012: Nice words, I think it is a lovely parable but we have to take into account that If we drop two stones of different shapes and sizes, we will also get different ripples!. So we have to be careful about the stones we choose to thow in.
      • Sep 3 2012: I'm afraid you've missed the point ; no way i want to belittle the hard translator's labour for calibrating the stones :)
  • thumb
    Sep 1 2012: I would say it is a necessary evil, unless we choose a universal language.

    Your problem, gives me an interesting low tech solution, however. Puns, and wordplay, are probably the most difficult to translate... Just use the english word for rhymes, puns, and wordplay, but then put in parenthesis, what the translations are. This could also help people learn a bit of the source language...
  • thumb
    Aug 30 2012: Your question is true not only for translations - say from French to English, but it is also true for translations from one culture to another even if both speak the same language. Condense it more and it's true for families. We each have our own experiences and we assign individual meanings to words. The only language that does not get distorted in translation is the language of math (I personally prefer the language of geometry).

    I once studied the words that came out of my mouth and discovered a fascinating thing. My words are meant for me. I speak AT you while speaking TO me. My words are an expression of my projections. I learned that questions must be carefully formed because they are so powerful. I also learned that behavior is a language. I can learn from you by hearing what you are saying to yourself. There are no secrets to one who dares see that nothing exists outside of us.

    There is a way to communicate more effectively, but it requires listening from within. Feelings (as opposed to emotions) are also a language. They are a universal language. Most people don't know about feelings, so they do not take advantage of all that they have to offer. Two people who know how to reach what some physicists call the unified field, or new-agers call the universal intelligence, are able to find ways to communicate clearly using words. That's because they use their awareness of the unified field to enter into it, find what I call the frequency of the other, and send information that way. It is what psychics do. They enter your frequency, become one with it, and translate it for you.

    I know that many think that psychics are frauds, but I was exceptionally good at it, and only quit giving readings when people became dependent on me and I "felt" like I was being asked to step in their shoes and tell them what decisions they should make. This seemed to be a violation of them and me.

    Words tell us who we are and where we are going if we know how 2 hear
    • thumb
      Aug 31 2012: I agree that translating is always going on, even for people communicating in the same language, such as two people speaking English or two speaking French.

      I recall your mentioning elsewhere, TED Lover, that you either do, or used to, assist people in writing their memoirs. How do you make sure in that context that the narrative comes across in the client's language and style of exposition- their own voice?

      I wondered about this issue in reading, for example, Studs Terkel's book Working. These are narrative interviews of people in hundreds of lines of work and are all written in first person but in a way that made me wonder about the issues of translation and authenticity of voice.
      • thumb
        Aug 31 2012: I don't write biographies or autobiographies. I write memoirs.

        I ask my clients questions and record what they say. These often prompt more questions as I look for stories that their grandchildren will enjoy reading. Each little story or memory, whether a paragraph long or three pages long, is its own segment, divided by artwork, so that the work can be received as a whole rather than by chapter.

        The only changes I make are tiny ones that clients are usually not aware of, such as those people who begin every sentence with an "And" or those who keep saying, "You know." Sometimes, if a client is having a hard time describing something, I offer words to help the client reclaim a memory or find the right words, but I never just insert my own without a client's OK.

        I want to present my client in the best possible light without losing the personality of the story teller, so what you mention isn't part of my problem. I see memoirs as love letters to future generations. I want a child to read the book and feel like Grandma or Grandpa is sitting right beside them telling them stories about the olden days.
        • thumb
          Aug 31 2012: I think I understand now. You do not ghost write the memoir so much as transcribe and slightly edit their words.
      • thumb
        Aug 31 2012: Correct. I can type as fast as they can talk, and I find that something curious happens when I type as I listen. I can visually see what they are describing, and in this way, gain insight into what question needs to be asked to complete the verbal "picture".

        I had a client who didn't feel comfortable with me typing, so I closed the computer and asked her questions, and I kater transcribed the tape (which I have running in case I miss something or need to clarify that I have transcribed it correctly). I was very unhappy with my work and asked the client if I could re-do the session (without charge). she said OK, and immediately, the images returned and I was much more satisfied.
      • thumb
        Aug 31 2012: It's also more than what I just said. When a client is immersed in a memory, the person begins speaking in age-appropriate forms. A child remembering play might say, "We used to play in the streets. Back then, there weren't so many cars, so it was safe. We played all kinds of games:.....". Later, when the person is more mature, the sentence structure changes. For example: "Some of my father's friends said that I dressed like a flapper. (A flapper wasn't a good thing in those days. It held connotations of being loose.) But my father said, "We're living in America now. Let her dress like an American! These are new times."

        Do you see how the sentences changed and the ideas became more complex?
        • thumb
          Aug 31 2012: Oh, sure. One might also hear a combination of the language spoken when the person was a child with the language spoken most in adulthood.
  • thumb
    Aug 30 2012: Absolutely. Math, science, music, are all languages. Once you can speak and apply the language the application is easy. Look at how many languages the Bible has went through. Just as an example a well is often refered to ... we understand a well. In the US a driller comes out and bores a hole down to where the water is. No big deal. A well in the Bible was a wide structure with stair steps on the outer wall and you went down to the water level to get your water. This took a long time and many people to accomplish. But both are wells just the concept is different.

    The operation of algerbra was probally demonstrated to a person who spoke both Arabic and another language. Thus the translation was by both word and deed.

    In Navajo there is no word for boat anchor. They say, a big heavy thing that is tied to the boat that is thrown over the side to keep the boat in place. Having never seen an anchor and given that statement draw a picture of the object call anchor.

    Translators have a tough job. A good translator is a valuable instrument in world business. The words are often understood but the nuances can have great influance on the meaning.

    Thanks for your efforts. Without you I would miss out on many talks and ideas. You are appreciated.

    • thumb
      Aug 30 2012: That's why translators sometimes resort to footnotes; some concepts need lots of explanation in certain cultures.

      Thanks for your appreciation of my work!.
  • thumb
    Aug 30 2012: Ideas can be translated efficiently and such effort is by no means a necessary evil.
    Translating the lingo; vernacular; slang; dialects; colloquial; polyglot; literary; metaphore; vulgar; etc. is never essential to the communication of a basic idea and can be excluded from the translation as evidenced by Mr. Lindsay's example below..
    • thumb
      Aug 30 2012: I agree but the point is all those resources are sometimes essential to the idea being transmitted, so you would not be able to separate them from the message. For example, let's say you want to convey the idea of how differently the gangsters in the 30's talked compared to the ones in the 20's, how could you possibly transmit (and develop) that idea in a language whose culture never had gangsters or anything like it? You would certainly have to make up all the slang and therefore the readers would not be able to appreciate the actual differences, so the real message would be lost. Granted, they could get to understand the basic idea, but in this case it would not be enough, in my opinion.
      • thumb
        Aug 30 2012: If I ask you to translate the following thought from English to Spanish: "Bugerred if I can get a grip on what comes out of some blokes blerters."
        You would be wasting your time trying to "make up", as you say, an equivalent Spanish word for "Buggered." It is not necessary for the clear translation of the BASIC IDEA, which is: it is sometimes difficult in conversations to understand what point another person is trying to make. Whatever Spanish words you use, if you convey that basic idea you have done your important job well.
        • thumb
          Aug 30 2012: Yes, that may be true in most cases, but there might be instances in which conveying the basic idea is not quite enough, as in the example I gave you above, since the point relies precisely on the language itself, not the general idea of the message.
      • thumb
        Aug 30 2012: If conveying the basic idea is not enough then the translator must interject an explanation like: [TRANSLATOR'S NOTE: There is no Navajo word to express the idea of a boat anchor.]
        Anyway, my answer to your question is NO! Translation is necessary, but it is not an evil.
  • thumb
    Aug 29 2012: Stone the crows I think you're bang on there mate! Bugerred if I can get a grip on what comes out of some blokes blerters. OR Gee I think you are corect. I have a terrible time understanding what comes out of some mouths.
    And that's an english to english translation
  • thumb
    Aug 29 2012: "Are translations a necessary evil?"

    and then

    "But of course, translations are of great importance, as they allow people to access information that would otherwise have been limited to a small population."

    what kind of evil is of great importance that helps?
    • thumb
      Aug 29 2012: Well, I was just throwing out an open question and using a figure of speech. I do really think that they are of great importance and have more positives than negatives, but some purists might argue otherwise. We could even use another figure of speech relating "evil" and play devil's advocate for the sake of argument: What if you wrote such a complex and culture-bound book that no translation could ever do justice to your work?, would you be happy with a poor translation even if it were provided by the best translator on the planet? The readers could misinterpret your message or fail to see the quality of your well-written book.
      • thumb
        Aug 29 2012: "The readers could misinterpret your message or fail to see the quality of your well-written book."

        and it is worse than what?
        • thumb
          Aug 29 2012: Maybe the writer is so conceited that doesn't want people to read a dumbed-down version of his book and think of him as a regular writer, who knows? If the book is really that complex and so reliant on wordplays, language musicality and culture, he could have a point...even if it means that many people would never know of his work.
      • thumb
        Aug 29 2012: why would i care about the writer?
      • thumb
        Aug 29 2012: not on that other language
        • thumb
          Aug 29 2012: That's the point, it should be the same message, or at least as close to the original as possible. If not, you could get a wrong impression of the writer and his work.
      • thumb
        Aug 29 2012: "you could get a wrong impression of the writer and his work."

        and it is worse than what?
        • thumb
          Aug 29 2012: Some could say It is worse than not getting an impression at all. Maybe that would encourage people to learn the original language and culture and fully enjoy his book :)

          Well, I see your point, but as I said, it is good to play devil's advocate from time to time to open your mind to other ways of thinking.
      • thumb
        Aug 29 2012: well, your argument reminded me of bain's voice from the new batman movie, and its hungarian dub version.

        so i retreat. there can be versions with negative value.

        but these horrendous crimes aside, i think it is quite possible to make a decent translation that has at least some value.
        • thumb
          Aug 29 2012: Yes, I believe so. In most cases I think it is possible to get some value from any good translation, I agree with you, but I guess there might be an exception to the rule.
      • thumb
        Aug 29 2012: btw i hope you don't ask this because you screwed up a translation badly :P
        • thumb
          Aug 29 2012: haha, no, but some talks out there are difficult to translate, sometimes you can't help but feel that something is being lost in the translation you are making, especially on witty wordplays and such.
      • thumb
        Aug 29 2012: wordplays. dataset - mindset. in the title. i was thinking about it for two days.
        • thumb
          Aug 29 2012: Thanks, I will check it out in Spanish as I do not know Hungarian :). Sometimes I like watching talks with subtitles made by other translators, so I can learn things from them. I wonder how that title was translated in Spanish.