Good translation is never a trivial subject

… so I got back from London all gung-ho, excited over brilliant British copywriting, with a notebook full of examples I wanted to share with you.

But before I could do so, there were urgent matters to attend to, then Operation Cast Lead began, and everything else paled and looked trivial and insignificant. Always happens to me (just me?) in times of war -- and gods know I've been through a few of those. Incidentally, doesn't the expression "cast lead" make you sick? Maybe it's supposed to cast fear into the hearts of our enemies, I don't know. Maybe it's part of psychological warfare.

In times of war, obviously there's a constant stream of news that needs to be translated, and it needs to be done fast and accurately. Seems to me that that's the time when good, experienced, professional translators are needed most. These should be thinking translators, who will pick up on writer errors or the inadvisability of certain statements. But, as far as I know, some very good veteran translators have been sacked recently, to be replaced by newbies. Sure, newbies have to start somewhere, sometime. We old timers can't hog the translation scene forever. But… but… but… I can't help feeling the timing is wrong.

In the past couple of weeks I've been laboring over the translation of a weighty paper about French philosophers Montaigne, Bayle, and Diderot – guys that were little more than names to me. I had to do considerable research before even starting on the translation, to have an idea what I'm talking about. Fascinating stuff, by the way; skeptics, all three – right up my alley.

But war trumps philosophy, and several times I was wrenched, mid-epistemological discourse, to translate a government communiqué or report to do with the war, a.k.a the "operation".

We've all complained bitterly in the past that Israel's "hasbara", i.e. PR, advocacy, informational campaign – is sorely lacking. Turns out that there's this guy at some government bureau who decided he must put out a heartfelt letter explaining why Israel is in the right. (This is my interpretation of events. For all I know, maybe his boss told him to write the letter. Or the letter had been part of a contingency plan that was sitting in the files waiting for the right moment. As if.) Not only was the tone of the article whiny and off-putting; but it included a horrendous statement accusing all Europe's Christians of anti-Semitism. I pointed it out to the agency that had sent me the article; the agency was duly horrified and took the matter further. I don't want to make sweeping generalizations, but I'm not sure an inexperienced translator would have trusted him/herself to comment on the content of the text and warn the client of the "blunder", to put it mildly.

A few days later, a not-much-better article appeared in the J. Post. The writer, a former senior government adviser and current presidential adviser, wrote what was obviously supposed to be a heartfelt pro-Israel piece. Not only was it childish and banal in tone, but the translation was amateurish, and contained some amusing mistakes. It's all very well to keep me amused with imperfect translations; but it's not okay to send out to the world such a low-grade product. I suspect that the J. Post is mostly read by Jews, i.e. it is preaching to the choir, or to the converted, or to the synagogue goers. Maybe J.P. editors make allowances; maybe they don’t care if the English is less than perfect. But I care. And if that article was read by the type of persons it was supposed to persuade, it can't have done a good job. A poorly written, poorly translated text surely can't drive home one's message, whatever it is.

Just two examples:

The English translation:
"… the citizens in the southern part of our nation"
Should read: In the south of the country, or in the country's south

The English translation:
"…was caught at sea … and who, with great initiative, threw all his documents into the sea…"
Should read: With great resourcefulness

- Well, there's plenty more where that came from :-)
I have drafts of at least three more posts, so do come back!


Ruchie Avital said...

I used to translate op-eds for the Jpost - but no longer - they have cut the translation budget, and now as far as I know, only accept articles in English. So this article may have been translated by the author or by someone for him. That of course does not excuse the Jpost for not properly editing the article...

Ruchie Avital said...

I agree about Cast Lead. Just awful The reference to Hanukkah only works in Hebrew anyway, so I would have called it Operation Molten Lead. Sounds a lot scarier.

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