Would a human or a machine be better at translating the above line from a song (should you wish do instant translation at a karaoke bar)? Are machine translators making human translators redundant?
No, according to the American Translators Association. It’s true there’s a wow factor in a point-and-shoot translator app like Word Lens or the statistical analysis approach of Google Translate. Many of use these and other machine-based translators. But human translators are doing just fine too. At least that’s the word from ATA spokesman Kevin Hendzel. He told me the industry grew 15% in 2009 and 13% in 2010. Not so surprising when you think about it: American troops are still in Afghanistan. The US government’s 17 intelligence agencies are still listening in to people all over the world. American businesses are still expanding into new global markets.
And some people even translate books. David Bellos does that. He has translated, among other novels, Georges Perec’s La Vie mode d’emploi “Life: A User’s Manual”), a book once considered untranslatable. Bellos is also the author of the recently published Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything.
Bellos’ book has been a hit with reviewers (see here, here and here). No wonder. With all those reasons (global marketing, espionage, immigration) why translators are needed now more than ever, it follows that we should question more closely what translation is, what it does, and what it misses. I don’t know if translations of novels and poems have improved over time, each translator shaving his or her own microsecond off some previous world record, but in one small way it’s a shame: it may discourage us from reading books in their original languages. But that’s a minor worry, certainly not an argument against good translations.
Related post/pod: check out this earlier podcast on translating poetry. For many poets, words are less prominent than sound and rhythm. The translator must echo that.
Also in the pod, a discussion of just what exactly Madeline Miller’s new novel, The Song of Achilles owes to Homer’s The Iliad. The Song of Achilles could be considered a translation only in the loosest sense of the word (more here on other Iliads, including the new translation by Stephen Mitchell). Miller’s novel draws from Homer’s plot. It also draws from other classical texts, and from Miller’s own imagination. Traditionalists may think she’s nicking the good bits from Homer, then sexing them up (which she does with gusto) for a modern audience. Others may view it as an illuminating re-imagination of an ancienct epic.
Finally this week, a mode of speech that’s always tough to translate: humor. Not only that. Under the spotlight here is Greek humor. And we’re not talking Aristophanes. This is modern-day Greek humor, based on Greece’s increasingly precarious economic situation. Greeks aren’t tickling too many foreigners’ funny bones at the moment. But judging by the jokes, the message to outsiders seems to be “If you think Greek politicians are double-crossing and corrupt, just try living in the same country with them.”
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