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 »  Articles Overview  »  Miscellaneous  »  Sorry Guys, You Can't Win

Sorry Guys, You Can't Win

By Danilo Nogueira (X) | Published  06/8/2005 | Miscellaneous | Recommendation:
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Danilo Nogueira (X)
անգլերենից պորտուգալերեն translator
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Sorry Guys, You Can't Win
Some time ago my e-mail included a message posted by a respected colleague discussing the qualities that made a good translator. The message read like her own CV. She believed she was a competent professional, attributed her competence to certain factors and concluded that those factors were indeed universally applicable requirements.

In other words, she firmly believed there is only one road to becoming a good translator: the road she had trodden.

If you translate into a foreign language, your style will be non-native. If you translate into your own language, you'll miss the point of the original... You can't win.
In fact, most good translators I know have not followed the same path as she did and many of those who have are not good translators at all; the path she followed is not the only possible one. There is no single path to becoming a good translator, there is not even a safe path that will guarantee that those who tread it will become good translators. Some trails are better than others, some are less steep, less arduous, less hazardous, some may be more appropriate to individual tastes. But there are many routes, not just a single one.

Worse still, none of those roads will take us to the very top, to that exalted situation of being a complete translator, for there is no such a thing. No matter what route we follow, every translator suffers from what I call "systemic defects": shortcomings inherently related to the particular path that this individual followed to become a translator.

Perhaps, I should delve deeper into this matter taking my own situation as a starting point.

I was born in Brazil, my first language is Portuguese and my English was acquired in high school. I have spent less than thirty days in English-speaking countries. That gives me a definite edge in translating from Portuguese into English. As a matter of fact, I find translating from English a little terrifying.

Native Stylus vs. Native Style

This is what I call the stylus edge. I found the stylus vs. style thing so cute I could not resist using it here. If you see it used somewhere else, please, remember that this is my creation, or at least I think it is. But let me explain what I mean by native stylus.

Long ago, during the LP-era, I read an item claiming that the most valuable piece of equipment one could buy for one's stereo was a stylus. Stylus, as you'll remember, is what everybody called a needle. The guy proceeded to explain that most people spent a fortune on speakers, amps, pre-amps and God knows what else, but went Uncle Scrooge when purchasing a stylus. This was an error, the guy said, because the stylus picks up the sound and if it does not do a good job of it, there is nothing the rest of the system can do to improve the sound.

Yes, indeed. My style is not native—but my stylus is. Because Portuguese is my native language and I have always lived in Brazil, I can easily pick up and understand half-hidden shades of meaning and cultural allusions that would go unnoticed if I were not a native speaker.

Not that I can always explain it well in English: that is the privilege of the native speaker, the guy who's got the native style.

The Advantages of Transplants

Alas, had I lived abroad, my English would be a lot better. Or might be, because a lot of people live abroad for ages and never learn the language, as everybody knows.

People who have lived abroad claim they make the best translators because they are native speakers of Portuguese and speak English like a native. Their detractors claim their Portuguese starts getting funny long before the improvement in their English begins to show and that she speaks like a native actually means she speaks as only a foreigner will.

Both sides are right to some extent (meaning both are wrong most of the time). The fact is that no matter where you live, your day still has twenty-four hours and the more contact you have with English, the less contact you have with Portuguese. As we say down here, you cannot whistle and chew sugar cane at the same time. But I can think of several types of jobs better entrusted to a transplanted translator than left in the hands of a stay-at-homer.

Not All Translators are Brazilian, Can You Believe That?

Of course, we do not have a monopoly on translating from Portuguese—or into Portuguese, for that matter. Lots of Americans are doing it these days. Many of them even do Portuguese as a "second" to Spanish.

Americans translating from Portuguese into English have better styles than styluses (this is becoming too obvious and quite boring, but I must go on and on) and must work on the decoding side of translation with the same gusto I work on the encoding side.

A translation into English by an incompetent foreigner is a laughable string of nonsense. This is a good thing because the very absurdity of it all will tell the reader the translation cannot be trusted. So it is no security risk.

A translation into English done by a native speaker whose style is OK but who lacks stylus is a lot more dangerous. Because the translation looks OK and reads like decent, honest English, the reader who has no access to or does not understand the original is misled into believing it is correct.

This type of translation is what the French call the belles infidèles, the unfaithful beauties: beautiful text that fails to reproduce the meaning of the original.

Les Belles Infidèles

The term refers to a certain type of translation popular in the nineteenth century, that made excellent reading in French but did not reflect the original for several reasons, including the fact that the translator often was not entirely conversant in the original language.

Unfaithful beauties are not restricted to translations into English. Plenty of them are done from English into Portuguese by Brazilians who believe a few lessons in English or a short stay in the U.S. attending high school under an exchange program entitles them to translate anything.

Are you a professional?

Some of my clients do not object to the fact I am Brazilian (I became a crack stylus salesperson), but would rather have the stuff translated by a lawyer or an accountant, under the belief only a "professional" can handle "technical stuff."

As if translators were not professionals!

It is often difficult to explain to them that translating is a profession and that a good lawyer does not necessarily a good translator make. Some lawyers are excellent translators, certainly, but most are not. Same goes for accountants, doctors, cockroach-breeders and members of other equally worthy professions, trades and calls.

As a matter of fact, being a "professional" (meaning lawyer, accountant, etc., not "professional translator") may be an asset but often it is a liability. Those "professionals" produced some of the worst translations I have seen, for many of them find it impossible to resist the temptation to make an improvement here and another there.

This type of person can be truly difficult as a reviser. A client once made several changes in one of my translations (into Portuguese, for a change) on the grounds that the entity he represented held a different position on the matter and could not publish that rubbish under its name.

It took me more than an hour of heated discussion to convince the man that the text did not purport to convey the opinion of the Brazilian entity. The very purpose of having it translated was to inform the Brazilian public what the foreign professional thought. In the end my, translation was published unchanged, without the benefit of reviser-imposed improvements. I am very good at stamping my foot.

Surprisingly, this denial of translation as a profession also occurs among translators themselves. My brethren often accept the dictum that translations of poetry are best left to poets. Sorry, pals, but I cannot agree. Some poets may be very good translators, no doubt, in the same manner some poets cook well, play admirably on the sackbut or can perform any number of wonderful feats.

But that should not be taken to mean that all poets are good translators or that only poets can translate. Many simply write original poetry, good or otherwise, and publish it as translations or transmogrifications of someone else's work. If you do not believe me, just have the their so-called translations translated back into the original language by a competent translator who does not know the text purports to be a translation, if I make myself clear. Then, compare the original with the back-translation. Any similarity will be mere coincidence.

Those people remind me of Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962), a great Austrian violinist who used to play encores by Pugnani (1731-1798). When a critic asked a few awkward questions, Mr. Kreisler, always the diplomatic Viennese, claimed that the bonbons had been composed by himself, in the manner of Pugnani. That did not improve the musical quality of the pieces but helped pinpoint responsibilities.

Degrees and all that

The old guard (pace Cambronne) never took a degree in translating because there were none to be taken during our salad days. And as old guards are wont to do, we did not surrender to the hordes of degree-bearers that colleges and universities have been pouring into the market of late.

Don't take me wrong. I am all in favor of college training for translators and have had the honor to address student audiences in at least ten different colleges. If I were young and wanted to become a translator, I would certainly enroll in one of those colleges (not any of them, though) and dutifully work for a degree.

Some respected members of the Old Guard, however, affirm the best way to spoil a talent for translation is to put its holder through a college course in translating. I do not agree. When Pixinguinha (please, do not pronounce it pi-ksin-gwin-ha, it is pee-sheen-gheeng-ya—or nearly so) entered the Rio Conservatoire everybody said he would never compose anything of value again. They were wrong and so is anyone who says school is bad for you.

But some facts are true: translation courses range from excellent to horrible, not to say plain evil, and not all graduates are nearly as competent as they believe they are. And, as all new graduates, they need a bit of experience to become good professionals.

On the other hand, not all of those who have learned by holding their several noses very close to the grindwheel are as competent as they would like you to believe they are. The guy who claims he (more probably "she," for most translators are women) has been a translator for thirty years may in fact have been a mistranslator for all that time.


If you translate into a foreign language, your style will be non-native. If you translate into your own language, you'll miss the point of the original. If you live abroad, your native language will get a bit rusty, and you'll never write the foreign language like a real native does. If you are a translator, you'll fail to grasp the fine technical points of the original or to convey them to the reader using the appropriate language. If you are a non-translator you should be doing your thing, not translating, because you do not know how to translate. If you do not have a degree, you lack the necessary theoretical foundation. If you have a degree, you lack the necessary practice.

You can't win.

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