Lost in translation

For anyone who has ventured in the dark woods of translation land, my amateur experiences below may bring a smile (or grimace?) of recognition.

No matter whether a translation piece is short, long, professional, unofficial or purely out of interest or necessity, it is serious, and I mean serious, business. Negotiating the nuances of (at least) two languages, variations in meaning depending on the context, odd or unusual vocabulary and expressions uniquely cultural, it is no mean feat to get it right or as close to the gist of the original text as possible.

When I − not being a translator or interpreter but fluent in spoken and written English as I have been living in New Zealand for more than 20 years − stared at the first page of a significant translation assignment, I had many debates with myself and other language buffs (I have many friends!) about issues such as: How to honour the intention and the meaning of the words without being too literal? How to make the text flow when the sentence structures of both languages are dissimilar? How to decide which verb to choose for ‘to think’ each time or which is the best adjective in a particular context to describe something small, little, petite, mini, tiny, wee, slight, diminutive … And how to decide on an appropriate equivalent for professional jargon?

Anna Aslayan recently documented her decades of experience as a translator in Dancing on ropes. I am impressed by the background research she undertook for many historical-political intriguing examples of translation near misses and suspense. Her statement that a great translation should never read or feel like a translation stuck as a mantra in my mind when, on request, I embarked on a four-month journey of translating a book on systemic therapy from Dutch/Flemish into English.

I should be more specific. The work is not at all finished. Just before Christmas the three editors of the original book and I discussed, questioned and commented my first ‘solid’ draft of the twelve book chapters. That first ‘solid’ draft is the result of hard work and multiple previous drafts, ranging from an initial rough, speedy translation, a second careful sentence-by-sentence edit, to a third reading including in-depth research and checking of terminology, theory and original referenced authors. Three chapters at the time made their electronic journey to the editors of the original book, subsequently reviewed and adorned with comments and suggestions, followed some time later by a collective elaborate discussion over Zoom.

Halfway, at chapter 7, I felt confident enough to loosen the translation with permission from the editors to make the text mine and beautiful. So, what did I do different and did anyone notice the difference?