My Journey from Translation to Paraphrasing

January 1, 2017




I have been working as a translator for about ten years. One of the things I like the most about this profession is that you always learn new things about yourself and about your craft. To me translation really is a craft, just like sculpting; you start by knocking off unwanted pieces of stone in order to create the general shape of the sculpture and then you start carving and refining until you see the figure you want. Then you start comparing this figure to the original sculpture in the source language. Sometimes I feel I’m cooking a dish that has to smell and taste precisely like the original and at other times I feel like a painter who is working on a new masterpiece that is actually a replica of another painting.

For years I have been trying to figure out what the definition of ‘good translation’ is; this may sound like a trivial question but I’m not sure how many translators can really say what qualifies as ‘good translation’. Should I maintain the original syntax or not? Should I keep the same word order? Should I insist on using the author’s words? After all, if someone used a certain word it’s for a reason.  Should I maintain the length of the source sentences? I had all the theory in place years ago: the translation should reflect the original text, it should not add to the meaning of the source text, it should be clear to the target audience, and so forth. And still, every once in a while I would find myself staring helplessly at a sentence, unable to figure out what doesn’t sound right. I would revise it again and again, looking for the words that would sound good enough to calm my inner, perfectionist editor. The weird thing was that I could understand the source text perfectly and yet building a sentence in the target language was excruciating. What was it that made those sentences stand out and be so time-consuming?

Before I answer this question I need to go back to my sophomore year at Haifa university during my BA studies. It had always been a challenge translating beautiful Arabic literature to Hebrew. For most students the translation would be an advance version of machine translation with some minor improvements. For others, the translation would sound friendlier, like immigrants who are very proficient in their new tongue and yet sometimes make a mistake that reveals their origin. For a handful of students it would sound just right. And regardless of how hard we tried to find the most accurate translation and how long we would work on any given text, there were always those sentences where the source text would convey more than we could translate without having to add another sentence or stretch the current sentence in a way that was clearly unnatural. I think that what characterizes that period in my professional life the most was that the translation process was mostly intuitive. I didn’t have the tools or the knowledge at that stage to analyze the translation process. It was only towards the end of my MA studies at Bar Ilan University that I was able to draw a flow chart of my actual, mental translation process and analyze texts to understand why some of them were more challenging than others. Another thing I learned at that point was that if you close your eyes as you translate, the translation should reflect the same image as the source text. This insight was revolutionary to me because as someone who is addicted to details, it was the first time I could take a step back and look at the entire painting instead of just examining the brush strokes.

A few weeks ago I attended a training meeting at the offices of a well-known company as part of a project that I’m involved in as a reviewer. The meeting was dedicated to translation and review techniques and at some point we talked about the difficulty of translating technical texts. One of the things that were repeated during that session was that many times we need to paraphrase the source text for it to sound natural in the target language and yet maintain the original meaning. So what is the big deal? The big deal is how far you are willing to go for the translation to sound as if it were written in the target language in the first place. The thing that hit me was that the syntactic difference between the languages that I translate is far bigger than I had ever thought, even between Hebrew and Arabic. That was the reason why many of the translations of my peers at the university sounded like machine translations. It was because they concentrated on the vocabulary and overlooked the syntax. The difference is so big that you cannot avoid paraphrasing; in fact you MUST paraphrase. And once you do, your translations will sound entirely different. I admit that nothing is as exciting to me as reading my translation and feeling it has absolutely nothing to do with the source text (other than the message, of course). Since that training session I have translated a very challenging report about green architecture and I can honestly say that if it had not been for the freedom I gave myself to paraphrase the text, it would have been quite impossible to deliver a readable translation.

To me this was a very significant experience because it made me realize that the source text is not sacred, only the message it delivers. Of course, I would not want to push this idea too far and intentionally change whatever I can in the translation process; instead, whenever I encounter one of those time-consuming sentences I pause and think about the message and how it might sound in a text that was written in the target language in the first place.

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