The Translator as a BiCultural Being

Putting a human face on your language services provider

Translators tend to be at home in more than one culture—be it by birth, circumstance, or the conscious choice of immersing themselves in different cultures. But what sets them apart is that, while assimilating to the culture they live in, they also cultivate their membership to other cultural circles. This gives them a unique perspective, not unlike the vantage point of the artist, who needs to step outside his or her paradigm to get a clearer grasp of what shapes its realities.

The little differences

You might recall the opening dialogue of Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction”, when John Travolta’s character shares some surprising discoveries of his stay in Europe—like the re-naming of a burger staple necessitated by the metric system or the unusual way of eating French fries (with mayonnaise). What appears to be completely ordinary to someone who has grown up in a certain culture can be quite astonishing to anyone not accustomed to it. The life of a translator is full of such epiphanies, because no matter how well you know your working languages and cultures, you continue to discover things that would escape you if you did not see them in association with what they are outside of their habitual setting.

Going the distance

By association alone, as a matter of fact, can one small word that may not even be any different in two languages result in an entirely different meaning. After Germany’s liberation from Nazi rule and to clearly distinguish the Allies’ sectors from the Soviet sector, newly or re-founded institutions in Berlin were labeled as “free”: the radio station Sender Freies Berlin for instance, and, as it is still known today, the “Freie Universität Berlin”. 65 years later, it would never occur to Americans that a “Free University” in Europe has anything to do with the “Free world”—free of Nazis, free from communism—instead, they are very likely to mistake it for meaning “free of charge”. Historical and geographical distance creates a new context that can easily be misread, but serves as the road the translator travels when carrying messages across and discovering worlds in between.

Inside out

Immersion is everything, or so we are told, when learning another language and adapting to another culture. And while it is only by way of immersion that we delve deep enough to understand a culture’s treasures and truths, the translator’s work is accomplished by being there and somewhere else at the same time, which tends to characterize how he defines himself otherwise as well. The “other” is never far, because you are trained to keep it present and your identity resides within this continuous duality: You are forever creating the subtitles to your own film. Ironically, this heightened self-consciousness enlightens yet another conceptual and even psychological difference between the English and German languages: While someone who is conscious of his or her self is understood as having (self-) confidence in German (Selbstbewusstsein), self-conscious doubles as insecure in English.

Serving two masters

With the consciousness of complexities, however, comes the mandate of clarity. As Confucius puts it: “If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything.” The need to be loyal to what is said is trumped only by the necessity to be clear when rendering it in a different language. Striving to do justice to source and target is the daily bread of the translator, and the answer is different every single time. Decisions are called for consistently, and the knowledge that two things can never be the same runs deep.

A band apart

In a world and time where you are defined by what you do rather than by who you are, we easily become what we do. Over the course of a career, the cultural and linguistic as well as social and intellectual sensitivities required to successfully translate from one language into another will thus rather deepen than disappear, making the translator all the more aware of his status caught in perpetuity between the lines. Living in two worlds is living rich, but it also means living apart. Yet, as in art, expression is the key. Continuing to discover, to learn, and to communicate creates a well of knowledge for everybody—or in Ella Fitzgerald’s words: The only thing better than singing is more singing.

Nanette Gobel

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