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Music and the Zen of Translation
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Music and the Zen of Translation

By Steve Vlasta Vitek

If you endeavor to embrace The Way through much learning, The Way will not be understood. If you observe The Way with simplicity of heart, great indeed is this way. -from the Sayings of Buddha

In the summer of 1987, a few months after I decided to become a full-time freelance translator, I was hired by the owner of a translation agency to translate medical and legal documents from German for 8 hours a day at an hourly rate, Monday through Friday, in his offices and on his computer. The law firm wanted to maintain the utmost confidentiality possible, which meant that I had to work in that office till death or victory, as they say in Russian. Victory in this case meant finishing a box of documents and getting paid for it by the law firm. Because at that point I had virtually no clients except for this agency, and I had to pay off my computer, printer and dictionaries, all of which I had put on my credit card, I accepted, without even trying to haggle about the rate. I did not die and we did get paid. It took me about five months to finish the project, with some help from another translator. On Saturdays and Sundays I was translating from Japanese a few computer games and patents which agencies were slowly beginning to send my way, enticed by my low rates.

In addition to paying off my credit card debt, I discovered several amazing facts during my first and only long assignment, for which I was paid on an hourly basis. First of all, I could not possibly translate for 8 hours a day, no matter how hard I tried. I am basically an honest person and if I agree to a deal, I try to deliver as best as I can on my end of the deal. But no matter how hard I tried, I could not translate for 8 continuous hours. The best that I could deliver was perhaps 6 hours, after subtracting the numerous breaks and distractions that I had to create for myself to maintain my sanity. At first I felt guilty about this, but then I discovered that the owner knew that this would happen, and when I told him that my tired brain refused to work, he would simply tell me to try to learn some computer software or take a break. He knew that when you force yourself too much, you make too many mistakes and lose your client.

I still can translate only five to six hours a day. There is something about the translating activity that causes your brain to stop working properly after a certain finite quota of mental energy has been exhausted. It is probably also true about other mental activities, but it is definitely true about translation. I think it was Steve Karpa who wrote about the psychology of translation in an essay also containing contributions from Donald Philippi and John Bukacek, all Japanese technical translators, that there is a moment of complete confusion in your brain after you have read a passage in one language and just before you attempt to reconstruct it in another language. At that point, there is a blank, a vacuum or complete chaos in your mind, which you have to bridge over to arrive safely on the shore of a different language. The effort that translators must expend to overcome this chaos may explain the fatigue that they seem to feel after a long stretch of work.

The more dissimilar the languages (for instance Chinese and English), and the more unfamiliar the field, concepts and vocabulary, the more the effort that may be required, but this principle seems to apply to translation from all languages. When translating from Japanese to English, it is like first running a wrecking ball through a perfectly well built building and then rebuilding it in a different architectural style. You can rebuild it in different styles. For instance, you can start the sentence from several different points, although the end of the Japanese sentence, where the verb (or several verbs) is hidden, is often the best point, once you have identified what will probably be the subject and object in English. Because the all-important wadai ("theme") in Japanese has no equivalent in English, it is easy to misplace the subject and connect it with the wrong object or verb if there are several objects and verbs in Japanese, as there always seem to be. The theme, which would probably be best described as an adverbial element in Western grammatical terms, is possibly the most confusing component of Japanese grammar when one is trying to rebuild the structure, brick by brick, in a different architectural style.

That is what my teacher told me 20 years ago at my old alma mater in Prague. Back then I was sure that in a couple of years I would understand it almost as well as he did. Twenty years later I know that he was right and that I will never really understand it.

Donald Philippi, a pioneer of translation from Japanese and a mentor who defined technical translation as a field to me and many other translators more than anybody else by simply holding meetings of similarly minded independent spirits in his San Francisco house every few months, used to say that good translators are like tennis or piano players-they have to be born with a gift. You can become good if you work hard, but if you do not have the gift to begin with, you will never be a very good translator or a very good tennis player. The gift is probably more important than anything else. If you are a talented mountain climber, you may be able to climb mountains even if you have only one leg or one hand. But if you don't have the gift, the chances that you will kill yourself during an easy climb are good, no matter how fit you are. I believe that just about everybody has a special gift. The problem is, most people will never discover what their gift is. Perhaps if we fail to find our special gift while we are still very young, we may never be able to find it. Once we reach a certain age, the only talent that matters is our talent to pay the bills. The Beatles could not even read sheet music. But by discovering the talent that they had while they were still playful kids, willing to experiment with their lives and with their music, they were able to merge in their music an incredible number of new currents and old traditions and transform it into a new sound that changed the history of modern music forever.

You have to be in the mood to create good music or good translation. Donald Philippi also wrote about what he called "a translator's high," a magic moment when all things are suddenly clear and you become a secretary taking divine dictation from above-"pumping anagrams," he called it. You just keep on typing and there is no mental fatigue. Or as he liked to say, "Before I realized it, I finished my three thousand words." These moments are magic indeed, especially if you are being paid a rush rate. In fact, I do not think that it is possible to attain a translator's high at a low rate.

Although the grammar of a language can be explained and its vocabulary learned, this will still not guarantee that we will be able to master a language by learning the rules, let alone translate it into another language. Good (and bad) translation is difficult to define. Like pornography, we usually know it when we see it, but that is about the only good definition that I can offer. As to whether it is more science or art, I think that there is too much fiction in it to call it a science. Perhaps it could be called science-fiction, especially some translation. And there is too much imitation in a good translation to call it art.A good translation is nothing but a very good imitation, even though it can be a creative imitation. Perhaps it should be called an original imitation.

The oft repeated cliché about how the translator should be "transparent" is in my opinion based on a misunderstanding of the function of a translator. A pocket translation gadget for $59.95 plus tax which replaces one word by another word, usually incorrectly, is transparent. A good translation reflects the education, religious views, blood type and DNA of the translator, as well as a hundred other things, if you care to look, even if it is a short patent describing a simple machine. That may be why it is often difficult for a translator to get away with murder, even in our wonderful American legal system. It can also reflect a "terrible clash" between two incompatible authors, the original author and the translator, who is also an author, up to a point. Quite often the writer of the original material is a terrible writer (especially in technical translation), and the translator may be a good writer. And quite often it is the other way round (especially in technical translation). It can be a strange brew indeed when incompatible DNAs are mixed together in the melting pot of translation.

A part of the translating process that takes place in our mind is probably best defined as magic. That is why machine translation, in spite of all the noise made about it and the billions of yen, marks and dollars sunk into it, will never really amount to anything but a tool that can be used basically only by translators. Machine translation is in my totally unbiased opinion the Tower of Babel revisited. Nothing new under the sun. Endless lines of computer code instead of endless rows of bricks, both leading to the same result. You can not build a tower to heaven if you don't know what and where this heaven is. And we can not replace language, which is one of the most essential functions of the human brain, by software, when we have no idea what it is that makes this brain work. In the words of Yogi Bear, one of the preeminent American philosophers of the twentieth century (along with Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich and Francis Fukuyama), "It's not such a good idea if you don't know where you're going, 'cause you might not even get there!"

How do you program a magic moment into a machine? That is the problem that computer programmers working on machine translation are trying to solve. But this magic moment, when everything in the universe seems to make sense for only a fleeting time, is hard to capture. TV script writers, composers, poets, junkies and serial killers-they are all trying to capture this fleeting moment, for money or just for the fix they get from it, or for both.

Magic moments are difficult to recreate. I remember one of my magic moments. It was in 1981, and I was riding in a car with a friend on a Bavarian autobahn when this song came up on the tape ("Crazy on You," by the Heart). We were passing Bavarian towns and villages sprinkled along the highway, always so neat and peaceful, probably at more than 80 miles an hour, which is not a crime in orderly Germany. It must have been the combination of the car's speed, the music and perhaps the expectation of our ultimate destination-a new and as yet unknown country that spoke a different language and hopefully still had some space left for a couple of travellers weary from life's vicissitudes. It felt like pure magic. Many years later I bought the same tape and drove my car on a California freeway, trying to recreate the magic of that memory. But it did not work. It was just another catchy tune. Maybe I did not go fast enough, afraid to break another rule.

Several translators told me that they are addicted to translating. If they go cold turkey for too long (when there is no work), they feel the pain, and it is not just the usual pain connected with meager accounts receivable. I know what they mean. I think they miss the magic moment that comes from understanding the natural order of things, when, for a fleeting moment, we become a secretary of the big clockmaker, architect and translator, and take the dictation at record speed without making a single typo.

So remember, if your customers tell you that your rate is too high, try not to judge them harshly, for they know not what they do. They think that they are paying you by the word. Your customers will never understand that they are paying you for priceless moments of your life that will never come back again.


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