Thursday, 8 July 2010

English as she is spoke

I was just talking earlier about the resources the web offers for translation companies and translators promoting their services. Many translators blog to raise their profile and to contribute to their professional community. Some translators have elaborate websites (personal favourites include Linda Hoaglund's website and Roberto Crivello's site). I just came across another good website belonging to the Italian to English translator Wendell Ricketts of No Peanuts fame.

WR is waging a valiant rearguard action against translation into the second language. I especially enjoyed his collection of sins against English: Traducese (essentially an unfamiliarity with standard terms and collocations); Inglisc (a selection of translations from Italian to English produced by non-native speakers of English), similar hybrids 'Egliano', 'Italiese' and the international category Doesn't matter as long as it's cheap, which takes aim at 'translators' who charge clients for unedited work done using free translation software.

Fun reading for all the family. The question of translation into the second language is a fairly hot potato in translation circles. There's a clear need for client education in a market where translations into the second language are common even though there's no perceptible shortage of qualified native-English-speaking translators. In some language pairs, though, there is a shortage of such translators, and in that case creative compromises are made and specific working practices adopted. Of course quality control is always important.

I don't agree with WR that it is never possible to translate into an acquired language - I have known too many gifted translators translating out of their 'mother tongue' for that (well, at least two). I do agree that it is impossible to translate competently, for publication, into a language of which you do not have native-standard mastery of written expression. Unless your written English (or French, or German) is indistinguishable from that of a professional writer who is also a native speaker, you shouldn't be translating into the language for publication. (By 'publication' I mean anything that will be seen by the public, shareholders, customers, clients etc.). (Hint: almost nobody writes in their second language as well as they write in their first, with a very few honourable exceptions of the order of Samuel Beckett).

So WR's website is an entertainment and a cautionary tale in one.


VitaVagabonda said...

WR is flattered to be mentioned and thanks you kindly!

But I want to correct one thing. I don't say (and never have said) that it is "never possible to translate into an acquired language." I tried to get at some of the complexity of this issue in my article "Please Mind the Gap" (, but you nearly make the point yourself:

"I have known too many gifted translators translating out of their 'mother tongue' for that (well, at least two)."

And that's the issue: “Well, at least two.” Everyone who wants to argue this point with me starts off with "Yeah? Well what about Beckett and Nabokov and ... and ..." and quickly runs out of steam.

To be accurate, Beckett and Nabokov weren't translators and *writing* your own words/thoughts/prose in a non-native language is not the same as *translating* someone else's). My issue is that it’s important to recognize the different levels and varieties of language production and reception and the different skills involved in each, but for the sake of argument, let's include them.

The fact, though, is that most "fake native translators" are neither Beckett nor Nabokov (would God that they were). Many of us probably know know one or two people who can translate "in passivo" and do it well, but the fact is that it's extremely rare.

You state the criterion perfectly: “Unless your written English (or French, or German) is indistinguishable from that of a professional writer who is also a native speaker, you shouldn't be translating into the language for publication.” If that simple principle were universally applied, I’d stand down from my soapbox and throw my arms open to every second-language translator who was perfectly-indistinguishable-from-a-professional-native-speaking-writer, wherever she or he was to be found.

All two of them.

sunny south coast said...

Hi Wendell,

I'm flattered that you thought this frivolous post was worth responding to - and thank you for the clarification. I should myself have been more clear and said that though I mentioned Beckett, the two translators I had in mind when I wrote the post were both professional literary translators who happened to have acquired a dazzling competence in English such that they were able to translate prose and poetry from their 'original' mother tongues into English, which was an acquired language.
But I have racked my brains and still can't think of more than two.
Beckett is a bit of a red herring in my post because I wasn't really thinking of him. I do think of him as a translator, both of his own and of other people's writing (I don't agree with the perception of self-translation as not translation, and in Beckett's case the precision of his self-translations for me makes them translations - after all, translation can be a further step in the development of the text). But interestingly, and in support of the very fair point you make, when Beckett translated other people's work (Chamfort, Montale, Rimbaud and quite a few others) as far as I know he only translated into English - his 'mother tongue'.
But of course there are also examples of writers very successfully changing writing language, which again supports our (shared) point that it's possible, but it tends to stand out!
Thank you again for picking up the discussion and for the post to your article which I will look forward to reading more carefully. :)