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The Alchemy of Translation

written by: Eric W. Vogt • edited by: Wendy Finn • updated: 1/5/2012

Of the many models of what it's like to translate, alchemy has always appealed to me. This model is proposed by a famous literary translator whose works many readers will recognize.

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    Literary Translation is Hot -- Despite this Analogy

    I had the good fortune to include in my graduate studies in Spanish literature the serious study of translation under the direction of Dr. Margaret Sayers Peden. Any reader who has read the novels of Isabel Allende will recognize Dr. Peden's name as the translator of every one of Allende's novels with the exception of her first, The House of the Spirits.

    Her classes on translation were a combination of workshop plus "theory" (an unfortunate word, but it's the only one at hand). Everyone had to be bilingual in order to register for them. Any language combination was fine.

    Explaining what Translating is Like

    In order to make the translator's mental processes more palpable, Dr. Peden introduced the notion of translation by way of analogy. If you are a translator and wish to explain your work to a monolingual person, this analogy is often helpful. If you are a technical translator and your client is monolingual, you will probably be able to educate him or her quickly by using it. Explaining what it is like to be bilingual or to translate to a monolingual person is much like telling a color-blind person what a color looks like.

    Let's follow a text from one language to another, imagining that instead of words on a page, the words are ice -- frozen in a vase of a certain size, specific to the message at hand -- thus it is completely filled to the top. The shape of any vase in any particular language will be the same (although sizes will vary per message or text in that language. Thus, the vase represents the language and its rules, it's "shape" being unique. The French vase has one shape -- coming in different sizes. Spanish has another, as do English, Russian, Chinese, etc.

    The translator is like an alchemist. He or she melts the text in a sealed environment, then boils it. It turns to steam which is conducted by a tube to another vase -- where it condenses and once cooled, chilled until it freezes. However, the vase is of a different shape and its volume, as it turns out for mysterious reasons, can never be precisely the same as the vase it came from. Sometimes when it refreezes, the ice will not quite come to the top, other times it will protrude slightly from the top. A few droplets of water also condense in the tubing and don't make it to the second vase.

    Now imagine that all this melting, boiling, transferring, condensing, chilling and re-freezing happens in a translator's mind. In fact, Dr. Peden proposed that arguably (yet convincingly to anyone who experiences translation), only when the message is in its "steam" state is it fully comprehended by the translator -- in fact, better comprehended by the translator than it ever was or will be again.

    The analogy is also a confession of sorts. No language can perfectly render an identical text -- translation is an exacting art and a creative science. A translation is a new creation, particularly where literature is concerned.

    Do you think it's possibly to perfectly translate a document? Does this analogy appeal to you?