Translation is a term used in geometry to describe a function that moves an object a certain distance. The object is not altered in any other way. It is not rotated, reflected or re-sized. In a translation, every point of the object must be moved in the same direction and for the same distance. (source)

My academic career has been characterised by masses of translations in various contexts. It’s a practice that fills me with both fear and excitement – much like a Digital Textualities lecture.

My first few years of secondary school were fairly arts-and-humanities-heavy: art, music and metalwork, along with English, Irish, French and German. The goal was to be a translator or an artist, but a particularly tedious stutter meant I just ended up inept in four separate languages. Translation at this stage meant looking at the word “apple” and saying the word “pomme” or maybe “úll” or something like that. There were right answers and wrong answers, because a word could only mean what the word meant. It’s easy, right?

By the age of 16, my entire range of interests had changed, and I was studying maths, biology, chemistry and geography – I was getting As so the school decided “smart = science” and may have shoehorned me a little. In any case, translation became (as stated above) a term that referred to geometry and the movement of objects. Lord knows how, one year later at the age of 17, I had started a degree in English, possibly the least mathematical degree going. I’m forever grateful.

Anyway, the point is that translation, as I now understand it, is a combination of both ideas. It’s about looking at a word and knowing its meaning in the language you’re aiming for, yes, but it’s also about moving that word from one language to the other, and ensuring that the only thing that changes is the language – not the definition, not the implications, not the context. Translation and interpretation have to go hand in hand, or you’ll change the meaning of the text entirely.

“The counterintuitive argument that the translation does not exist for the sake of the reader who does not read the original language is Benjamin’s first step in establishing translation as an art in its own right. His second step is an exploration of the repercussions that viewing translation as an art has for our conception of the translator–whose task Benjamin is out to define: “Just as translation is a form of its own, so, too, may the task of the translator be regarded as distinct and clearly differentiated from the task of the poet” (“The Task” 258).” (source)


I would argue that the relation of a translation to the original varies depending on the translator, the type of text and the difference between the cultures that the two languages belong to.

If the piece is translated by the author of the original piece, then surely the two texts are non-identical twins. They will have distinct differences – namely, the language – but, having been written by the same person, they will have been written from the same viewpoint, spawned from the same opinions and created with the same intentions as the original.

If the piece is translated by someone other than the original author, this relationship changes as the new writer could not possibly have the exact same mental processes as the original author. The relationship in this case depends on the text and language:

If the text is a fairly standard text – a scientific paper, perhaps, or a legal document – or it is being translated to the language of a similar culture – maybe Irish to Scots Gaelic or something like that – then perhaps the translations will be like siblings. There will be distinct differences, yes, but the two texts will be inextricably linked.

If, however, the text is one that is heavily reliant on the culture and backgrounds of its readers, and their understanding of different concepts, this becomes more complex. For example, I currently work with a girl who, for her PhD, has taken it upon herself to translate the works of Owen McCafferty into Portuguese. I’m incredibly interested in hearing about the result, because McCafferty’s plays are full of cultural context and dialectal quirks. To continue the family metaphor, perhaps these two texts will be cousins, or something similar.

To me, to translate something is to make it available to a different group, not simply by changing it to a different language, but by making it possible for members of this group to understand the cultural forces at play. One word may translate neatly to another, but if the word has two meanings you need to make sure you’re using one – even in the same language, there can be issues with translation that arise from cultural differences.

Here in Belfast, if I ask for a pastie I’ll be handed a strange battered pie with a worrying fluorescent pink interior (a slight culture shock when I first arrived). Meanwhile, back in Somerset, if I express a desire to eat a pasty I will be handed a neat pastry shell containing beef, potato, swede and onion. Each ingredient is separate and distinct and there is no wondering over whether or not it contains meat.

In conclusion, I’m not saying our pasties are better than yours but well, they are.

*video to be released*

Other pigeons: George/Laura/Izzy/Niall/George: The Corrected Text/Brian/Rachel



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