Translating without a net – Amidst the rambling of my last entry is a discussion of The Princess Bride (the book, not the movie). It is one of my “comfort books”—a book that I read when I’m feeling down. I suppose it might be an odd choice, as the purported message of the story is that life isn’t fair, but what can I say. I’m just a sucker for that metafictional stuff.
Anyway, there is a certain passage in the book that reminds me of my own work as a translator. In the book, the most famous sword maker in all of Europe is a man named Yeste, who lives in Madrid. The greatest sword maker in all of Europe, though, is a man named Domingo Montoya, who lives in obscurity in the hills above Toledo. It is Domingo Montoya, his old friend, whom Yeste visits when he receives an order beyond his abilities. Domingo is happy enough to play this role, as he desires neither fame nor riches. His only love is for the art of sword making (and for his son Inigo, who ultimately avenges him, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves). So one day, when a six-fingered man comes to Domingo’s small village and requests a sword for his special “condition,” he takes the job for the challenge and not for the money. The following is from the passage that describes Domingo’s quest to make the six-fingered sword.
He studied, fretted, complained. He never should have taken the job; it was impossible. The next day he would be flying: he never should have taken the job; it was too simple to be worth his labors. Joy to despair, joy to despair, day to day, hour to hour. Sometimes Inigo would wake to find him weeping: “What is it, Father?” “It is that I cannot do it. I cannot make the sword. I cannot make my hands obey me. I would kill myself except what would you do then?” “Go to sleep, Father.” “No, I don’t need sleep. Failures don’t need sleep. Anyway, I slept yesterday.” “Please, Father, a little nap.” “All right; a few minutes; to keep you from nagging.”
Some nights Inigo would awake to see him dancing. “What is it, Father?” “It is that I have found my mistakes, corrected my misjudgments.” “Then it will be done soon, Father?” “It will be done tomorrow and it will be a miracle.” “You are wonderful, Father.” “I’m more wonderful than wonderful, how dare you insult me.”
But the next night, more tears. “What is it now, Father?” “The sword, the sword, I cannot make the sword.” “But last night, Father, you said you had found your mistakes.” “I was mistaken; tonight I found new ones, worse ones. I am the most wretched of creatures. Say you wouldn’t mind if I killed myself so I could end this existence.”
I know that’s a long quote, but I wanted to include all of that because that’s exactly how I feel when translating. There are days when I am possessed by the spirits of language and meaning and my fingers are on fire as I pound out words on my keyboard. Reading the original text, processing it, and writing the translated text seems to happen instantaneously, and the words flow out onto the screen like the water that rushes down the mountain outside my study. I am in the zone, floating somewhere above language, stuck in a liminal state where I can see everything at once and flit across borders of meaning at will. It’s exhilarating, and at times like this I feel like I hold the world in the palm of my hand.
Then, of course, there are other days when nothing seems to go right, and I stare dully at the text as the words just laugh at me and refuse to be processed by my brain. I might type a few words and then stare into space for a minute before starting again. The words do not flow, they come in jerks and starts, they jar and shake me like a boulder falling down a mountainside. On days like this, translation is like constipation: you can strain and struggle all you want, but the best you can hope for at the end of the day is a piece of crap.
I know a lot of this fluctuation has to do with my state of mind at any particular time. It should go without saying that I translate better when well rested than when tired. It also helps to be in a generally good mood. And then there’s the text itself—some texts are just easier to translate than others.
In general, though, I would like to think that the peaks keep getting higher and the valleys keep getting shallower—in other words, that I am slowly improving, even if I may fluctuate quite a bit in my actual attitude toward my performance. I am always looking for ways to get more fingers-on-fire and less constipation. Sometimes this is as simple as just getting a good night’s sleep, or adjusting my attitude and taking a brighter view of the world.
Sometimes, though, long-term improvement requires refining my translation philosophy or adopting a new technique. I got the idea for my latest technique as I was reading the novel I am currently translating. Before I started the actual translation, I read the book three times. On my third reading, I discovered that sentences were starting to “translate themselves” as I read. That is, I would read a sentence, and I would unintentionally start to translate it in my head. Most of my reading was done on the subway, where it would have been difficult to write anything of significant length while holding a book in my hands, so I let the translations slip away into the ether, hoping that I would be able to summon them again when the time came.
After I finished the third reading, but before I began the translation, I began to think about my experience on the subway. Did the text start to translate itself simply because I had read it three times? I’m sure that was part of it. I don’t usually read texts three times before translating them. Usually I read them once—maybe twice if it’s a very difficult text, but this doesn’t happen very often—and then begin translating. Maybe the trick to getting natural and fluent translation was just reading the text until it started to happen.
I don’t think that was the whole of it, though. Multiple readings certainly helped, but there was something else. I began to think about other differences between this particular experience and my typical translation experience, and it hit me: on the subway, I didn’t have access to my beloved internet dictionaries. I was able to read straight through because I wasn’t stopping to look up words in a dictionary, and the fluent nature of my reading led to a more fluent translation.
Now, some of you may be thinking, “Well, how were you able to read the novel without a dictionary?” Anyone who speaks a second (not foreign) language will understand this. I was able to read the novel because I knew (or could figure out from context) just about all the words in the text. But knowing what a word means in Korean doesn’t necessarily mean that I know what it means in English. When I read something in Korean, I process it and think about it in Korean—in other words, I don’t need to make the mental transition to English to understand the meaning (which, of course, is another reason why I wasn’t using a dictionary during my subway readings—even if I had a dictionary, I wouldn’t have needed it).
This is a good thing when it comes to my studies, of course, as it would be very difficult to keep up if I had to translate everything in my head. It is not that great a thing when it comes to translating, though—because I understand the text as is, it can actually be harder to translate it. This is why I use a dictionary when translating. I may know what a word means, but I may not know what it means in English. I often look up very simple words repeatedly because I just can’t remember what they mean in English. I don’t know if this makes me a bad translator, but it does get frustrating at times.
When you’re looking up a lot of words, it’s very hard to get any sort of flow going. After thinking about it for a while, I decided that I would not use a dictionary when translating the novel. I’ve been doing this for several weeks now, and I have to say that it’s going great. My speed has improved tremendously, and the translated text itself tends to flow a lot better. I occasionally come across a word that I don’t know and can’t figure out from context, and in those cases I just type it in Korean and work around it. If a moment’s thought isn’t enough to clear things up, I just move on and don’t look back. It’s very refreshing.
Now, you might think that the translation would have a lot of holes in it, since I usually look up a decent amount of words in the dictionary but don’t have that resource available. In fact, there are very few holes. When I said above that there are many words that I know in Korean that I don’t know in English, I guess I wasn’t being entirely truthful. I do know them in English, but sometimes they just don’t come to me. Or at least they don’t come to me quickly enough. I didn’t realize this until I stopped using the internet dictionary and the words started coming to me again.
Back when I used a dead-tree dictionary, I probably made more of an effort to remember what a word meant because it required a certain amount of effort to flip through all those pages. With dictionaries on my computer and access to dictionaries on the internet, though, that effort has been reduced considerably. Take the Naver dictionary (page in Korean), for example. Not only is it speedy, but you can also type in the first few characters of a word and select from a list that is updated as you type. My Korean word processor has a function where you can get word meanings simply by hovering over a word with the cursor (I had to turn that off, as it got way too distracting). It’s so easy to look up a word that it’s rarely worth trying to fish it out of my brain.
Once I deprived myself of my beloved electronic dictionaries, I was forced to use my own brain again. Now I remember meanings that I had “forgotten,” and the less I use a dictionary the quicker I get at drawing words from my own memory. There’s another important benefit that I mentioned above, and that is flow. When I’m translating without interruptions, the words and meanings seem to come a lot easier. More often than not, it would appear that stopping to think about a word does more harm than good.
Part of the reason for this is that translating fluently helps me get into a creative groove, but there is another reason: in translation, the basic unit of meaning is the sentence, not the word. Translation is not about one-for-one word replacement, it’s about conveying meaning, and that meaning is contained in the sentences, not in the individual words. This does not mean that I make a habit of leaving out words, but not everything is one to one. Korean is not very rich in verbs, but it is incredibly rich in adverbs (as well as adjectives), so it is quite common to see the adverb + simple verb combination in Korean texts. Most of the time, though, English will have a single, more colorful verb that can fill that syntactic slot. For example, the verb “to walk” (“geotda”) appears quite a bit in Korean to describe movement, and variety is obtained by choosing from a plethora of adverbs. In English, though, we have words like “stagger,” “saunter,” “strut,” “sidle,” and “shuffle” at our disposal—and that’s not even touching words that don’t being with “s.” You can tell a text has been translated word for word from Korean to English when you see a page littered with these adverb + simple verb combinations.
I cannot claim that idea as my own, though, and must give credit where credit is due. I got this from An Jeonghyo, a noted Korean translator and novelist for whom I have the greatest respect. Another piece of advice he gave me was this: “Read the original text, then stare at the wall and think, ‘How would we say this in English?’” That is, not “What does this word mean in English?” but “How can I convey the meaning of this sentence in English?” In short: the sentence is the basic unit of meaning, not the word. To put it another way, translation happens (or should happen) primarily at the semantic level, not the syntactic level.
That’s what makes it possible to translate without a dictionary. When you take a sentence as a whole rather than a jumble of words, the meaning becomes clearer—because language is greater than the sum of its parts. As I mentioned before, there are times during my translation of the novel when I just have to write a word in Korean and let it go, but it almost never affects the meaning of the sentence as a whole. Not worrying about the individual parts frees me up to continuously think about the whole.
At first I must admit that it was difficult to go without my beloved dictionaries. When you get into the habit of relying on the dictionaries, it gets very hard to go without. I guess it’s a form of addiction, now that I think about it. Fortunately for me, I have a very high ambiguity tolerance. “Ambiguity tolerance” is a term used in language learning, and it is basically a measure of how well you can tolerate not knowing what people are talking about one hundred percent of the time. A language learner who gets tripped up by unknown words and allows the conversation to slip by has a very low ambiguity tolerance. A learner with a high ambiguity tolerance, though, will let these unknown words slide and focus on the meaning of the conversation as a whole. Having a high ambiguity tolerance is obviously a plus when learning a new language, but I never thought of it as valuable to translation—in fact, I always thought of it as a detriment. But being able to step back from the trees and see the forest is a great help when it comes to translating without a net, so to speak, and after my first day using the new technique I was perfectly comfortable. I have not once been tempted to go back to my dictionaries.
Of course, none of these ideas are groundbreaking or earth shaking. Actually applying these ideas to come up with dictionary-less translation was definitely a breakthrough for me, though. So far I have only tried it with the novel translation, but I am trying to adapt the principle to other translation as well. Namely, I am compromising: translating whole sentences first and then looking up words after the sentence is done. If there is a drawback to the dictionary-less approach, it might be that it requires a thorough second run to fill in the holes and check word choices, but I read through all my translations anyway, and I think the added effort is worth the payoff. I suppose I’ll have to let you know once I get into the second run for the novel.
Anyway, this has been a big step for me in translation, and in addition to increased speed and fluency, it also makes me feel fingers-on-fire inspired more often than not. It’s hard not to get psyched as the words just flow out onto the screen. This positive attitude in turn feeds back into my translation, and things just get better. I look forward to translating the novel like I’ve never looked forward to any translation before. It doesn’t hurt that it’s a great story, of course, but this method of translating makes it even more enjoyable.
The funny thing is that I had originally intended to write something a little more negative, focusing on problems I had in translating, and how I felt like the Domingo Montoya who just couldn’t make the sword, but instead I feel like the triumphant Domingo. I have to admit that I like this version of the entry better. It’s nice to be positive for a change.