Linguistic commutivity

I got the e-mail on Thursday. A translation for a client, due Monday. It was short and non-scientific, which can sometimes be a nice break. It’s good to diversify! I had a bunch of other stuff to finish up on Friday, but I said I’d do it over the weekend.

Saturday at 7:15 am, I’m in the car with Luc, headed to his school for the PSAT.  We had discussed equipment the evening before.  Two pencils, an eraser. A calculator, just in case. A pencil sharpener.

Fifteen minutes into the drive, I think to double check. “Do you have your pencils?” check. “Eraser? Pencil sharpener? ID?” check. check. Check. “Calculator?” Umm. Oops.

What is it with my offspring and standardized testing? I utter a few choice expletives at high volume. At least this time, there’s no one else around to hear it. “I told you LAST NIGHT to get all this stuff ready!”

I pull off the freeway, looking at the clock. There isn’t time to go home, get the calculator, and get to the test on time. And now I’ve wasted even more time pulling off the freeway! More words exit my mouth. Luckily I have my phone, and he calls a friend and solves his own problem. All that excitement for nothing.

I’m also in a hurry because I have to hightail it home and take Brendan to the train station. He and two of Marc’s students are heading off to Africa to dig holes way the hell out in some godforsaken village in the bush, studying erosion. Marc isn’t joining them until a week later. I’m just a little anxious about all those malaria-carrying mosquitoes that want to feast on my firstborn’s innocent, unsuspecting eighteen-year-old flesh. I make sure we double-check: passport, Yellow Fever vaccination certification, mosquito net, insect repellent, headlamp. (No electricity.) “Remember to only drink bottled water,” I remind him for the five-thousandth time.

Sunday rolls around and I open the file. It’s two short interviews, one with an Irishman and one with a Brit, along with a short introduction. The title for each piece is a quote taken from the interview.

Now we translators may not be the brightest bulbs on the tree, but I know that these interviews were not conducted in French.

They were done in English, translated into French, and now I’m being asked to translate them back into English.

Here’s the thing: The commutative law of arithmetic doesn’t apply to language. You can’t assume A+B-B=A, where A= a bunch of words in English and B=those words translated into French.

I’m stymied. What, is this some sort of quality control test? Are they trying to see how close I come to the original English to see if I’m any good as a translator? 

I fire off an e-mail, asking for a copy of the original interviews. But it’s Sunday in Switzerland, which is sacred. Only Americans like me who don’t have any extended family in the vicinity can get away with working on Sunday. And since tomorrow first thing I’m heading to Zurich to hang out with my visitor Susan and my Dutch friend Mieke, it has to get done now. So I bite back my compunctions, translate the French back into English, and send it off.

Monday evening, in Zurich, I check my e-mail on Mieke’s computer. I have a message, with the original English interviews attached. “But please base your translation on the French translation,” it says.

Okay, I understand, we need to make sure the sentences are grammar-error-free and the whole thing hangs together logically. I’ve conducted plenty of interviews myself, and I know about cleaning things up. Talking is different than writing, and adjustments sometimes have to be made.

This said, I still feel very strongly about staying true to the words that come out of someone’s mouth.  People who translate or write for a living know that there are many ways to spin a story. In an interview, the person who was talking spun the story in a particular way, choosing a particular set of words. When I pulled off the freeway Saturday morning, I used specific words. I didn’t say, “Gosh darn shucks, Luc, that wasn’t too bright!”  It just doesn’t ring true, now, does it?

You see, doing a re-translation-of-a-translation violates the whole interview ethic. When you’re quoting someone, you’re sharing the words they used. Period. When I translate back from the French translation, I run the risk of using slightly different words, because English is a wonderfully rich language, chock full of synonyms. And if the French translation was less than optimal, that risk skyrockets. Without the original, I have no way of knowing how good the French translation was.

So, obviously, I was very relieved to get the original interviews.

I fixed them up and sent off the new version. In fact, the French translation had been good, and so my translation of the translation had been pretty close to the mark. I had warm fuzzies on two counts – number one, I wasn’t going to be involved in misquoting anyone, and number two, I don’t completely suck as a translator.

Back home Tuesday night, I opened my e-mail to a message saying that I had accidentally left a double sentence in one of the interview answers. I’d pasted from the original, but neglected to cut out my original translation. A mistake!!

“I’d appreciate it if you would pay closer attention in the future 😉 ”  he wrote (in French, “Merci de faire bien attention pour la suite 😉.”

That was it. No “Thanks for fixing it up at short notice!” or “Great translation!” But that’s okay, I knew it was a good translation. I don’t absolutely need positive feedback. Of course, a good word would have made the likelihood of my taking the next little job from this source about 100% greater…

Still, there was a wink there, and so in the spirit of the thing, I lobbed it back (in English):

“Sorry! Next time, please send the original English interview as well, so we can avoid the whole issue!!”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *