The Art of Translation

Translation Tools

My first experience with translation was in French class during college. My professor did an exercise with us where we had to first translate an excerpt of a book from French to English, and then another excerpt from English to French. He then showed us translations of the two pieces that had been done by professionals so that we could compare.

The class soon found out that while we all had similar translations to those of the professionals, all of our translations were slightly different from each other. This was when I discovered that translating is not just about finding the equivalent word; sometimes there is no equivalent word, and therefore everyone had faintly different interpretations. Therefore, one needs to have a very good understanding of both the language and the culture in order to be able to interpret it into one’s own language.

It has been a couple of years now since that French class, and I have now started translating professionally, but from Spanish to English. It’s really interesting work, and I can do it from the comfort of my own home or a café somewhere, which I really like. My Spanish is by no means perfect, so I still have to look up a lot of words or ask a native speaker about a certain phrase, but for the most part I can just write the English translation.

I’m also still teaching English classes, but translation work has started to take up most of my time. I enjoy both teaching and translating and like having a mixture of both, but translations are definitely my preference. It’s a great way to learn more Spanish and I love anything involving writing and language, so it’s perfect for me.

Additionally, I recently started working for an NGO focused on women’s rights and I have been doing a lot of translations of cases of violence against women by the FARC, guerilla, and paramilitary (armed forces in Colombia) for them. The organization uses this documentation as evidence against these groups in the hopes of bringing the cases to trial and ending the impunity surrounding them, and the translations are especially important in terms of reaching a wider audience and raising awareness about these issues.

The other documents I’ve been translating have been mostly tourism information about Colombia, for travel agencies and airline companies. These are fun because I’ve traveled to a lot of the places mentioned in the documents so I know the places they describe, and these aren’t too difficult, either.

Having lived in Colombia for over a year now has without a doubt provided me with the skills to translate. I am familiar with the vernacular in Colombia and the flow of the language, and even though I may not be capable of reproducing it exactly correctly when I speak Spanish, I understand it well enough to be able to put it into English.

I’ve come across some amusing Spanish phrases that I think are perfect examples of the importance of understanding the culture and context, as well as the words themselves. For instance, if I literally translate the Spanish phrase,“me doy cuenta,” in English it would be, “I give myself account.”  However, what the phrase actually means is “I see” or “I understand.” If I were to translate it word for word, it doesn’t make sense, which is why an understanding of the jargon of the region one is in is essential.

Another humorous translation is “hoja de vida,” which is the Spanish term for a resumé, but if you translate it literally, it means “paper of life.” It makes sense, when you think about it, but if I were doing a translation and put “paper of life” instead of “resumé,” people would have no idea what I meant.

Anthony Burgess sums up the art of translation quite well: “Translation is not a matter of words only: it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture.”

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