Voice of the Source Why source identity must be kept

Greater than 6 minutes, my friend!

For all I know, the only language that has one word for every definition is Esperanto.

Until we all learn to speak in one language that has a single word for every meaning, translation will find itself necessary.
I believe most people, including translators, undervalue the importance of transforming not just words, but thoughts.
Words are just a representation. It is the thoughts that we are trying to transmit. And words are flawed.

Since I undertook my first translation project a long time ago, I have struggled with the balance between faithfulness to the source and naturalness in the target. When I hear others speak about it, they are often very sure of their beliefs, and it is usually the same: as far as the end result is the same, it doesn’t matter how different the translation is from source. Even though I always found this view to be somewhat superficial, I have dismissed my concerns as inexperience or differences in style.

As time would have it, my gains in knowledge have rather reinforced my understanding. Whenever something is put into words, including these you are currently reading, there is more than just the words being transmitted. There are also concepts, personality, references, pacing, emotion, and other nuances hidden in-between them. When words are chosen, there are instantaneous decisions being taken. Sometimes, much more often than not, these decisions are made deliberately and with strong intent. There are specific feelings or thoughts that the author wants to provoke in the recipient. Much of this intent is contextual, and even more so is hidden beneath the surface.

A simple phrase can carry a lifetime of experiences behind it. Words have layers, and most people are not capable of perceiving them.
Rather, they are capable, but they focus on the outer layers and miss their core. People are often not perceptive enough in their default state of attention.

I have a great example.
Suffice it to say, this is from Deadhaus Sonata’s lore book, a fantasy game about the undead. Two figures, the Fetid Prince and the Leper, are in a cosmic chess-like battle for dominance. The Prince uses Keeva, a Banshee and a kind of sightseer, to evoke a vision of the future. And more…

Seven Suns in Twilight - Deadhaus Sonata

Excerpt from Seven Suns in Twilight – Deadhaus Sonata Store Page

A horrid shriek poured from her gaping maw, a voice that was not her own. It was a deafening wail, full of anguish, and its reverberations distorted the air of the chamber so that every solid surface seemed to tremble and waver, a temple built of many waters. In the presence of the otherworldly voice, the Fetid Prince knelt, and the leper staggered backwards, reeling as if suddenly struck. Keeva’s body buckled under the force of the shriek, bursting into wisps of white and black smoke that swirled away with the fading echoes of the terrible wail, and the temple returned to solid form.

It is easy to dismiss most of what is being said as simple fantasy or writing flair, even if you are an avid reader and fan of such writing style.

But let us look deeper into it and learn. First, think of your understanding of what was said, your first thoughts, and then continue.

(…) a voice that was not her own,” actually means here that she is serving as a communicator of another individual. Presumably, a being of higher power than the characters in the story, one unbeknownst to the readers.

(…) In the presence of the otherworldly voice, the Fetid Prince knelt, and the leper staggered backwards, reeling as if suddenly struck.” Interpreting this can be confusing, but the Fetid Prince is kneeling out of respect for the individual manifesting through the Banshee, and the Leper is staggered not by the force of the shriek itself, but by the surprise he had and the potential chastisement he is receiving from the superior being, possibly one of his own masters.

Read it again or directly in the book linked until you understand it, if you will.

Now, compare that understanding to your first reading.

This deeper insight might be attributed to familiarity with the game. Sure, there is some level of that, but the way it is written–obscure–is purposeful, and this obscurity is aimed at everyone. Nevertheless, the answers are ambiguously there, for those who read it, regardless of familiarity.

As a working linguist of any kind, you might imagine that this superficial reading and comprehension happens mostly with “other people,” but no, it happens to everyone, and it happens all the time, even when you are trained in the art of profound reading.

You may even think that those deeper layers are restricted to higher levels of writing in fantasy literature. Yet, if you look for it, you may notice that even a cooking book of recipes will have multiple instances of layered meanings. Children’s books, for all their simplicity, are riddled with layers. The Bible, the most commonly found book of all, is blanketed by coats and mantles of covering stratum… if you catch my drift.

We are not always capable of perceiving every level there is to a sentence, not always due to our fault. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t more to it than we initially perceived. It is innocent, at best, to believe we can aptly purvey the depth of an author’s message by taking the liberty to make passages our own.

Translators, as I frequently experience, are overly eager to add their particular personality to the target text. I believe this is in great part due to standard college translation education and a mechanism that eases translation: “Read the source, forget the words, and write it all again yourself.”
Though much of what I say may pertain to the English -> Portuguese realm, I hardly believe this isn’t common in other cultures and language pairs either.
You can tell me that.

Imagine that the excerpt above had been rewritten with your first understanding of the passage. Imagine it had been translated with this said mechanism.
So much of the hidden intent would have been lost in a mere choice of words that differed from the source, or a rephrasing of essential sentences. Even the darkness contained in every line would have waned if it were to be written with someone else’s personality added to it.

Whatever the content, the author chose to write it in the precise way it was written for a reason, even if unconsciously. No matter what reason that was, it is our duty as linguists to convey it. And for that, we must be faithful to every single element of the source in the precise way it was written, lest we fail in transmitting some of its identity.

However, I’m not advocating for a word-to-word translation. Rather, I urge you to think of words in a new way.

Words are keys, and sentences are portals. Their purpose is to teleport the reader’s mind into a different dimension–a thought.
If you use the wrong keys, the portal will lead to the wrong dimension.

Since our languages vary so much, it is impossible to perfectly convey someone else’s thoughts in a different culture, being a separate mind, using other words. Thus, “lost in translation.”

But, as our mastery improves, of words, culture and thought, so does our capacity to create doorways to the right and same dimensions originally intended… IF, and only IF, we refrain from pridefully attributing the dimension to ourselves, and focus instead on leading readers to the author’s dimension.

At the risk of being overly esoteric, I have hopefully been able to use the right words to guide your own mind into synchronicity with mine, so that you may appreciate this thinking and apply it to your own:

The source has a voice, a personality, concealed thought-provoking meanings. We mustn’t taint it with our own for the sake of simplicity, preference, or worst of all, pride. There is a balance to be struck between faithfulness to the words and meanings, and only experience will let you weigh it. But with the right perspective, you will be more apt to achieve it.

Most authors are not even half aware of how much their words are changed in typical translations. They would be appalled to know it.

This imperfection will continue to exist so long as we have to communicate through words, rather than thoughts… or until we all learn Esperanto. 😛

Be the difference. Be not the master of words, but of thoughts, and bloody keep the source identity intact.

Cover image by DarkWorkX from Pixabay
Otávio Banffy

About Otávio Banffy

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