Wearing souls On the mental aftereffects of translation




  • Greater than 2 minutes

    The creepiest translation I’ve ever done was that of Ted Bundy’s final interview. In a way, it was ”nothing special.” There was no bloody gore in it, no step-by-step accounts of his murders — just his talking about what had led him to become the beast he’d become, and how he felt about it.

    Yet, I had my fingers trembling for hours after I’d finished it, and nightmares for several weeks afterward (which still revisit me every now and then).

    All the while, I kept thinking, “What the hell is going on?”

    Fast-forward ten years or so, we had a webinar on transcreation with Tanya Quintieri (sorry for mentioning your name in this context, Tanya!). Among other things, she mentioned that in her translated copies there’s “not a single bit of Tanya” — it’s 100% her client’s voice. I replied that perhaps such “wearing masks and playing roles” is a natural part of a translator’s work — and noted jokingly that it could even be hazardous for one’s mental health.

    But, jokes or not, I do believe that when we translate we “put on” the identity of the narrator.

    It’s kind of funny when you are working on a contract and at some point start feeling for that imaginary lawyer who so genuinely cares about ”the Contractor’s being fully responsible and liable for any action, omission, negligence or misconduct of its Personnel.”

    When you are translating the words of a serial killer, it’s anything but.

    Digesting these words, and thinking these thoughts — thoughts of a person who had murdered more than a hundred people and was about to be electrocuted to death in less than 24 hours — made me, in a tiny but frighteningly perceivable way, become that person. My fingers are trembling as I’m writing this — so I guess a Bundy scarecrow is there to stay in the darkest convolutions of my brain.

    But, on the upside, it’s a reminder for me to take seriously the mental effects — and aftereffects — of my work.

    Ever since, I don’t take on jobs that I don’t feel like doing.

    And I don’t put on masks that I don’t feel like wearing.

    Do you?

    Want something less sinister? Check out my other posts at Ab HoC!

    Vladimir Zakharov

    About Vladimir Zakharov

    A translator with 15 years of experience, now Head of Community at http://SmartCAT.ai — a platform that will change the translation industry and give the power back to translators.

    2 thoughts on “Wearing souls

    1. It’s really interesting because we hear this happen all the time to actors, right? Sometimes they focus so deep on a character they have to portrait that they are forever changed by that single performance. This made me think that translators and actors share so much, in unexpected ways. They are both supposed to adapt personality, voices, feelings, only translators do it from one language to another whereas actors do it from paper to screen/stage. It’s inevitable that they both put a little part of themselves in it. So it’s suprisingly fitting that you talked about masks in translation, if you think about it :)

      1. Exactly, Eleonora! The difference is that actors are pretty well aware of that side of their craft, while most translators — at least aspiring/beginning translators — aren’t. Good we are here to open their eyes 😀

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