I’m learning a new-to-me language—Czech. The good thing is that the writing is Latin and the unusual characters are pretty logical, especially if I keep in mind the German influence. The grammar basics are sort of making sense, in that I can pick up the pattern even though I don’t quite understand the “why.” However, it makes me think of what I call the “Babble-Fish Problem.” What do you translate and what do you elide?
The babble fish was a wonderful, near miraculous discovery in the universe of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. When places in your ear, you instantly understood everything said in every other language. According to the Hitchhiker’s Guide, this caused more wars than any other cause in galactic history. Douglas Adams must have worked with a professional interpreter.
I learned the problem, albeit not formulated that way, from a professor at the Johannes Gutenberg University, where I took a class on translating across cultures. The class was to help us learn to look for cultural problems that might affect how we translated or interpreted certain things. His example is that he was interpreting for the Foreign Ministry, at a state dinner with the King of Spain. The prof went to his senior interpreter and asked how to translate “Guten appetit,” which is commonly said to people at the beginning of a meal. It can be either formal or informal depending on the context, which is why he needed to know the proper Spanish phrase. His associate said, “Oh, use ‘Buen’ provecho,’ because it means the same thing.” My prof knew that “Buen provecho” is colloquial, and would cause great offense if he translated the Chancellor’s statement to the King with that phrase. He thanked his associate and then tracked down a Spanish interpreter and got the correct answer from him. (No, I don’t recall what the formal phrasing was.)
Czech, like German and Spanish, has formal and informal forms. Happily for me, the language course I’m leaning on is purely formal. It is for business travelers more than for tourists, and formal is better. As it happens, the part of the Czech Republic where I’ll be spending most of my time inclines toward formality and distance (rural, small towns), so I will be safest if I don’t try to be colloquial. Since I’ll have a very definite accent and mispronunciations, no one will be surprised that I’m not up to speed on dialect and have a limited vocabulary. Slow and formal—therein lies safety.
Where the trick comes is museum and document translation. How literal do I need to be? Because Czech’s word order is far more fluid than German or English, and some of their literal terms ring very oddly to an English-speaker’s ear. There are a few German technical terms like that, and in those cases I tend to give a literal, then “general sense” meaning. I’m not that comfortable in Czech. I’m crossing my fingers that some places will have brief English or German guides, but I’ve also been warned that German is not a popular language in the Czech Republic. [Chorus of Sarcasm: Gee, I wonder why?]
There’s a time and place for literal translation. There’s a time and place for “sense” translation, and even one for very free translation. Knowing the difference? That’s why true professionals get paid $$$ per hour and I don’t. (No kidding. Some of the highest per-hour wages go to simultaneous interpreters, the people who interpret in real time as someone else is speaking. I’m a translator, not interpreter, and simul-interp gives me screaming-banshee headaches when I have to do it.)