This is a guest response by Jonathan Downie to a previous post.Showing Red Card to Simplified Translation Metaphors

Translators are often the subject of metaphors. We have been bridges, machines, conduits, tools and a lot more besides. Here on the Multilizer blog, one more metaphor was recently added to the pile. According to Pedro, translators are like referees: the more invisible we are, the better.

This metaphor comes at the end of a piece that emphasised how active people are in the communication process. Hearers or readers, we are told, don’t just receive text like my keyboard is currently receiving the impact of my fingers. That far, I have to agree. Communication is an inherently messy process. We tend to rely on the fact that we share context with the people want to communicate with. If you are standing in a supermarket with your children and ask one of them to get you and apple, you probably won’t specify that you want them to pick one off a shelf rather than running all the way to the nearest orchard.

The problem is that when we begin to attempt to communicate across cultures or across languages, shared context might not exist. Start talking about “football” to a Scot and a resident of the USA and they will have a very different view of what you are talking about. Translate a French CV into English without any modifications and you will hamper your client’s job chances.

This is why researchers in translation and interpreting have grown to dislike the traditional “sender, receiver, message, translator” diagrams like the one you will find in Pedro’s post. It’s not that they are wrong; it’s that they emphasise the wrong parts of the process.

To start with, it is incredibly difficult to define the “message” we are trying to pass. Classically, people have used the term to suggest that there is some element outside of the language used that represents what the sender wants to communicate. However, we can’t even begin to understand this “message” without using some kind of other language, which itself would require another act of translation. A single piece of communication can also communicate several different “messages” to several different readers and hearers in different contexts, who might even receive a different “message” to the one the original “sender” meant to send.

Here is an example. An earnings statement by a company might be interpreted by its shareholders as illustrating good business practice, by consumer groups as providing evidence of profiteering, by its competitors as indicating an imbalance in the market, and by regulators as proving legal compliance. All this from a document produced by someone in the Communications Department because their boss asked them to do it.

Instead of the traditional diagrams, which imply that good translation is about not intervening, most research in translation and interpreting therefore puts the receivers or hearers at the centre of the process, alongside the reasons why the translation is needed. Going back to the example of a financial statement, this view of translation argues that a translation intended for regulators should and will look very different from one commissioned by consumer groups for lobbying purposes. Translators then will find themselves unavoidably intervening to create a text that serves the purpose for which it was intended.

Where does this leave the referee metaphor? To the extent that this metaphor makes it obvious that translators are part of the game and not mere spectators, it might be useful. However, if it makes people think that translators are somehow people who run the game rather than being teammates with their clients and the final readers, then it is problematic. Perhaps we could get rid of metaphors altogether and simply talk about translation as a service provided for paying clients who want the end product to achieve something specific. To the extent that the text and its purposes are honest and fair, translators would therefore simply be people who are there to provide a service that meets the needs of clients, whether this means being visible, invisible or something in-between.

This guest post by Jonathan Downie is a response to a previous post. Jonathan is a conference interpreter, writer and researcher, working for a wide range of clients including agencies, private clients and fellow freelancers.