How Does the Translator Add Value?

Stripped down to its bare bones, the job of the translator can be viewed, above all else, as one of mediation: using a profound knowledge of two or more languages, the translator has the task of taking meaning in one tongue and transmitting it in another, acting as the link between the two. Seen this way, the translator is merely a facilitator who allows two separate parties to communicate and who supposedly has an impartial role in doing so.

While this is the fundamental principle of the translator’s role, to say that this were the only one would be reductionist. Translators are indeed mediators by nature, but they also tend to be rather specific kinds of people. Translators are frequently literary types: individuals who feel at ease with and enjoy language. They write fluidly and coherently in their mother tongue, and have excellent grammar; skills which are transferred to their use of foreign languages. Often widely read, they are curious about words and how they fit together.

These are the qualities which enable the translator to add value to a text. It is common for an original document to be sent to a translator and for it to emerge from the process a tidier and more harmonious version of its former self in the target language. Let’s take a high-profile example. Gabriel García Márquez was known for having said that his standout work, Cien años de soledad (English title One Hundred Years of Solitude), was improved by Gregory Rabassa, who created a version for English-speaking readers. In fact, García Márquez even went as far to say that he preferred Rabassa’s version to the original. That’s quite a feat, seeing as it’s one of the most acclaimed novels ever written.

Of course, there are certain areas of translation where this general rule of thumb doesn’t, and shouldn’t, apply: medical and legal translation, in which language tends to be employed very objectively, are clear examples. Yet the skilled translator is aware of this, and controls subjective input in these necessary circumstances. However, in other areas of the discipline where the translator’s subjectivity is unable to cause any harm, but in fact do the opposite, he can indeed add greater value beyond that of his primary task of breaking down the linguistic divide.

So, have faith in your translator! They’re not solely language experts, but readers and writers, too.

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