Nothing by ahmed qasim sabti, 2008

Dear reader,

let me introduce myself to you: I’m a translator and I don’t know. Well, I know I’m a translator but I’m a translator who doesn’t know. Nonsense? Not at all. Simply a confession of humility. Perception and acknowledgment of my own limits. The title is my self perception: I’m nothing. Nothing, because I don’t know. Never. I feel a sense of inadequacy when approaching a text that – I guess – is the base feeling of any translator. Will I be able to convey the message – I don’t dare say – perfectly, but at least in an acceptable way? I don’t know. I cringe before the source text. Any text. I know I must respect its individuality, its character, I must try not to make it ‘mine’. It’s not my creature and I must bear it clearly in mind. Will I be able to attain this scope? Again, I don’t know.  It’s not easy. I often waver among fidelity and unfaithfulness, compliance and license. I’m often tempted to add my touch, to force the rendering to my personal vision of perfection. Who am I to determine what’s perfect? And what perfection is? Again, I’m nothing. Instead, I’m sometimes tempted to act like a kind of God, forging the text to my own will. The perfect translator shouldn’t (but does such a mythical creature really exist?). I’m not a perfect translator, so I sometimes fall. As if I felt myself committed to produce a perfect text. But it’s a giant mystification, I didn’t create that text and if it’s faulty, I must render it ‘as is’. Defective. Imperfect. I’m not entitled to give a new life to it, but rather to transfer it smoothly into the target language. It’s the biggest challenge for any translator – particularly for a book translator. Obviously, strict conformance is not required for any kind of translation, in some cases the focus shifts from the language to the message, for example when handling a user’s guide or a patent. In this case, a heavy hand on the text is not only accepted, but sometimes even necessary for the sake of clarity. I started as technical translator, so I had to work on my relaxed approach to the text, leaving behind my inclination to fix a bad text, but the transition was not so smooth and I still struggle against my old habit. Maybe it depends on my old specialization, maybe there’s a further reason buried in my subconscious, something connected to my self perception – a drive towards creation, a sort of compensation for the sense of incompleteness I feel before my being unable to create, but just ‘translate’. The desire of leaving my mark on the text and gaining a sort of immortality with it. You cannot even imagine how difficult it is to keep the balance, to keep control over this ‘vice’. And I guess I’m not the only one who fights against this subtle temptation.

When unfaithfulness can be dangerous …

A bit off thread: I had the luck and the privilege of working with writers who were not touchy on the fidelity issue, on the contrary, they often supported my creative drive in the name of a better rendering. Let me tell you that their attitude is not so common among authors – after all, books are their creatures and it’s normal that they can be a bit concerned when someone else puts his/her hands on them! Besides that, editing is not really a translator’s task, apart from the fact that the same text might eventually have different ‘lives’ in different countries according to the translator who took care of it. A nonsense, since the message should be just one. Editing – I mean, editing of the source text – should be preliminary to translation and not the other way around. But we live in a self-publishing era, where the traditional publishing processes are upset and some stages are even cut out, for example, the revision of translated texts. Today translators are sometimes asked to take on the task of proofreading and revising and to deliver ‘out-of-the-box’ translations that will be published within few hours from receipt. A dangerous leap without a safety net for us translators, but also for writers. A bad translation might destroy an author’s best-selling ambition, at least in the target market. A bad translation might convey the wrong message to the public and harm the writer’s reputation. I bear this always in mind when I translate a book – it’s my greatest fear. I’m fully aware of the risks but do writers really know what risks are they running? I don’t know many things in life, but one thing I do know: I’m nothing, but I have a huge responsibility. I hope I’ll always be able to rise to the challenge.

Your passionate (Italian) Translator


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