The 30th of September marks the annual day chosen by the United Nations to recognise the utility of translation as well as the importance of the role played by language professionals.
Some will see this international day as just one more opportunity for celebration, which can occasionally run the risk of trivialising or diminishing such days in their significance. But for others, this instead represents a time for reflection.
So, let’s take this opportunity to think about what International Translation Day actually is. Who are these language architects working behind the scenes? Why is it so critical to actually have one dedicated day a year devoted to this topic? And perhaps most of all, what does or rather what should this mean for anyone benefitting from it, from international and national organisations to businesses and anyone else in between?
History of International Translation Day
This day of celebration came about through a United Nations initiative in 2017.
“Only in 2017?”; you may ask. This was certainly my reaction when I first read the feature on the United Nations’ website. We had to wait until 2017 to finally gain official recognition for the work carried out daily by translators, interpreters, and other linguists and language specialists alike.
Nevertheless, translation did not come into existence in the 21st century, but long, long before. And indeed the date of the 30th of September was no lucky dip. This is the day commemorating St. Jerome, known in particular for his translation of the most part of the Bible into Latin (the translation that became known as the Vulgate), and considered to be the patron saint of translators, librarians, and encyclopaedists.
The Importance of Translation
As a matter of fact, translation is as old as languages are! Or more specifically, it is as old as the need for communication between individuals and communities of different cultures and lands, whether that be for trade, politics, or a variety of other reasons.
This is precisely why translation is so prominent, as it plays a significant role in all of our everyday lives.
For those not familiar with our industry, the term translation may first evoke ideas of the translation of literature. Followed, of course, by international organisations, large-scale projects, committees, and prestigious assemblies gathering the most powerful leaders from all corners of the world. However, those in our industry are very much aware that this is only the tip of the iceberg.
Manuals, apps, social networks, advertising, surveys, packaging labels, medication leaflets, product descriptions, websites, catalogues… and this list is far from exhaustive. Because in fact, in our modern globalised society, any form of verbal or written communication has very likely been translated or will be!
The Oxford Dictionary defines the term translation as, “The process of changing something that is written or spoken into another language.”
But is that all? Absolutely not! Translation is not singularly about giving the mere equivalent of a term. It is rather the ability to convey a meaning or intention, and to make this comprehensible whilst taking into account several complex parameters (both objective and subjective) such as cultural and linguistic specificities. In short, translators don’t translate words. Rather, we translate ideas and messages.
The translation industry is also comprised of a myriad of different linguistic tasks (proofreading, editing, copywriting, etc.); so much so that terms have been created in recent years to better reflect the subtilities of the different forms of translation, such as localisation and transcreation.
As one of the best and most inspiring teachers I ever had told me, “A good translation should not stink of translation.” This summarises it well - translation should mean adaptation. The final message should sound natural to the target ear, exactly how it would have been expressed in the language in which it originated.
Just think about idiomatic expressions and how strange (if not embarrassing) some would sound if translated literally! Eg? The necessity of a vast knowledge of the overall culture and mindset, of which language is only one small aspect, is clear. The same goes for the necessity of having general knowledge on current social, political, and economic realities of the intended target’s region.
Translation and Technology
The translation industry has seen a huge revolution in the past ten years, thanks to new technologies such as machine translation and artificial intelligence. It is still continuing to reinvent itself through tremendous improvements produced by sophisticated software at the hands of translators to facilitate their work.
It is undeniable that these technologies have allowed translators to expand their research potential exponentially, as well as their productivity. It is similarly undeniable that these technologies are shaping the future of our industry.
Translating a specialist topic would have required hours if not days or months spent in a library barely twenty years ago, let alone in St. Jerome’s time! Today, an unimaginable, immense source of information is but a few clicks away…
However, even though the benefits brought about by technology are indisputable, these do not eliminate the need for the essential first piece of the puzzle: the translator, of course! A translator is not solely someone able to speak another language, but who knows their own native tongue with all its subtilities and nuances - plus their own culture - very well. And in most cases, it is requested that a translator be a native speaker (or an equivalent level) of the target audience.
Human or Machine?
It likely comes as no surprise that this is a very common debate amongst translators - will machines one day completely replace humans in translation? Some translators do fear for their future, seeing a fierce competitor in translation technology.
But for others - and I would place myself in this second group - the response appears to be a clear no, as we ought to instead view technology and progress as exceptional tools which become “companions” for successful collaboration.
Just try asking a machine the meaning of any word with no context. Let’s take the word “mean” as an example. What will you get? Probably one correct equivalent in the target language, but will that be the one meaning you are after? This is far from guaranteed, I am afraid. Why not? Because a key element in translation is context. Without context, any word can be interpreted in a multitude of ways.
We are not talking about just any basic translating machine here, as we are now working on developing and improving artificial intelligence. For some specific types of projects, this is absolutely a convenient solution to reduce timings and costs, and to increase efficiency and productivity. However, for other projects where a deeper perception of the context is necessary, the critical and sensible mind of a human will still be needed.
Furthermore, in order to allow the expansion of this world of possibilities offered by such technology, humans will always be at the heart of the process, since machine elaboration consists of learning and developing intelligence from the work originally performed by humans themselves.
Translators utilise their understanding and logical reasoning to communicate that one meaning that is relevant in your context. In addition, they bring their knowledge, their insight, their heart and mind; in a nutshell, they bring their passion!
We can admit that sometimes we may be perceived as a little pedantic by our entourage, wanting to discuss at length the effect of placing a comma in a sentence or not (yes, it is important!) or debating the most appropriate term out of a list of synonyms which may all seem the same (they aren’t!), but this is only because we are animated by passion. Passion for languages and cultures, passion for communication, for exchange, for mutual understanding and growth.
For all the above reasons and more, translation is perhaps one of the most interesting yet at the same time challenging and rewarding professions one can have. Maybe this is what is meant by this year’s theme, chosen by the International Federation of Translators for their annual Poster Competition; United in Translation.
We translators are all united in our passion for what we do. So, let’s take the opportunity this year to honour our profession and to spread the word as to why it is so worthy of praise. Let’s partake in open celebration at least once a year, as we spend the remaining days in the background, tiptoeing along every aspect of our community’s everyday life.
Behind the scenes, translators, interpreters, and all other language specialists are contributing their passion and hard work, bringing their little stone to the edifice (does this “stink” of translation?), building bridges, and enhancing communication to favour a united world. I am proud to bring a little stone of my own.
Of course, some will argue “Traduttori, traditori!” but that is another story and another debate for a another day.
Today is their day, today is our day: so let’s all pay tribute to International Translation Day and give meaning to this celebration.
Dear fellow translators and other language aficionados around the world, let’s unite in translation. My friends, je vous salue! [I salute you!]
*The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author.