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Nitsche Writing

What a Freelance Translator Can Learn from Mark Twain, Friedrich Nietzsche and Virginia Woolf

What are the characteristics of a good freelance translator? Do they need to have native fluency in the source and destination languages? We all know of people who grew up bilingual but if you ask them, they’ll admit that they speak one language better than the other. Still, it’s always possible for translators to improve their language skills in the languages in which they don’t have native fluency. This can be done by reading, writing and talking more in that language. Becoming proficient at a language takes time but results in more accurate translations. Here’s what some great translators have had to say about the process of translation:

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

– Mark Twain.

Although he is only known to us as a novelist, Mark Twain also did a famous back-translation of one his works which was originally translated into French. This was a short story called, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” When he did the back-translation, Mark Twain used the word-for-word technique, which resulted in the production of a great deal of gibberish. He was attempting to show the differences between languages and how it takes a great deal of delicacy to actually produce something worth reading.

To use the same words is not a sufficient guarantee of understanding; one must use the same words for the same genus of inward experience; ultimately, one must have one’s experiences in common.

– Friedrich Nietzsche.

This beautiful quote embodies one of the problems with translation. What if you’re trying to translate a word that just doesn’t have a meaning in the destination country? Different cultures are different and value different things. Certain experiences might be common within one culture but unknown within another. To translate the word referring to that experience, we have to make the people understand the experience first.

Humor is the first gift to perish in a foreign language.

– Virginia Woolf.

It is unfortunately true that something that sounds funny in one language refuses to sound that way in another. And sometimes, there are translations which end up sounding funny even if they aren’t meant to. Bad translations have often evoked a lot of humor in the destination language. Plus, you need to keep in mind that certain things just resist translation. In such cases, it might be a good idea to just keep the original as is.

Contact us for more information on the characteristics of a good freelance translator.

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