Rhétorique sans frontières

My husband is a software developer, and I am a translator. During a conversation about the similarities and differences between our jobs, he offered up the following gem:

“Most of my day is spent thinking. But you have this little bug in your brain that poops out the answers.”

Indignant retort!

Panicked bullshit explanation!

What followed was a lot of backpedaling, but his premise was that translation is an automatic process, akin to geometric translation, where you slide a fixed object a certain distance away from its starting point. “Once you know the language,” he said, “you have the answers and you don’t have to think anymore.”

But hurt feelings and marital squabbles aside, translation is knowledge work. Translation requires a discerning analysis of the arrangement, style, ethos, pathos and logos of a source text, along with a careful choice of tactics to achieve the same in the target text.

Good translation is rhetorically aware and draws on theory, and heuristics. All of the TM, MT, parallel corpora, glossaries and research in the world still may not lead to a single, conclusive “right answer.”

I ultimately realized that my husband just can’t see the process, and assumed that my work was a word-for-word auto pilot from point A to point B. If I hadn’t studied translation and learned how to think about it, I probably would rely on bilingual auto pilot … and I’d be a terrible translator.

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