The irreplaceable art of translation

As long as people joke, swear and use irony, computers will never take the place of translators

June 09, 2021
Captain Leigh and His Dragoman by David Wilkie. Credit: Alamy
Captain Leigh and His Dragoman by David Wilkie. Credit: Alamy

Some people are easier to interpret than others. Churchill’s meandering sentences would often trip up his translators, and USSR leader Khrushchev’s idioms baffled American listeners during Cold War negotiations. While a defendant at Nuremberg, Göring would try to catch prosecutors out by insisting translators repeat themselves and feigning incomprehension.

Dancing on Ropes tells the stories of translators through history. Anna Aslanyan compellingly recounts the verbal exploits of the Ottoman dragomans and the miscommunications during Brexit negotiations, weaving in anecdotes from her experience as a Russian-English interpreter and translator.

Should translators work towards total accuracy, which is often impossible, or capture the essence of a phrase? Literary translation has two approaches: foreignisation, preserving exoticism in a text; and domestication, glossing certain phrases to make them intelligible. Post-war Christian missionaries used the second mode when travelling to countries without snowfall, changing the Biblical simile “white as snow” to the more locally comprehensible “white as egret feathers” or “white as fungus.” Aslanyan borrows Dryden’s description of the translator balancing various aims, “like dancing on ropes with fettered legs.”

While some linguists argue that any “original-language” text is itself a translation of non-verbal thoughts, or “mentalese,” not all authors take kindly to their interpreters. Mark Twain took revenge on a bad adaptation of his book The Jumping Frog by republishing a deliberately literal translation back from the French. Borges, by contrast, wrote that his own native Spanish “often embarrasses me,” and urged his English translators to “simplify me. Modify me. Make me stark… Make me macho and gaucho and skinny.”

Translators are under threat. Cuts in the justice and immigration systems have left non-English speakers vulnerable. AI makes machine interpretation more reliable. But, Aslanyan insists, a computer cannot match a professional translator—“as long as people continue joking and swearing, praising and ironising, uttering and writing things they mean or not.”

Dancing on Ropes: Translators and the Balance of Historyby Anna Aslanyan (Profile, £16.99)