Why Translation Is Important
What Role Does Translation Play in Our World?
Professional translation plays an active and necessary role behind the scenes of nearly every industry, from getting the latest smartphone into your hands to saving your life in a medical situation. Understanding the important role translation plays in our world is helpful for those in business, education, medical fields, law, politics, and so on. Translation matters because we live in a global world where ideas and communication need to be translated with accuracy and efficiency in order to maintain the speed, order, and function of our daily lives.
Below are just some ways translation plays an integral role in our modern world:
Sharing cutting-edge developments and knowledge in rapidly evolving industries across the world such as science and medicine
Achieving effective and empathetic communication among different cultures in industries like international politics, humanitarian efforts, and education, etc.
Enabling, developing, and supporting a global and interconnected economy
Protecting cultural heritages, since translation allows languages with smaller populations to continue while being supplemented by translation (rather than smaller populations of speakers having to assimilate to languages with more speakers and therefore more marketability and global access)
Promoting tourism, along with lucrative market of tourism products and services
Immigrating to a different country
Saving lives by increasing understanding between patient and doctor
A Closer Look at How Translation Matters in Specific Fields
According to the 2015 Census, reported here by CNN, over 350 languages are present in U.S. households. Since 2000 presidential signing of Executive Order 13166, also known as "Improving Access to Services for Persons with Limited English Proficiency," Federal agencies are required to “examine the services they provide, identify any need for services to those with limited English proficiency (LEP), and develop and implement a system to provide those services so LEP persons can have meaningful access to them” (U.S. Department of Justice). Thus, translation services are required at federal agencies in a variety of capacities: on-site translators in courts, signage in Post Offices and Secretary of State offices, translations of driving manuals and other written documents at DMVs, and even the census itself most recently being provided in 12 languages (Census.gov).
Obviously treating a patient in a timely and most accurate manner is the number one priority in the medical field, and in order for this to happen, there must be clear and exact communication between patient and provider. Even when the mistranslation is only a single word, the consequences can be dire, resulting in patient loss of life or severe loss of quality of life.
Just like in every other industry, mistranslation costs organizations millions of dollars each year, but even more than other fields, the results can be tragic. To avoid this, medical facilities should hire professional translators, not just have bilingual speakers on staff. Bilingual employees often do not have to show proficiency in both of their languages by any standard measurement, so just because a bilingual employee may be able to communicate well in both languages in his or her daily life does not mean they are trained to speak about industry-specific terms in both languages. Professional interpreters, on the other hand, have been assessed for a certain level of proficiency in both languages and specifically in terminology used in their particular field. They also have the training and experience to interpret, which includes such nuances as being trained in not inserting their own commentary or opinions.
This video by the American Translators Association explains how even your cell phone wouldn’t be in your hand without translators working in many fields globally that all played a part in its innovation and production. For example, as innovators and engineers work around the world to develop new products, they use translators to communicate with stakeholders to acquire funding, to write patents in other languages to protect trademark protections in many countries, to record licenses and manuals for manufacturers in multiple countries, and of course to develop marketing. Without translators, we would not have access to the diverse products available to us in our global market.
Translation is Not Just Linear or Substitutionary
Translation is focused on capturing meaning and translating it from one language to another. Within simple phrases of similar languages, this can look like a substitution of each word changed to the target-language equivalent.
English: I am a daughter.
Spanish: Yo soy una hija.
As you can see, there are four words in each of these sentences, and each word generally correlates with a word functioning similarly in the translated sentence.
However, this is not always, or even frequently the case. Using the same two languages, consider the difference below:
English: My name is Sam. I am 4 years old.
Spanish: Me llamo Sam. Tengo 4 años.
The literal translation of English would make the Spanish sentence “Mi nombre es Sam. Yo soy 4 años.” But that would sound funny to Spanish speakers, because the way they say their names is articulated differently than it is in English. Their literal translation is “I call myself Sam. I have 4 years.” Thus, translation cannot be just word-by-word substitutions. A translator must have a feel for the meaning of what is being expressed in the original language and be able to translate both the words themselves and how to convey that meaning into the target language.
The art of translation is constantly evolving, with discussions about how much or little the translator’s role should be. For example, when translating entire books, a translator has to make decisions about maintaining names of places and people in the original language or changing them to names more familiar to the target audience. Should the book feel foreign, or would it feeling more familiar make it more marketable? Should translators change descriptions of characters, such as ethnicity and how those characters speak to make them more relatable to the target population?
One famous example of this is the wildly popular Chinese science fiction trilogy The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin, which Ken Liu, a famous sci-fi author himself, translated into English. The translated book won the Hugo Award, arguably the highest honor for science fiction. As New York Times Magazine reports, “Liu Cixin became the first Asian author to win the prize for best novel, and it was also the first time a novel in translation had won the prize. The book and its two sequels went on to sell nearly nine million copies worldwide…Publishers around the world chased after translation rights, which eventually sold in 26 languages, including Turkish and Estonian.” It was a big deal.
Ken Liu, however, came under scrutiny from some for the “heavy-hand” he wielded in his translation work. “Liu’s approach to translation is unorthodox…Strict fidelity to the source material is not his chief goal, nor is producing a smooth, Americanized version. ‘It’s not a sentence-by-sentence or word-by-word recreation,’ he says. ‘It’s about, how do I recreate the overall effect?’” Other translators (and the editors directing the projects) often fall on one of two ends of the spectrum: A) sticking to the original material as much as possible, always erring on keeping it the same rather than adapting it, or B) making the material as accessible as possible for the target audience.
Yet Liu has no problem dancing back and forth along that spectrum. For example, in an effort to make The Three-Body Problem work better for his American target population, he suggested rearranging the sequencing of the events in the book (pulling flashbacks up to the beginning of the novel), writing in far more background content than was provided in the original Chinese version, and changing character traits and including making the protagoist more of a strong feminist (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6).
When asked about the difference between writing and translating, Liu responded, “My metaphor for translation has always been that translation is really a performance art. You take the original and try to perform it, really, in a different medium. Part of that is about interpretation and what you think the author's voice really is. I spend a huge amount of energy thinking about how to re-create the voice of the author in a different language and for a different culture” (4).
One thing is certain, though- Ken Liu takes his translation work extremely seriously, explaining “As a translator, it’s very easy to slip into the role where you feel like you’re explaining, or are in a superior position to the author to say what you think they meant to say, or to say what you think ought to be said. I think it’s very dangerous. When you’re translating somebody from a different culture, who is subject to a different political system and who is writing for a different audience than you are, you have to be very careful about not substituting your voice for the author’s voice and not taking away the author’s prerogative to tell the story she wants to tell.” Even though he makes decisions to make the work translate to a new audience, he is never trying to step on the authors’ toes, instead working with them in collaboration and making his own voice as invisible in the final translated work.
Interestingly enough, the author himself says he tells Chinese sci-fi fans who speak English to “read Ken Liu’s translation of The Three-Body Problem rather than the Chinese version.” In the same article, he explains, “Usually when Chinese literature gets translated to a foreign language, it tends to lose something,” he says. “I don’t think that happened with ‘The Three-Body Problem.’ I think it gained something.”
And what did all of this mean for translators in the end? Demand for translation of Chinese novels has risen exponentially after the Three-Body Problem phenomenon. Liu has made a name for himself as someone who has “reshaped the global science-fiction landscape, which has long been dominated by American and British authors.”
One Final Note
Translation work is often very delicate and can change with shifts in culture, politics, and current events. For example, increasing political tensions within China have made translation work, such as for novels, much more difficult since translators have to be aware of the nuances of the current political landscape and possible consequences for the authors. 2019 was the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, rising tensions in a trade war with the U.S., and mass protests in Hong Kong. Ken Liu and other “writers who once felt bold enough to tackle political and social issues, however obliquely, have been reluctant to publish their work, or have started self-censoring to avoid trouble.” As Liu explains, “It’s gotten much harder for me to talk about the work of Chinese authors without putting them in an awkward position or causing them trouble.” This is something all translators must keep in mind when walking the fine line between translating as accurately to the best of their abilities and not revealing anything more directly than the original speaker meant to reveal.