Translating is a craft. Every translator has their own preferences and area (or areas) of expertise. In this interview with Ian Gaukroger, legal translator (English) for legal and financial translation agency Fiducia, we ask him about his choice to become a translator, about his daily practice and about the future of translation.
“A translator must convey not only the bare meaning, but also the message as a whole.”
I grew up in Rhodesia, a former British colony in Africa, with English as my mother tongue. It wasn’t until high school that I was introduced to other languages, namely French and Latin. At one point, a boy from Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) joined our French class. We became friends, but he didn’t speak a word of English. That’s when I first began to feel what it was like to communicate with someone in another language. I really enjoyed that, despite my great limitations in French. Did I always dream of becoming a legal translator as a boy? Absolutely not; I wanted to be a pianist when I grew up.
I settled in Amsterdam in 1991, so that I could pursue this dream and work as a classical pianist. I performed with the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra at the time. Also, I immediately signed up for a Dutch language course at the Amsterdam people’s university (Volksuniversiteit Amsterdam). After all, I wanted to participate in society and not remain on the sidelines as yet another expat. But since English is my native language, I only translate from Dutch into English and not the other way around.
I received my first translation assignment in 1992. This assignment, the biography of the landscape painter Andreas Schelfhout, was a great introduction to both translation and Dutch culture. But I was not yet translating regularly. It wasn’t until four years later, in 1996, that I was commissioned to translate a brief history of relations between Japan and the Netherlands. A fascinating story that triggered my serious thoughts on a possible future as a translator.
Getting the message across
What I enjoy most about translation is the writing itself: creating a text that is both easy on the eye and pleasing to the ears. Using one’s hearing in translation is grossly underestimated; people actually tend to disregard it completely. Obviously, a clear understanding of the text to be translated is crucial, but things like tone and register are just as important. After all, text is communication. That is the translator’s job: to convey not only the bare meaning of the text, but also the message as a whole. I disagree with the school of thought that says that the translation of a bad text should be an accurate reflection of the original and that a translator should not “intervene”. I simply cannot stomach anyone intentionally creating a bad translation.
The influence of machine translation
Machine translation has become an integral part of our world. Almost every text, even in leading literature, contains standard phrases. Why would you want to waste your time manually translating those kinds of sentences when a machine can do it just as well? In many cases, a quick glance at the machine translation will suffice. However, from my experience so far, a machine is still somewhat deficient in over 90% of the sentences in all texts, including legal texts. One example is word order, which is extremely important in English and very different from Dutch; a machine does not pick up on this yet. More importantly still, a machine obviously has no consciousness; it’s not alive. Language is alive. In machine translation, the conscious link between sentences is missing: the machine has no sense of the message as a whole. Achieving that will require substantial leaps in artificial intelligence.
The importance of vocabulary and perseverance
Language remains my passion. I’m currently learning French again: a beautiful language originating from a beautiful country that I like to frequent. In high school I only took French for four years, but I’ve always wanted to take it up again.
If you want to learn a new language, you must first accept that in order to become proficient, you’ll have to learn many new words. Language is largely vocabulary; there is just no way around it. Also, you will have to be bold. Speak up, dare to make mistakes, and push through until the fog lifts and you begin to feel a certain ease.