Friday, May 25, 2007

Thoughts on Translation

If you’ve seen The Interpreter with Nicole Kidman, then you know what simultaneous translation is. This style of translation is very different from the stop and start style where the speaker takes a break and the translator then repeats what they have just heard. Simultaneous translation requires the translator to be constantly listening in one language and speaking in a second, lagging always just a few words behind. At the UN, people get special headsets linked to their translator, so all they hear is the translation. Last weekend, Andrew got the low-tech version, which involved me leaning over his shoulder, whispering in his ear for six separate two-hour sessions. All that whispering left me dizzy and on the verge of hyperventilation. But, despite the oxygen deprivation, it was a great learning experience.

Primarily and most obviously, my Spanish comprehension improved dramatically. In order to simultaneously translate a speech, you have to instantly know what you are hearing and then render it intelligibly into the second language. I only managed to get about 80% translated word for word, the rest of the time, Andrew had to settle for summaries of what was said.

Far more interesting, though, is what actually happens in the head of the translator during the translation process. While translating, it is as if you are channeling the voice of the speaker; their ideas pass through you, their attitudes, expressions and style, their goals and purpose for the talk. Although you are essential to the communication of the message, it has virtually nothing to do with you – it is all about the speaker. The translator’s only purpose is to bring the message into the language of the people. The spiritual parallel is clear. Ideally, we should be, through the Holy Spirit, translating the message of Jesus – that is, we should be completely out of the way with our own agendas, with only the ideas, attitudes, and goals of Jesus in mind as we translate his message into the language of our societies and cultures.

The other interesting part of simultaneous translation is what happens when the translator gets out of step with the speaker. At 80%, there were certainly times when I knew that I had missed something. Perhaps I yawned and got behind, or misunderstood a phrase, or forgot to translate giving Andrew Spanish instead of English, or perhaps my mind simply stopped for a bit, overloaded and exhausted. Whatever the reason, I had missed a beat (or several). When this takes place, you have two choices – one is to attempt to fill in the blank with your own ideas or understanding, the second is to simply pick back up with what is clearly being said in the given moment. Needless to say, the second option is by far the best – trying to catch the listener up by filling in ideas only risks missing what is currently being said, resulting in the listener missing even more of what the speaker is actually saying. Again, I have a lot to learn here spiritually. It is very easy to get caught up in the things that I’ve missed or done wrong, the theology that I have misunderstood (or still misunderstand), and the times when I have simply stopped listening to God, exhausted and overloaded. Perhaps, in these times, the best thing to do is to simply start up again with God, where I am now, with what I clearly hear and see in the present moment. As in translating, any other course of action only risk my mind and the message and person of Jesus becoming further muddled, confused, and lost in translation.

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