The Two Things About Translation

I was intrigued by this article in Saturday’s Guardian Magazine: The Two Things (by Oliver Burkeman from “This column will change your life”).

An economist walks into a bar. This is a true story; it’s 2002, the bar is the Lava Lounge in LA, and the economist is an academic named Glen Whitman. He gets chatting to a fellow patron and mentions his line of work. “So,” asks the stranger, “what are the Two Things about economics?” “Huh?” Whitman replies, confused. “You know, the Two Things. For every subject, there are only two things you need to know. Everything else is the application of those two things, or just not important.”

See also Glen Whitman’s original blog about the idea.

Anyway, this all got me thinking about the Two Things about translation. As Burkeman says:

People like the Two Things exercise so much, [Whitman] believes, because it forces them to extricate themselves from the weeds of detail and see the terrain of their own expertise afresh. The question gets you back to basics […]. It also pinpoints the contradictions at the core of many professions.

Now translation is such a wide field that at first I thought it would be impossible to summarise it in just two points. Are we talking literary or non-literary? Does it matter which languages you’re working in or what you’re trying to achieve with your translation? But then a very simple answer came to me:

  1. Do justice to the source text.
  2. Do justice to your readers.

It seems to me that this highlights the tensions of translation and can be applied in any field and to any approach. All translation is ultimately trying to convey a source text to a reader in a new language. We might try to do justice to the text by replicating its style as closely as possible, or by adapting it so it can be seen afresh in a different light. We might try to do justice to the readers by making the text as enjoyable as possible to read, or by transporting them to a new place.  If we’re translating an instruction manual, we do justice to the readers by making it possible for them to follow the instructions. If we’re translating a piece of classic literature, we do justice to the text by producing a translation that is equally well written. And so on.

So there we are – my Two Things. Do you agree with mine? What would yours be, for translation or anything else? I’d love to know!

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About forwardtranslations

I'm a freelance literary translator from German and French to English. The title of my blog comes from Mary Schmich's description of reading: it struck home with me, and seems especially apt for translated fiction. Here are some of my musings on what I'm reading, re-reading, reading to my children, and translating.
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