The “prison of language is only temporary…someday a merciful guard ? the perfect translator ? will come along with his keys and let us out,” Wendy Lesser wrote in an article, “The Mysteries of Translation,” in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2002. The following questions remain, however: Who is this translator? What does he do? And what skills should he possess?
Simply put, a translator is a person who recreates a text in another language, attempting to keep a delicate balance between being so literal that the text sounds awkward and unnatural in the new language or being so free that the text has become virtually unrecognizable. A translator has to not only translate the words, but also the concepts. In other words, a translator unlocks the prison of language, as Ms. Lesser said, and helps a text break free of its limited original language, culture, and audience. This service is an unfortunately under-appreciated art and craft.
To do all the above, a translator must have the following things: a native or near-native level of proficiency in both the source language (the language to be translated from) and the target language (the language to be translated to); the ability to thoroughly understand all that a text says and implies; and excellent writing and editing skills. Ideally, the translator would also have a lot of knowledge about both the source and target language cultures, as this affects word usage and meaning, as well as about the author of the original document and his style of writing.
It all sounds rather formidable, certainly, but not impossible. There are, in fact, many excellent practitioners out there who fulfill these hefty requirements, but the tiny number of translated books published in the United States each year reveals the sad fact that few people take up this challenging and stimulating work. If only more people would join the ranks of translators and help unlock the prison of language.