poetry & translation

discussion on poetry and translation


Posted by mukhid on January 31, 2008

by Tanti Susilawati

I entered the small room packed with people without knowing what would hit me next, cos fools rush in where angels dread to tread. They said it would be a kind of meeting, but then it turned out to be a police investigation on a foreign witness.

As I was seated in front of those smoking interrogators, they just said two words, “Please translate” (well, of course they meant interpret), and as they expected me to dart out the words back and forth like a kind of machine, I felt as if I was being thrown into a bottomless abyss, had to grope in the dark before I gradually could get a grip and try to survive.

Most people think that translating/interpreting is just merely changing words into another language, so why bother explaining the context to the translators/interpreters? Well, they’re being cruel then, cos trying to translate/interpret without knowing the context is like trying to put together the pieces of a puzzle without looking at the big picture, or trying to knit something without having the pattern. Yes, you might have all the tools you need, but still you have to know where you’re going, what you’re aiming at—otherwise doing puzzle will be puzzling, and your half-done sweater will keep unraveling.

When it comes to translating, I take it very seriously, because, if I don’t translate faithfully, instead of being called a translator, I probably deserve more to be called a traitor. However, when you have to translate a written material, it might not be as challenging as trying to keep up with a speaker on the spot.

Once I was in a heated meeting of some medical teams, who, wanting to take over a hospital for themselves, each tried to come up with their opinion, and consequently, they spoke at the same time, leaving me flabbergasted. After I finally could seize up the situation, someone even snapped at me, thinking I was talking my own way, while I was just trying to make something clear (cos, as you know, we Indonesians sometimes find it hard to get right to the point and choose to wander around instead).

To prevent being in such situations again in my career as an interpreter, I made up my mind to always ask for the material beforehand, or being briefed of what I should be interpreting about. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s still impossible. But next time I am plunged into a without-preparation-interpreting, I will make it clear to the speaker to speak a sentence or two at a time, or three at the most, and not a big chunk of information which is almost impossible to be put into my limited memory capacity. After all, interpreters too, are human. Besides, it should be more important to them to have their message clearly communicated, than rush to finish their speech and have their information distorted or truncated unintentionally, by the poor puzzled traitor, I mean, translator.


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