A Professional Translator Shares His Thoughts

[A reader of Stoic Paradoxes contacted me recently and shared some of his experiences and adventures gained from many years of translating.  I told him that his ideas would make for a great guest post here.

His language is expertise is Japanese, a language that I am not proficient in.  But it is interesting that translators all face the same challenges, more or less, regardless of the language they are working in.

His comments highlight one of the things I mentioned in a recent article about translating.  It is the idea that you sometimes need to set things aside, and come back to them later, with a new and refreshed perspective.

His article appears below.]

As a professional translator, I was very interested in Quintus Curtius’s translation of Stoic Paradoxes. In my review of the book on Amazon, I mentioned some points in the translation that I found noteworthy, and Quintus generously offered me this space to expound on my own ideas about the profession.

I have been a professional translator for well over 10 years now, with thousands of pages and thousands of hours of video work to my credit.  My language of choice is Japanese, and if you’re a man between the ages of 20 and 30, there’s decent odds you’ve seen something I’ve done.

While I don’t do philosophical texts like Stoic Paradoxes, I’ve done everything from fiction to non-fiction, heavily technical manuals to children’s books.  I look forward to sharing with you some of the things I’ve noticed over the years.

Most Translation is Done Unconsciously

It’s very rare for me, as a translator, to have to work through the words of a sentence individually to come up with a translation.  There are times when I have to, particularly when I’m dealing with something arcane, but most of the time I’ll hear (or see) a sentence, and the words will simply come to me.  I’ll write them down, and move on to the next sentence until I’m finished with the job.

If I’m not doing a subject I’m unfamiliar with, or that requires careful attention, I become more of a secretary than anything, with me unconscious mind dictating the words to me.  (Oddly enough, for more complex sentences there’s sometimes a delay in this process.

I’ll hear a character speak, not understand what they say, and then a moment later I’ll know.  What’s interesting is again that I’m not thinking about it, or actively trying to figure it out, it simply comes to me. It’s as if there’s a computer doing the work, and that computer takes longer to do some problems than others.)

I was never a big believer in the idea of an unconscious mind, or at least one that did anything more than handle rote biological processes like breathing or reflexively reacting to danger.  This changed after a rather unusual experience I had about six months after I’d begun to work as a translator.

An Experience With Words

I was working on a television show where one of the characters was an ancient Chinese wizard.  He was a mumbling old man who spoke in very florid language, and I was a broke college student who couldn’t afford good speakers or headphones.  Needless to say, I was having a miserable time with him.

After considerable effort, I was able to figure out most of his dialogue except for one sentence, and in particular one word.  Thankfully, I was doing this project as an amateur, so there were no deadlines and I was able to simply put it aside.  It was nearing exam week, there were other projects, and I just forgot about it.

A month or so later, it was Christmas time and I’d gone with my family to Best Buy to look for CDs. I was browsing through the aisles, not thinking about anything in particular, when all of a sudden the answer came to me: the word I was looking for was “manako”, an old and obsolete word for “eyes.”

(It’s so obsolete that when I went to type it into this essay, the built-in Windows Japanese dictionary didn’t recognize it.  God only knows how I’d known the word to begin with.)  I hadn’t been thinking about the show, about translating, or about anything in particular at the time.  My biggest concern was what I was going to have for dinner.

My Background

I was originally trained as a signals engineer, and I know the feeling you get when you make an intellectual breakthrough, or solve a difficult problem.  This, however, was something totally different. Instead of a flash of insight, it felt more like a stranger had walked into the room and told me the answer.

I can only assume that some portion of my brain had been working on the problem for almost a full month, and had only then come up with the answer, which it had duly turned over to me.  I finished the translation that day, and the rest of the show was finished without much trouble.

It’s been over a decade since this happened, and nothing similar has happened to me before or since.

Read More:  A Few Bits Of Wisdom From Claudian