By Kevin Hendzel
We translators can spend decades of rigorous effort in the lead-up to our translation careers – and certainly during such careers – developing the crucial subject-matter expertise essential to the translation enterprise.
This process involves learning highly complex concepts in science, technology, philosophy, law, finance, business, music and dozens of other fields through immersion in the lab, lecture hall, classroom, production line, fabrication plant, trading floor or boardroom.
This prolonged effort is crucial to our ability to precisely convey all these concepts across language barriers.
But no matter how many fields we master as translators, awaiting us at that same cocktail party will be the eternal question that has been asked of translators since the Tower of Babel:
“How many languages do you speak?”
It’s a question that suggests an innocent, almost whimsical notion of translation as a low-stress career of light reflection, picked up effortlessly while flipping through phrase books and sipping sweet tea in the afternoon shade.
The reality is rather more sobering. In my case, for example, I’d arrive at such parties after having worked out certain issues in my translation work such as the principles underlying optical excitation of Rayleigh waves by interband light absorption or coherent acoustic resistance to an electron-hole plasma or approaches to calculating the electronic structure of alloys.
So my response to this friendly question of “how many languages do you speak?” would be a bit playful and would always be delivered with a smile:
At the core of this fallacy is the ancient and somewhat quaint notion that translation is just about language – about words.
A solitary focus on language
Russian has no words for that
I assured him that Russian has a highly sophisticated technical lexicon, and in any event, it was unlikely that the language of Mendeleev – the author of the Periodic Table of Elements, after all – would prove utterly helpless in the face of reverse osmosis.
It was certainly possible that this woman was simply unaware of the technology (or was feigning ignorance of it), but in practice her apparent complete lack of any technical awareness was derailing the company’s efforts for reasons having nothing to do with language.
Line or link?
There are countless thousands of examples of this phenomenon. One is the word “liniya” in Russian, which means a physical telephone line such as a hard-wired copper landline. Unfortunately, the exact same Russian word also means a radio link to a remote terminal, satellite or cell tower, which is what cellphones use.
The only way to know which is correct is to possess the most rudimentary knowledge of telecommunications.
Alas, there never seems to be a limit to the English translations of this word that describe a world in which a physical copper wire is magically soldered to a satellite orbiting at an altitude of 42,000 kilometers.