Some authors may balk at the notion that a translator should be considered a writer. “Where is the creative process or the unique product”, they ask? The answer, right there in the translation. Danish writer and translator V.H. Pedersen once wrote, “Every language analyses reality in its own unique way, and is inextricably linked with the culture that has shaped it”. Since translators transfer texts and meaning from one language to another, their work is influenced by their knowledge of original and target language, as well as original and target culture. And transference from one language to another sometimes requires substantial creative abilities in the translator.
Depending on the needs specified by the client, a translator produces a translation to comply with certain paradigms: communication situation, fidelity to the source text in terms of language, fidelity to the source text in terms of level of specialisation or fidelity to the communicative purpose, which will often mean that the focus is on the target language and culture. Each one of these paradigms affects the outcome and results in vastly different texts.
Take, for example, an informative text about an illness written by a doctor, and which has to be read and understood by patients in a specified target language and culture to ensure that they give informed consent to a given medical procedure. If the translator focuses solely on fidelity to the original as a translational paradigm – which many, who are not professional translators, mistakenly believe is the only paradigm that counts when determining what is, or is not, a “good translation” – the end product may be completely unintelligible to the average patient in the target culture. However, if the onus is on the communicative situation, the translator may have to sacrifice some features of highly specialised, medical communication in order to ensure that the patient will understand it.
Consider “gastroscopy-verified, Helicobacter Pylori-caused ulcus gastricus” (yes, it is a real example!). The use of Latin and clusters of heavily pre-modified noun phrases can make the phrase difficult to understand, as the target recipient has to parse each element individually, possibly reaching often for a dictionary or Google to do so, and then assemble the inherent information in a sentence that the recipient understands. Then compare that turn of phrase with “stomach ulcer caused by the bacteria H. Pylori and verified by a gastroscopic examination by a doctor” or even just “stomach ulcer diagnosed by a doctor”. The examples become progressively simpler and easier to understand, even if it does mean leaving out bits of information from the original.
But it is not always about what to leave out of a translation, but also what to include in it. Some genres, such as technical documentation, have specified conventions for how a text must be structured. Then there are also idioms, false friends, or even just variations in definitions and basic understanding from language to language, and culture to culture. A good translator grasps all those nuances and will not submit to using a calque without a vehement battle for the “right” turn of phrase: “Translation quality assessment proceeds according to the lordly, completely unexplained, whimsy of ‘It doesn’t sound right'” – Peter Fawcett (British linguist).
When faced with a sentence – or a text consisting of such sentences – such as the above, a translator is faced with the choice of sacrificing some of the fidelity to the source text in order to ensure that the intended recipient can understand the finished product, even though this may lead to a significant divergence between original and source text. That divergence creates the space in which a translator will have to become creative.
It is sometimes a difficult task, and coming up with the “perfect”, elegant turn of phrase is occasionally impossible. However, as the Rabbi Tarfon once wrote (albeit not about translation), “It is not your obligation to complete the task, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it entirely”. One of the defining traits of professional translation is that it often requires a creative process not dissimilar to the work of an author in her own right, even if the finished product is still a communiqué of someone else’s thoughts and intent.