If translation is an attempt to ‘remove the veil’ from a text then the knowledge translators possess must be the tool needed to reveal what is behind this veil. Our task is to see through the linguistic and cultural veil and interpret what lies beyond. Our ability to visit a text with ‘new eyes’ is as important as our knowledge of the languages concerned. In the ‘West’ we are often so preoccupied with our own languages that we sometimes forget the thousands of other languages that exist ‘out there’. What is more, we are often ignorant of the rich wealth of systems used to represent the written forms of these languages. Even non-Latin alphabets appear alien to us; alphabets like Cyrillic (Кириллица), Greek (Ελληνικό αλφάβητο), Georgian (ქართული დამწერლობა) or Armenian (Հայկական գիր). Abjads (writing systems where each symbol therein generally represents a consonant) appear to Western eyes even more outlandish, for example, Hebrew (עִבְרִית) or Arabic (العربية). Abugidas, segmental writing systems, are even further away from western scriptural sensitivities and include alphasyllabaries such as Ge’ez (ግዕዝ) and Devanagari (देवनागरी). It is also worth mentioning logographic writing systems which include Chinese (漢字).
Why is this significant to the translator? Often the mark of an expert translator is his/her ability to find ingenious approaches to solving linguistic problems. The capacity to see a translational quandary from a different perspective is key to our profession. Sometimes, the power to see a text with ‘another pair of eyes’ is invaluable. This ‘defamiliarisation’ is often nurtured through multilingualism and especially multiculturalism. We can go one step further by suggesting that being sensitive to not only linguistic cues but also ‘visual-linguistic’ cues may help develop this sensitivity and ability to ‘de-focus’ and see a text afresh. Knowledge of different writing systems and typographical methods are but two methods of expanding our minds.
Aside from becoming familiar with the scripts mentioned above (in order to become de-familiar with our own script), another useful method of defamiliarisation is to take our own script and read it differently, or rather write it differently. For this we can make use of Boustrophedon (Gr. as the ox turns) which was an Ancient Greek method of writing where alternate lines of the text were read in opposite directions (see picture above). For example, the first line would be read from left-to-right, the second right-to-left, the third left-to-right and so on and so forth. Interestingly, this method, with practice, is actually a faster way to write and read.
More importantly, this is another weapon in the translator’s arsenal. There is much to be said for expanding one’s mind in as many diverse ways as it is possible. A previous blog entry on Linguistic Intelligence is testament to this. The traditional, tried and tested ways of improving competence are invaulable. However, even in the mundane translation of a legal document, medical journal or technical manual an extra iota of creativity and ‘freshness’ can sometimes be the difference between a good piece of work and a great translation.