Another (Systemic) Perspective

As the Ox Turns

As the Ox Turns

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.

9 Responses to “Another (Systemic) Perspective”

  1. Anna Kwiecień Says:

    The article introduces the readers to a very innovative approach to the intricate art of translation. The main issue raised by the author is the ability to see a text with “new eyes”, i.e. the ability to look at the words from a different perspective and, at the same time, to see the meaning hidden behind the words. It seems to be a very appealing idea worth considering by both novice and experienced translators. The method for reading texts which is proposed in the article indeed may be one of numerous tools enabling translators to expand their professional skills. The method is also very interesting because it resembles playing with words. Therefore, translators, who are in general enthusiastic about texts, should find it engrossing. Nevertheless, the final statement regarding legal documents, medical journals and manuals is disputable as creativity and “freshness” is hardly ever expected in such texts. To sum up, the innovative approach to texts is worth considering; however, it should not be employed in all kinds of texts.

  2. Joanna Nowicka Says:

    In my opinion it is a very informative article. I was surprised at the idea that looking at a language from different perspective can be useful in the act of translation, but I guess it is possible. A translator must both change the meaning of the word and its visual form, which requires more knowledge and skills than “ordinary” translation.
    It is interesting how the author concluded the article – someimes using different, innovative translation tools can result in a distinct text in different language, not a translation of a given original text… So we should be careful🙂

  3. Małgorzata Czajka Says:

    The article makes me think again of the ‘mission impossible’ all translators take part in. If our work is to ‘get beyond that veil’and solve linguistic and cultural problems we are, undoubtedly, to run up against, we must accept we will not manage to complete the mission. If we keep struggling to find cultural equivalence translating texts which originate from cultures that we think we are quite familiar with, then doing the same with a text written originally in some ‘exotic’ language is far more difficult.Not only must we find the images familiar to our future readers, but also tackle problems ensuing from a different system of writing down words, different alphabets, different ‘codes’ that make ‘the veil’ even more impenetrable. To be able to look at the translated text in a highly analytical way, translators must also be analytical towards their own native language. Any trick, or technique, that helps to develop such skills is more than welcome.The Boustrophedon technique demands from the translator both concentration on words and practice, being thus a challenging and, most probably, an effective method.

  4. Agnieszka Lal Says:

    Indeed, the article help you realize how little do we “feel” the words and that the brain is as if, bored. We’re not using our brains fully, it’s even difficult to understand how to use this “method” of looking at words. What is the most interesting for me is how to learn to use my brain to be able to read such texts fluently and easily🙂

    • transubstantiation Says:

      Agnieszka Lal,
      Boustrophedon has even been shown to improve concentration and mental ability in patients with neurological problems. Linguistic tasks are often a sure sign of whether our mental capacities are improving or indeed are not.

  5. Ania N swps Says:

    What I like the most about this post is the first three sentences, i.e. “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.” These sentences precisely say what translation is. They explain the nature of translation and capture its essence. Knowing both the source and target language is not enough in order to be a good translator since translation is also about culture and history; about the atmosphere, type, and style of the text, and about the information, message, feelings, and emotions which are the part of the text.

  6. Ania P. Says:

    I especially like this thought:

    “Sometimes, the power to see a text with ‘another pair of eyes’ is invaluable.”

    Teachers always tell us to, first of all, read the source text a couple of times, and then, after translating it, to give it some time, to read a few times in order to catch any details (mistranslations, different sense, wrong collocations, contexts etc) that we cannot catch in one reading. Reading the translation more than once gives us a chance to look at it with ‘different pair of eyes’, I would also say with fresh mind. Of course, sometimes it is good to use this advice literally, so to give the text to somebody else and in this way see the text with ‘another pair of eyes’. But not always there is a possibility to do that, so we have to trust our second thoughts, and give them chanceŁ=


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