Translator’s dilemma

September 8, 2009

On the Honyaku listserv, a translator working on a Japanese news article takes issue with the article’s translation of a speech by Russian President Medvedev, which has otherwise been published in English as:

I am very pleased to take part together with you in these celebrations marking the seventieth anniversary of the victory in the battle of Khalkhin Gol. This anniversary is very clearly an event of equal significance for Russia and Mongolia. We both remember this brief but cruel war, and the heroic events it inspired. We remember how Soviet and Mongolian forces fought for a just cause, selflessly defending their own peoples’ freedom. It is for this very reason that, as the President of Mongolia said just now, we consider unacceptable attempts to falsify history and change this victory’s essence.

The Japanese adds “断固として対抗する” (“we will actively/decisively oppose [these attempts]”), which seems to be an exaggeration on the reporter’s part. Does the translator follow the Japanese, which then adds a political charge to Medvedev’s speech that was otherwise nonexistent?

What furthermore becomes clear in the course of the discussion is that though Medvedev is referring to victory in the Nomonhan Incident, in the Japanese, he is quoted as referring to victory in World War II. So, the editorial’s translation is erroneous on at least two counts.

After many different voices confirm the original poster’s suspicions, one poster by the name of Carl Freire concludes (bold emphasis mine):

Everyone so far has missed the point. You are translating _what the Kyodo journalist wrote_, and if s/he exaggerated in his/her own translation of Medvedev then so be it (equally possible: the writer was working off of someone else’s translation and did not know any better). That perhaps deliberate mistranslation will be equally revealing to those who examine the record in the future and compare the evidence.

Since the rest of the article, according to the OP, “is something of a warning about the dangers of Russian historical revisionist tendencies,” it’s interesting to think about spaces of mistranslation, misinformation, and the physical and cultural coordinates of that which is “lost in translation.” I wonder what kind of agency the Kyodo reporter had; what motive (if there were any!), or even what simple electrical signal in the brain, was behind this spontaneous turn of phrase.

The thread brought to mind Translation Party, a webpage where you can type in an English phrase to have it machine-translated into Japanese, then back into English, and so on until the phrase reaches “equilibrium.” I wish that I could see, beyond what familiarity I already have with Babelfish and its kin, into the very algorithms of it, to know exactly where something is changed, a switch is flipped, a word is lopped off for being “not equilibrium enough.” Where do those words end up? Where does a dream go once you’ve dreamt it?



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