The Mediocre Translator justifies himself/herself

This issue is inspired by a Christian Morgenstern poem.

Der mittelmäßige Übersetzer rechtfertigt sich

Wähle saure Mienen
draußen oder daheim.
Du kannst nur einem Herrn dienen,
dem Original oder dem Reim.
So heb’s in eine dritte Sphäre!
Als ob’s dann noch das Alte wäre.
Laßt alle Überschätzungen.
So spricht der Gerechte:
Es gibt nur schlechte Übersetzungen und weniger schlechte.

(published in Der schiefe Turm von Babel, Geschichten vom Übersetzen, Dolmetschen und Verstehen, edited by Ragni Maria Gschwend, with a Big Thank you to my friend Margret Zahoransky-Baer who gave me this thought-provoking volume as a Christmas present)

This decastich by Christian Morgenstern (1871-1914), a German author who is mainly remembered for his humorous “nonsense” poems, despite its extreme brevity, is a true treasure trove. It manages, in a mere 10 lines plus the title, to tell us a great deal about translators, their dilemma, and the way they perceive themselves.

Most sobering – or shocking – no doubt are the last two lines proclaiming that “There are only bad translations // and less bad ones”. Quite a damning statement, you could say. But let‘s leave this for another time. Today, I am concentrating on the perceived need for translators to defend or justify themselves as expressed in the poem’s title (I mean, have you heard of a baker or a dentist having to justify themselves?).

The verb “rechtfertigt sich” immediately resonated with me. It brought to mind a statement in an M.A. thesis I had recently come across on the Internet about attitudes and communication behaviour of translators and interpreters: “Unsere Kommunikation ist eine Kommunikation der Rechtfertigung” (our communication is a communication of justification/defence).  Its author, Elisabeth Gruber, examines the status and self-perception of translation professionals. One of her central points is that the fact that translation practitioners have a low status is largely due to how they think about themselves and how they communicate this to the outside world. She backs this up through the analysis of various texts about translation as a profession and describes her impression that translators tend to be driven by the need to convince their surroundings of the value and importance of their work and their know-how. In particular she points out that this defensive behaviour starts long before their professionalism is put into question (by unhappy clients, for example). This defensive, intrinsically negative behaviour helps to create a negative self-fulfilling prophecy: Translators almost invariably assume that their clients do not appreciate their labour and this in turn promotes certain behaviour and communication patterns that reinforce a  negative perception (as well as low self-esteem). Taken full circle this then leads to low social standing, little prestige – and low pay.

Lamentations about not being given professional recognition, not being acknowledged, always being pushed out of the limelight into the shadows are certainly wide-spread in the translation community (and even among interpreters). And this might well explain the need to justify, or defend, our existence. Clearly this dates at least as far back as Christian Morgenstern, who himself by the way was an acclaimed translator, not least of the great Norwegians Henrik Ibsen, Knut Hamsun and August Strindberg.

But never have these feelings of being worthless and under-appreciated been as obvious and omnipresent as over the last 3 or 4 years, which have seen the rapid evolution of machine translation.

Ever since that fateful day when artificial intelligence was hooked up to MT engines, the questions that pop up everywhere are: “Will MT replace translators?”, “Are we translators going to be obsolete – in a year’s time – or by 2030?”. And the answer tends to be a decisive “No”, often accompanied by arguments such as “… despite all the hype, machine learning will never be enough to replace human translators”, “A translation cannot be complete without the human touch”… ”Machines cannot understand culture”, “Machines cannot understand humour”, “Machines can’t relate words to context”, “Machines cannot replicate style and tone”, “Machines are not creative”, etc. All of these are justifications for why translators are still needed. They are meant to reassure us and the rest of the world that we are not obsolete.

In that context, perhaps it is only natural that we are now resorting to exaggerating our contribution to society. We are emphasizing the intrinsic value of human knowledge and creativity allowing us to act as mediators between cultures. We need to convince ourselves that MT will never be able to compete with the human brain, understanding of the world and human emotions and that the quality that MT produces is in no way comparable to what a human can do. Translators revel in finding examples of laughable translations produced by Google (even though some of us remember that a few decades ago, when no-one was using machines, there were abundant examples of hilarious translations in Italian tourist brochures and menus in Chinese restaurants, proof that humans too are perfectly capable of producing non-sensical translations).

Is the constant need to point out the shortcomings of the dumb machines an indication of the lowly regard translators have of themselves? And the fact that we are discarding the term “translator”, preferring instead to use “transcreator”? Are we perhaps not so convinced of our superiority after all? For, if there was no doubt about the machines’ inability to compete with our wealth of cultural knowledge and stylistic mastery, why would we be concerned and consider MT a genuine rival? Surely, these shortcomings would sooner or later become apparent even to less discerning clients, without us having to emphasize and reiterate it on every occasion? If we truly saw ourselves as more than just mechanical “transcribers” and believed in the creative aspect of our work, then the need for constantly justifying and defending our existence would surely disappear. In that sense, perhaps the emphasis in Morgenstern’s poem really needs to be on “mediocre”. Seen like that, it is only the mediocre translator that needs to justify himself/herself, but not the good one!

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