Translation can be defined as the process of transferring words and meaning from one language to another. However, as we’ve seen in many other articles, it’s also a complex and creative activity that involves linguistic, cultural and cognitive skills.
Translation is not a modern profession. It has been practiced for thousands of years, although its status and recognition have varied across different times and geographic areas.
In this article, we will explore how translation has been denied as a need, an effort or a profession in different historical periods and contexts, and the implications of such denial.
How is translation a need?
Translation is a need wherever there’s a demand for communication or the exchange of information between speakers of different languages.
Translation can serve various purposes, such as political, religious, cultural, scientific, educational, or artistic. It can also be a need for personal or social reasons, such as identity formation, intercultural understanding, or empowerment.
However, translation has not always been acknowledged as a need by dominant groups or institutions.
In some cases, it was seen as a threat to the authority or legitimacy of a single language or culture. In other cases, translation was seen as unnecessary or irrelevant.
For example, did you know that in ancient Rome, translation from Greek was discouraged or prohibited by some emperors? They wanted to preserve the purity and supremacy of Latin.
In medieval Europe, translation from Arabic or Hebrew was often restricted or censored by the catholic church, who feared the influence of non-Christian sources on the Christian faith.
In colonial times, translation from indigenous languages was often ignored or suppressed by the colonizers who imposed their own languages and cultures on the colonized peoples.
For example, in ancient China, translation from foreign languages was rarely practiced or valued by the imperial court, who considered Chinese culture to be superior and self-sufficient.
Even today, translation from minoritized languages is often neglected or marginalized by the mainstream media who favor dominant or global languages. Besides, there are many who still see translation as a simple task that can be performed by anyone who speaks two languages and, as such, there’s no need to pay for it.
These historical denials of translation as a need have had negative consequences for translators and in translation studies as a discipline. In the past, translators who worked in unfavorable conditions were even persecuted or silenced. Translation studies was often overlooked, underdeveloped, or biased.
How is translation an effort?
Translation is an effort because it requires mental and physical work to produce a satisfactory result.
Contrary to the beliefs of many, translation is not a simple or mechanical task of replacing words with their foreign equivalents. It involves understanding the meaning and context of the source text, finding appropriate ways to express it in the target language, and making informed decisions and adjustments based on various factors, such as the purpose, audience, genre, style, etc.
However, translation has not always been recognized as an effort.
Often, translation was, and still is, seen as an easy or trivial task by those who underestimate the complexity and diversity of languages and cultures.
For example, in ancient Greece, translation from barbarian languages was considered to be a lowly or childish activity by some philosophers who valued rationality and originality over linguistic and cultural differences.
In modern times, translation from machine-readable languages is often assumed to be so simple that we can just rely on automatic translations without considering their limitations or implications.
Interestingly, on the other hand, translation was seen as a difficult or impossible effort by those who overestimated the gap or conflict between languages and cultures.
For example, in medieval India, translation from Sanskrit was deemed to be unfeasible or undesirable by some scholars who regarded Sanskrit as a sacred and perfect language that could not—and should not—be translated into other languages.
This also happens today, when translation from culturally sensitive or controversial texts is avoided or rejected by some publishers or authorities who fear legal or ethical issues or public backlash.
Translation IS a profession, period.
This is not even a question.
Translation is not a hobby or a side job that anyone can do without preparation or qualification.
Translation is a professional activity, and it involves specialized knowledge and skills that are acquired through education and training, and it must be recognized and rewarded by society.
It’s a multifaceted and dynamic activity that can be understood and evaluated from different perspectives.
However, in the past, translation has been seen as a subordinate or auxiliary activity.
For example, in Renaissance Europe, translation from classical languages was regarded as a pedagogical or preparatory exercise by some humanists who aimed at imitating or surpassing the ancient authors.
In other cases, translation has been seen as a marginal or precarious activity by those who ignored or exploited the labor and rights of the translator.
For example, in colonial Africa, translation from local languages was often performed by untrained or underpaid intermediaries who acted as mediators or brokers between the colonizers and the colonized.
In modern times, translation from literary or artistic texts can still be seen as a secondary or derivative work by some critics or readers who question the authenticity or creativity of the translator.
Translation for well-known online content platforms is often done by unpaid or underpaid volunteers who participate in crowdsourcing or fan-based platforms.
As we can see, translation has often been undervalued, misunderstood, or even oppressed, being denied as a need, an effort and a profession in different historical periods and contexts.
The denial of translation as a profession has negative consequences for translators as well as customers. It affects quality, status, and recognition.
Translators who worked in unfavorable conditions were often exploited or felt devalued and even invisible.
Translation studies as a discipline was often simplified, distorted, or polarized.
However, translation has always been a resilient and adaptive activity that has survived and thrived despite the denial or resistance it encountered. And its importance and essentiality are undeniable.
In Portugal, there is still no law or rule that regulates the profession, translators do not have a professional association, and almost anyone can be a translator without taking into account their training or professional experience.
But there are several translators’ associations in Portugal that have fought to improve the status of Portuguese translators, including the Associação Portuguesa de Empresas de Tradução (APET), Associação Portuguesa de Tradutores (APT) and Associação de Profissionais de Tradução e de Interpretação (APTRAD).
Translation has always been a source of innovation, communication, empowerment and transformation that has enriched and diversified languages, societies and cultures. It’s what has allowed us to interpret, translate and record our past so we can learn from it and know who we are as humans.
It’s a resilient and adaptive activity that has survived and thrived despite the denial or resistance it encountered. And its importance and essentiality are undeniable.
The profession must be appreciated and supported as an activity that contributes to the development and well-being of humanity, and the work and responsibility of the translator should be acknowledged.
So, are you ready to value the work of a dedicated team of specialized translators?
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