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Translation is science

Translation, art or science?

Translation is science


Cock-a-doodle-doo! Translation is Science!

A few years ago, I was invited to an open assembly for both parents and students at my daughter’s grammar school. She was about to finish year 7 and had a difficult decision to take. In year 8, students are allowed to elect several optional subjects for the first time, in addition to the fixed curriculum that all students must follow, and can therefore begin to implement some personal preferences. There were four optional subjects to choose from: biochemistry, social sciences and information technology, German language and art, and Latin.

Each teacher had to deliver an entertaining presentation of their subject in order to convince as many students as possible to sign up. This in itself was astonishing: teachers vying for students and parents, trying to convince them that their subject was the most interesting, the most exciting, the most useful.

I personally did not have any special preferences and listened without bias to the different presentations. However, all of that changed when the Latin teacher took to the stage. I began to remember the difficulties I had in trying to make sense of “De Bello Galico”. Back in the old days, Latin was mandatory at German grammar schools. You had to obtain a Latin Proficiency Certificate in order to qualify for certain university courses. I recalled myself sitting through those Latin classes bored out of my skull, drawing moustaches on pictures of Roman statues and thinking about anything but Latin. As a result, after four years, my level of Latin was not great, to say the least, and I only managed to obtain the certificate by cheating heavily.

I was therefore full of prejudice when the Latin teacher took to the stage. She began by pointing out that a solid grounding in Latin is extremely useful for learning other Romance languages and essential if you dream of becoming a theologist or an archaeologist. How true I thought, and turned my attention to my mobile phone. She then went on to talk about the actual classes, which would include reading texts and attempting to translate them. Don’t remind me, I thought… But then she went on to say something that struck me as extraordinary, something that I hold to be very true and that partly made me understand why I hold so dear the profession I was so lucky to finally choose: TRANSLATION.

She stated that every translation attempt was a scientific exercise. I immediately looked up from my phone and was all ears. Let’s translate the sentence “Gallus cantat”, she said. Gallus is “rooster” and “cantat” is the third person singular of “cantāre”, to sing. Easy, isn’t it? “The rooster sings” then, right? Some nodded affirmatively, others looked a bit sceptical. Well, she said, actually, the rooster does not sing, it crows. There was much more nodding now. There you go, she said, translating is a fundamental exercise in science: you look at a phenomenon, you establish a theory regarding its significance, and eventually you test this theory against real life and correct it if necessary. Get your children to join my Latin classes and I will train them to be scientists.

I tried to talk my daughter into taking the Latin class after that. Fortunately, she refused to listen. Never mind. More importantly, I learned why I love translation: because it is science in its purest form. Cock-a-doodle-doo!!!!

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