Translation is central to our learning

In one of William Shakespeare’s most memorable dialogues, Juliet questions Romeo: “What’s in a name?” Her view is that a rose would smell as sweet “by any other name”. Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose ends with a sentence in Latin (“stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus”) that argues the exact opposite: the rose itself is in its name and names are all we hold on to.

Māori broadcaster and producer Miriama Kamo (Ngāti Mutunga, Ngāi Tahu) recently wrote about her “loaded” name. A name, she explained, that “implies things”: it “tells” people her “heritage”; it “alerts” them to her “whakapapa”; it “suggests”, to some, that she is “untrustworthy, maybe an activist, possibly unreliable, potentially a criminal”. Now loving her name because of its “history and heft”, Kamo demands that it be pronounced correctly, “especially in this country where we share te reo”.

It is not surprising that a name dense with meanings can generate multiple interpretations—sometimes uplifting, sometimes demeaning. Mispronouncing someone’s name, however, is always unjustifiable. Yet it can happen, to anyone and anywhere. When it happens out of habitual indifference, it is symptomatic of a monolingual mind-set, as if “the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech” (Genesis, 11:1, King James Bible). Mispronunciation is worse than mistranslation: for translating implies an effort has been made, and choices have been made, to decode, digest and divulge difference. Which is why an unsatisfactory and even an inappropriate translation can be meaningful and useful.

Okja—a 2017 action-adventure movie directed by Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho (who revealed Okja to be “just a name”: a “little outdated” Korean female name with “no meaning”)—is a clever example. Innovative and highly symbolic, this multilingual and multicultural film uses (mis)translation to question and to a certain degree resist the world’s global unity. At some point—according to the English subtitles—one of the characters, K, invites another, Mija, to “Try learning English” because “It opens new doors!” In an earlier translation of the film, the same subtitle read “How’s my Korean?” What K is actually saying to Mija, though, is that his name is Koo Soon-bum. Only those who speak both languages can appreciate this mistranslation, which subverts the supremacy of English as the world’s lingua franca. In another scene, his lies discovered, K gets beaten up by Jay, who tells him to “never mistranslate!” And when K reappears at the end of the film, he proudly sports on his forearm a tattooed message: “Translations are sacred.”

International Translation Day—celebrated worldwide on the last day of September—bears, after all, the name of a saint. Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus (c.347– 30 September 420) was an Illyrian Latin Christian priest, confessor, theologian, historian, Doctor of the Church and translator of the Scriptures. To the Anglophone world, he is known as Jerome. Recognised as a saint not only by the Catholic Church but also by the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Lutheran Church and the Church of England (Anglican Communion), Jerome translated the 39 books of the Hebrew Bible into a new Latin version now universally known as the Vulgate—an undertaking that began as a revision and led to one of the pillars of Western civilisation, earning him the title of patron saint of translators and interpreters (as well as of librarians and encyclopaedists).

On the website of the International Federation of Translators (FIT)—“the voice of associations of translators, interpreters and terminologists around the world”—we read that 24 May 2017 marked “an historical milestone for all professional translators, interpreters and terminologists”. At its 71st session, the United Nations General Assembly “unanimously adopted Resolution A/71/L.68 recognising the role of professional translation in connecting nations, and fostering peace, understanding and development”. The same resolution also declared 30 September “to be UN International Translation Day to be celebrated across the entire UN network”. This official recognition of a day celebrated for the first time in 1953 has been one of the Federation’s “longstanding missions since its inception”.

This mission has been achieved with the contribution of New Zealand. Henry Liu, FIT’s outgoing President (2014–2017) and now honorary adviser, and Alison Rodriguez, one of the current Vice-Presidents, represent New Zealand and the New Zealand Society of Translators and Interpreters. The hyphenated-identity signalled by their names is an apt metaphor for the linguistic and cultural in-betweenness inhabited by anyone who happens or chooses to translate or interpret, at any level and for any reason. It is also a reflection of Aotearoa New Zealand’s multi-ethnic, multicultural and multilingual fabric.

However, despite the trials and tribulations that have ensued from an instance of (mis)translation underscoring this country’s founding document, Te Tiriti o Waitangi, there remain a large number of decision-makers in all sectors (politicians, managers, educators, career-advisers, employers, information providers) who are still, and staunchly, monolingual.

Make the study of te reo Māori mandatory for schoolchildren, as early as possible, and their language-learning skills, starting with English, will immediately improve.

Those people continue to argue that learning English is what really counts and that learning another language (including Aotearoa’s indigenous reo), apart from being difficult, steals time from acquiring more important and more remunerative skills. And the (undeniable) progress constantly made in artificial intelligence and computer technology is readily invoked to dismiss the relevance and urgency of having human translators and interpreters: machines will ultimately outsmart humans. Last year’s case of a Hamilton mayoral candidate whose bid to win over Māori voters backfired—his Google- Translated message was “barely recognisable as te reo Māori” and “disrespectful to the Māori language”—ought to dissuade one from relying blindly on machine-generated translations.

The fact that oral and written translation has been central to human evolution, expression and exchange since the very beginning of civilisation (in many cases laying the first stone of civilisation) should suffice to make it respected and endorsed as an essential part of our individual and collective lives. At home or at work, in comfort or in crisis, for simple tasks or complex assignments, the process of translation—literally or figuratively—moves ideas and informs actions across languages and cultures, breaking down ethnic ghettos and professional silos, and zeroing the divides (that many prefer to keep) between humanities and sciences.

One of the first definitions of translation to come up online is from molecular biology, where it describes “the final step on the way from DNA to protein”. The three stages in this particular translational process—initiation, elongation and termination—can be meaningfully applied to translating and interpreting in a linguistic and cultural environment.

Initiation is the molecular setup needed to start making a new protein. Make the study of te reo Māori mandatory for schoolchildren, as early as possible, and their language-learning skills, starting with English, will immediately improve, as will their cross-cultural communication and translation skills.

Elongation is when a chain of amino acids gets longer. Learning languages and cultures—and how to negotiate their history, habitat and habitus—widens our worldview and thus our imagination and our ability to advance in the ways we think and do things.

Lastly, termination indicates that the process of protein synthesis has come to an end. Do we, too, need to come close to our end to recognise the saving, healing and renewing power of translating and interpreting? Do we need to experience the terminal consequences of environmental and human interventions—earthquake, Ebola or exile; waste, war or womanicide—to rely on translators and interpreters in order to comprehend and overcome what happens around us and within us? Courts and hospitals need (most urgently) translators and interpreters. So do communities and businesses. So do governments and the citizens that vote them into power.

On International Translation Day, let us hope for a sincere and lasting mind-shift whereby translating and interpreting are no longer regarded as time-consuming and costly concerns but as enriching recognitions of diversity.

Two of the most influential authors of our time, Jorge Luis Borges and George Steiner, have argued that “translation is a more advanced stage of civilisation” and that “without translation, we would inhabit parishes bordering on silence”.

Long live translators and interpreters, then, in New Zealand and in the whole world. May their words and voices, their choices and actions, continue to be an effective and durable antidote against self-centred monolingualism and toxic parochialism.

Dr Marco Sonzogni is co-editor, with Victoria Master of Literary Translation Studies graduate Tim Smith, of a unique new version of Dante’s Inferno where the 34 cantos have different translators.

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