LOST IN TRANSLATION?: THE ODD EXPERIENCE OF TRANSLATING MYSELF

Last semester I decided that it would be a good idea to go over my many published articles and see if I could produce at least one volume, hopefully two, out of them. The idea, let me clarify, was that said volumes would be in Spanish and mostly depend on translations of articles originally in English. I proceeded next to contacting a couple of local publishers who, um, ignored me–story of my life. A bit sheepishly, I decided to read as critically as possible my material and start translating myself in order to offer these two publishers (or others) the finished product in Spanish. In the meantime, I contacted six of the Anglo-American publishing houses I had published my work with, the ones everyone knows about, not quite asking for permission but notifying that a) I intended to upload my translated work onto my university’s repository and b) possibly use it for a book in Spanish.

I’ll start with the publishers’ answers. One has not answered yet, after two months… Another one suggested that since the copyright over any translation was also theirs they would charge me a small fee for the re-use of my work in another language. I was mystified, not to say enraged. For some odd reason this publisher believed I intended to use my article only with MA students and not place it online and so, I was told, the fee would depend on how many students would have access to my translation. I decided to let the article be–we’re speaking about a 15-year-old piece… Oh, my. Other three publishers gave me permission (?) to translate and upload my work online but not to republish it in book form; ergo, whenever the possibility of benefits raises its head, I lose my right to do as I please with my work (for which, remember, I have never got a cent, always the case for articles in collective volumes). The sixth publisher, actually the editor of a journal, gave me his permission and his blessings. I have reached the conclusion that it’ll be simpler to start a new book from scratch, perhaps follow the research line in the journal article.

Now for the translations. I decided that since I had to read my work critically I could in the process start discarding what I didn’t want to be re-published in a book. What better way, I thought, to make sure that my work is still passable than translate it? I have always worried that if you publish in English abroad nobody knows you in Spain and so, occasionally, I have published the same piece in English and Spanish. Recently, I wrote a bilingual Catalan-English conference paper aided by Google Translate and finding it has improved vastly, I determined to give other translations a try. I have translated eight articles originally in English this summer (whose copyright is firmly in my hands) and have just finished today the translation of the journal article that may finally result in a book. I have about half a dozen more pieces awaiting translation and plan to go bilingual as often as I can in the future.

Yes, as everyone knows I’m a little bit crazy and use my time in ways that other scholars might think wasteful but, apart from the matter of the low impact that English Studies specialists who publish regularly in English have in our native Spain, I worry that I no longer know how to write in Spanish (or Catalan). I have written books and articles in my own two languages but I am so little in touch with them that I am beginning to be seriously concerned. I mean that although I do have conversations all the time in my dear native languages, I read very little in them; most films I watch are in English (or French, even Japanese), and I watch practically no local TV. Translation, then, seems like a good way to kill not two, but several birds with the same stone.

Google Translate works, as I say, much better than I expected, and than I recalled from previous exasperating experiences–to the point that I’m wondering whether professional translators ease their workload by using it. Please, don’t think it provides word-perfect translation; rather, I use Google’s version as a draft which then I adapt to my own style. I must say, though, that I have been often surprised when a whole paragraph has required no changes at all and when Google has provided a version that somehow improves the Spanish or Catalan I would have produced myself. So you see…

At one point I got totally paranoid that Google would demand a fee on all my translations (perhaps depending on downloads from my university’s repository?) and I contacted the legal services of CEDRO (I’m a member) and of my university. Both appeared to be quite baffled by my query. CEDRO answered back a bit mischievously that neither animals nor machines can be considered authors and that in their view Google Translate is a machine, hence not a person who can be legally considered author or translator. The UAB services surely thought I was mad and on the verge of considering my computer a favourite pet, for they truly could not understand what I was up to. They gave me eventually a similar answer and, so, I concluded that I owe Google Translate no fees, as I owe Microsoft no fees for using Word to write books. I hope. Having said that, and since I know that Google Translate keeps tabs of all you translate, I’m putting my work in it a paragraph at a time. Just to confuse the Google guys.

After nine self-translations, or ten if I count the conference paper, I feel that one linguistic aim has been accomplished, as I have had to think long and hard about how to express myself in Spanish correctly. I find my translated sentences too short, too choppy, syntactically very un-Spanish and I have tried again and again with little conviction to use subordination instead of a stop or a colon. Quite often Google’s bare version reads terrible, not because it is incorrect but because it underlines the weaknesses of my English, or simply because what sounds fine in one language is appalling in another (or cannot be expressed). I have found a little comfort in the translation of the quotations originally in English by native authors–many have given me a very hard time and have resulted in a few emperor-with-no-clothes revelations when translated. Translating, I find, works very well to test whether what you are writing is sheer nonsense, no matter how cool it sounds in the other language. In the end, then, the translations are much better works than the original texts and also a peculiar self-examination of how I write and think, painful at times.

Last year I had half a dozen Chinese students in an MA class who could not communicate with me in Spanish at all but handed in papers with a Spanish closer to Cervantes than to Pérez Reverte and indeed to what any local student usually manages. We, the teachers, soon realized the papers were not plagiarised but Google-translated (does this word exist?). This is a very tricky situation as the MA they had signed up for did not have specific language requirements of the kind an MA in Spanish (philology) has. My own students in English Studies should stand warned, then, that the use of Google Translate is not welcome–they need to write their exercises in English in their own words; automatic translation is, as I now know very well, easy to detect.

The doubt eating me up is whether you can truly say ‘this is my translation’ if you have used Google Translate. I think you can since you have the final word yet, oddly, I feel a bit uncomfortable. I have been thinking for a while of producing a companion to my book of translated short stories Siete relatos góticos (https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116808) but I suddenly see no point. Or, to be honest, I feel too lazy to undertake very hard work that can be done much more easily. I firmly believe that using Google Translate for this would be cheating, which is not the case for my own academic work. Yet, again, I wonder how many translations of literary works are being published using this extremely useful tool, or shortcut.

Any professional translator out there?

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

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