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The Exciting World of the Translator as an Invisible Link between Languages and Cultures

Updated: Jun 23, 2020


After several years dedicated to the exciting world of translation and interpretation, I feel the need to re-launch my own steps and to really consider the importance of the activity that these professionals carry out. Any worker in any industry should, at some point in his life, carry out an exercise of self-reflection with regards the activity he carries out, as well as the repercussions that his work may have on the society in which he carries out his work.

Normally, when this situation occurs, that is to say, when a worker considers carrying out this exercise of self-reflection, it is usually due to some external factor that has made him look back to take a deep breath and analyze what his work means in the world he lives in.

In my case, probably, this exercise of self-reflection has been provoked by the continuous struggle that we translators and interpreters have to maintain with a series of myths that swarm our society. The fact that almost anyone who has taken a couple of courses in any foreign language dares to translate or so many other situations in which translators feel undervalued in front of a client who has not really appreciated the laborious work that the translator has had to do in order to be able to offer a correct result are determining factors that must provoke the self-reflection exercise mentioned above, so that in the labour market we know who we are and the importance of the work we carry out. Not just anyone can be a translator, much less a good translator.


From time immemorial, the fact of conquering a territory also carried with it the need to impose the language of the ruler over the subjugated. In spite of the difference in status between winners and losers, the very coexistence of cultures caused any kind of linguistic barrier to be crossed, thus beginning to develop the translatological process as a necessary link between the different cultures.

For many years, this translation process has been the object of analysis and study in order to lay the foundations of a theoretical-practical apparatus that delimits the function of translators and interpreters.

Many years have passed since Eugene Nida began to consider the concept of equivalence between two languages, and throughout this time numerous advances have been made in terms of knowledge and understanding of what the translation process entails in itself and the different mechanisms that are activated when translating.

When a student of translation first hears the explanation of the meaning of the verb "to translate", he is not really aware of the complexity involved in the fact that translating consists of nothing more and nothing less than "transferring a message from a source or departure language to a target or arrival language".

The use of the verb "to transfer" in this definition is probably not the most appropriate; hence the most current translation trends today speak of "adequacy" rather than "transfer". It is an adaptation of a sentence from one language to another, so that the final message, until it becomes the desired result, undergoes a series of transformations of various kinds. It is almost impossible in most cases to maintain, for example, the phonetic and grammatical syntactic linguistic form of the original and what is generally transferred from one language to another is the pragmatic sense, that is to say, we transfer senses adapting these concepts from one culture to another.

Jesús Peláez, Professor of Greek Philology at the University of Córdoba, clearly explains the complexity of this process based on the translation of the Italian proverb "il traduttore, traditore" into German ("der Übersetzer ist ein Verräter" = "the translator is a traitor"). According to Peláez, "when translated into German, the meaning is preserved (translator = traitor), but there is a loss at the phonological level: in German there is no rhyme like in Italian ("il traduttore, traditore"); another difference lies in the fact that, in Italian, the syntactic structure is composed of two words, subject and predicate, merely juxtaposed, with no verb mediating between them. In German, on the other hand, two less phonetically similar words ("Übersetzer" - "Verräter") are used, joined by a copulative verb that makes the sentence more complex. Phonetics, syntax and pragmatic effect are different. As it happens with water transfers from one river to another, when translating it always loses flow. The task of a good translator is to ensure that as little as possible is lost" (Peláez, 1997: 1).

To ensure that this flow is not lost, the translator must be faithful to both the source language and the target language, or rather to the source culture and the target culture, adapting as closely as possible the meaning expressed in the source language marked by an originating culture to a target language marked by a target culture. After all, every language is nothing more than the expression of certain speakers immersed in a certain culture with certain characteristics. There is no doubt that the adaptation that the translator must carry out in his work implies a deep knowledge not only of the pair of working languages but, above all, of the cultural implications of both languages. For all these reasons, the translator becomes an intercultural link that acts as a mediator between the culture of origin and the culture of destination.

Throughout the history of translation science, translators have always considered how to achieve the most perfect translation possible. In his Letter on the Art of Translation, Luther already expressed in the sixteenth century the difficulties encountered in his translation of the Bible:

"It took me a lot of effort to translate in order to be able to offer a pure and clear German. It has often been the case to search and ask for fifteen days, or for three or four weeks, about a single word, and yet find no immediate answer. In translating Job's book, Melanchton, Aurogallus and I worked in such a way that we were barely able to finish three lines in four days... Now it is in German and finished; anyone can read it and examine the text; three or four pages can be read without any difficulty and without the stones and stumbles that were there being perceived..." It is not Latin literature that must be scrutinized in order to know how to speak German..., but one must ask the mother in the house, the children in the street, the ordinary man in the market and observe his mouth to know how they speak, in order to translate in that way; then they understand and notice that German is spoken to them" (Peláez, 1997:1).

In this statement, Luther confirmed the translation procedure that every professional must follow before beginning his translation work, that is, the translator must establish a phase of understanding in which the meaning of the original text must be considered. While writing, it is normal for the translator himself to have doubts not only about mere words but also, sometimes, about the expression of complete sentences. Precisely that is the key factor for any good translator: doubt. This doubt is the great ally of the translator.

When the professional doubts, there is a descent from his deification pedestal to realize that he is facing a difficult challenge that he has to overcome in spite of many years of experience. The pride that comes from wanting to overcome this challenge leads the professional to have to investigate and consider which are the most pertinent idiomatic twists in the target language.

The professional always has to consider whether the expression and/or expressions he or she is using would be identified as his or her own by the recipients of the target text. That is the real task of adjustment and the real achievement that is achieved after a long training that continues throughout all the years of professional practice and that, personally, I believe never ends.

The translator is therefore responsible for nothing more and nothing less than that a message, which was probably not conceived to be translated, is effectively translated into a

target language without causing any sense of strangeness for the speakers of that language.

To achieve this, the translator must immerse himself in the depths of the source text and allow himself to be impregnated with all the cultural load that the text intends to transmit in order to rise again from the ashes in order to adapt the whole message to a totally different target culture. All this means that the translator is not just a mere transmitter of words, but a true link, a connection so versatile that it is capable of intertwining two different cultures.

The professional thus adopts the function of an invisible link, since the good translator must be able to adapt a message expressed in a source language to a target language impregnated with a totally different culture without the receiver detecting that he is in front of a translation. For this reason, the real achievement of any translator is to remain invisible before the eyes of a target receiver who conceives the text he receives as a new construct and not as a product that has undergone a transformation process.

The Real Academia Española de la Lengua defines the term `culture´ as "the set of ways of life and customs, knowledge and degree of artistic, scientific, industrial development in an era, social group, etc.". The last expression of any culture is its language and the translator is the mediating element that acts as a communicating vessel.

As we have mentioned before, the fact that confirms this assertion is that since ancient times one of the most effective forms of colonization has been the imposition of a language. Language and culture form an inseparable whole, without being able to understand one without the other. In this way, translation is an open door to communication between peoples and cultures, becoming the main way to receive updated information on everything that happens beyond our borders.

In this context, the latest translation trends develop the concept of "interculturality",

i.e. they emphasize the fact that the translator must have a broad knowledge about the similarities and differences that are appreciated between the two cultures, that of the source language and the target language. In this regard, Jenny Brumme, professor at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, states the following: "In recent decades, studies devoted to translation have stressed the need to conceive of this activity as a process of intercultural communication [...]. The translator is no longer understood as a mere transmitter between two languages, but as a bi or multicultural specialist who has to recreate, in a given situation, for a target culture, a text impregnated with an original culture. With the help of the widest possible cultural knowledge, he must be able to distinguish between the realities of the author, that of himself and that of the client/receiver [...]. Intercultural knowledge encompasses the totality of knowledge about the similarities and differences between two or more cultures, i.e. it includes not only knowledge of the more or less strong contrasts, but also knowledge in areas where no conflict is to be expected thanks to the common features of the cultures" (Brumme, 2006: 1-11).

Brumme confirms a very interesting and often forgotten aspect in the teaching of the discipline of Translation and Interpretation: the fact that it is necessary to observe not only what differentiates two texts, but also those aspects that bring them closer, that make them similar, with the aim of being able to carry out a complete contrastive analysis as a previous work on which the search for the much desired cultural adaptation is based.

This author goes a little further and describes all the factors that the good translator must bear in mind in order to achieve this adaptation, for which she proposes a method based on the analysis of the function foreseen for the text in the target culture, the familiarity or strangeness of the target reader before specific elements of the source culture, as well as the need or not to adapt the text type according to the rules in force in the target culture:

"It would first be necessary to determine what function is envisaged in the target culture for the text to be translated. Secondly, for each specific text or text type, to what extent the specific elements of the source culture are reunited in the daily experience and knowledge acquired by the target client/reader or to what extent they are alien to the target receiver. Finally, the translator should decide whether `the different/ajeno/extraño´ in the output text plays a role in the target text, or whether it will be necessary to adapt the text to the standards of the target text type in order to maintain the function of the output text" (Brumme, 2006:22-30).

Therefore, translation is a complex process in which the translator has to study the original and its context, paying special attention to the historical moment in which it is produced, the society in which it appears, the biography of the original author and all the socio-economic factors surrounding it. This means that just knowing the language rigorously and how it works is not a good translator. That's not good enough.

In short, due to his important work as a cultural mediator, the translator must be the first to become aware that his work has implications that go beyond the simple translation exercise, valuing the importance of his strategies and decision making in the translation process.

However, the complexity intrinsic to the translation process and the fact that the translator establishes himself as a mediator of cultures may not fully encompass the work of such a professional. The translator's job is really more than just producing a proper translation (moving ideas from one text to another, or from one culture to another). The translator has to become able to produce this move and turn it into a construction (the translator actively participates in the construction of a new text). These two visions, which do not have to be contradictory, are today giving rise to a great debate on translation in translators' forums.

In any case, what is clear is that the translation order will always be the one that delimits the construction dose that a translator can use in the final product, obviously knowing and always respecting the cultural characteristics of the source and target text.

In short, the translator possesses a working weapon that has to adapt in the most correct and idiomatic way possible to another language, that is to say, the translator becomes a "traitor" who has to use all his ingenuity to deceive the final reader that what he is reading "does not sound like translation". We could define translation as a very complex process in which the translator has to make use of his or her knowledge of two different languages and two different cultures and establish a decision-making process and strategies that allow the reader of the translated text to feel comfortable with the translation.

In order to achieve this objective, it is assumed that a good translator must have sufficient linguistic and cultural competence in these two languages, to which must be added sufficient translating competence, that is to say, those qualities that allow him/her to translate correctly.

A high development of these skills and a balance between the three would bring us closer to the figure of the ideal translator. However, experience has shown that there is no such thing as an ideal translator, just as there is no such thing as an ideal translation. What exists are real translators, some better than others, but all with their limitations, both personal and external, such as a very short delivery time or a total ignorance of the subject (for which you previously have to carry out a research and information work). What these professionals must try to do, in short, is to adapt as much as possible the pragmatic sense of the source text to a target culture.


In view of the above, I believe that it is now, at a time when interculturality and communication between the most diverse cultures are being fostered, that we translators must do our exercise of self-reflection. Because it is now that we are most needed, but it is also now that we are most undervalued.

Not just anyone is capable of translating properly. A computer does not have this capacity for intercultural adaptation, no matter how much progress is being made in the sector of automatic translation programmes.

Indeed, all the social coordinates are coming together so that it is precisely now that we have to stop and think and legitimize our profession over the low-level professional intrusion and the supposedly marvelous computer programs that haunt us.

It is now that we have to broaden our own definition of translators and/or interpreters to become cultural mediators. Because, ladies and gentleman, maybe nowadays anyone can define themselves as a translator, but, of course, very few manage to be good cultural mediators.

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