“It is Important to Reflect on What We do. That’s What Makes us Better Translators,” Says Jayme Costa

Following up on my round of reviews on literary sessions held at the ATA Conference, here's a little bit of theory to support translators working with 21st-century prose

During the 53rd Annual Conference organized October 24-27, 2012 by theAmerican Translators Association (ATA) in San Diego, I attended a presentation by the Portuguese Language Division (PDL) entitledTranslating 21st Century Prose. The presenter, Jayme Costa Pinto, is an English into Portuguese translator and the head of studies at the Department of Translation and Interpretation with Associação Alumni in São Paulo, Brazil. His literary translations include works by American authors John Updike and Seth Morgan and he has participated in a special training program for interpreters at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California.

Costa believes that reflecting on our work as translators is of utmost importance because it helps us to evaluate the language-related decisions we make every day. “That’s what makes us better translators,” he explains.

To help in this reflection exercise, he recommended Mary Snell-Hornby’s book “The Turns of Translation Studies: New paradigms or shifting viewpoints?” which is part of the Benjamins Translation Library series, and Eugene A. Nida’s “The Theory and Practice of Translation.”

The Age-Old Dichotomy ― Costa reminded the audience that one of the main dilemmas translators face is whether they should use the same words in the target language, thus being faithful to the original, or change them in a way that will convey the same meaning to somewhat adapt and localize the content.

The presenter went on to quote three thinkers and theoreticians and how they saw such dilemma back in their time. Cicero, in the 1st Century B.C., prioritized the faithfulness of the text, even though he did not defend a word-for-word translation. 

Nicolas Perrot d'Ablancourt, who translated Greek and Latin classics into French in the 1600s―including Cicero―, did not hesitate when it came to changing the wording in order to clarify the thoughts behind them, without necessarily being faithful, but actually “modernizing” old texts. A malicious remark on one of his translations gave rise to the popular expression les belles infidèles [the beautiful unfaithful].

Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), German theologian and translator of Plato, once said: "Translators should either leave readers in peace, or move the author towards them, or vice-versa." 

Making Decisions Based on Theory ― Costa went on to list some theories that support translators when deciding how to interact or interfere with the text:

  • Domestication (closely conforming to the culture of the target language, which may involve the loss of information from the source text) vs. Foreignization (retaining information from the source text, which may involve breaking the conventions of the target language to preserve its meaning.)
  • Formal Equivalence (word-for-word, or meaning of individual words, regardless of the syntactic sequence) vs.Dynamic Equivalence (sense-for-sense, or meaning of sentences as a whole)
  • Fidelity or “Faithfulness
  • Transparency and Invisibility
  • Translation as a creative force, an element that constitutes thoughts and realities

One of the examples Costa gave of a successful adaptation is the term “9th inning,” borrowed from baseball terminology to mean something that happened “at the very last second.” With his native Brazilian audience in mind, the presenter would use 45 minutos do segundo tempo [45th minute in the second half], thus adapting the translation to a soccer analogy that is closer to the cultural reality in the target language.

“Sometimes, in the same paragraph, we make a decision to both bring meaning closer to readers in one sentence, then poke and drive them to look for meaning on their own,” he explains. “Translation is a game in which, as far as meaning, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. You can make it easier to readers and explain everything, or you can make them go after it and acquire knowledge while reading the text.”

The “Game” With English and Portuguese ― Considering his working languages, Costa compared writing styles: “English likes verbs, while Portuguese likes nouns.” He mentioned how sentence structures are different in each language and called the audience’s attention to “orality” as a means to make verbal expressions sound natural in the translation.

Other components mentioned included formal and informal speech, standard and substandard language (verb in the singular that does not match subject in the plural,) grammar accuracy (male and female nouns that do not match male and female articles,) phonetic contractions, and lexicon (slangs.)

One example he mentioned was the HBO series "In Treatment," whose Brazilian version has recently premiered as "Sessão de terapia" on GNT and mostly translates the original script. According to him, some statements made by the on-screen patients were translated too literally and don’t sound as natural as people in a psychiatrist’s office would actually express themselves.

“There is this literary translator in Brazil who has one hundred books under his belt and only now has been able to convince his editors to use oral contractions, such as ‘tá’ [is] and ‘pra’ [to], in his Portuguese translations,” he mentioned, adding on to the subject of verbal expression.

Discussion Forum on Practice ― What followed in the last part of the presentation was a delightful discussion forum with examples taken from David Nichols’ “One Day.” Costa highlighted some interesting excerpts of the original in English, asked for suggestions from the audience and then showed his own solutions, saying that he hadn’t read the Brazilian version and would rather not refer to it during the practical exercise.

"It is about the pleasure of reaching a solution,” he explains. “I studied hard, I graduated, and read so much to reach this solution. Editors may not always accept it, but it’s all about enjoying the process."