The Human Art of Translation

Commentator Andrei Codrescu ponders why the craft of language translation is hard for computers to do — and why as a profession it remains an important job for humans to do.

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Words often divide the people of the world.

Commentator Andrei Codrescu thinks he knows why and how it fuels an industry.

ANDREI CODRESCU: Translation is the emerging market of our century. The last job that only humans can accomplish is that of translation. Machines cannot translate no matter how smart they'd make them. The slightest nuance of a nuance and the machine mistranslates.

That said, even human will not translate very well. Millions of people have fallen into the gaps between words and were never seen again. In my business, poetry, which is a small preserve in the vast domain of language use, there is a high rite of casualties. Every year, our academies graduates, thousands of fresh faces ready to take on Boudelaire, or Rilke, Pasternak or Arghezi. Two years after graduation, you can walk through the semantic fields and council of bodice.

Even the so-called successful translations have to be retranslated every five years in order to capture in new language what wasn't understood in the first place. Poetry is notorious when untranslatable, but other linguistic communications are no exception. Neither business nor the U.N. are exempt from the fallibility of translation. Why are languages so refractory to having their meanings carried from one set of sounds to another? The answer may startle you.

Languages are different precisely because they do not wish to be translated. Poetry, which is the delicate music of the tiniest differences sets itself up a priori in a singular place, but all languages the story of differences. The people of the valley spoke differently from the people of the mountain because, one, the valley shaped them physically and spoke through them. And two, they did not wish the people of the mountain to understand them.

The physical being of which they were part to delighted in becoming conscious off difference. The defense of the delight required protection from other topographies. We have a tiny switch in the language brain that mandates the rapid evolution of communication in response to every outside stimulus. If the outside is changed by even one rock, language undergoes a shift. When removed out of the countryside into the city, we started to translate each other. Mass media, the esperanza of our age, is automatically translated in every language to produce a common virtual language.

It would seem then that translators are not needed in the age of mass media. In fact, the mass media dies if its language is not constantly fed, linguistic difference to smash and to homogenize. In the 21st century, the urban vulgate is one of the quickest adaptations take place, which is why they are the media's most sought after delicacies. Outside the media, the need for translation is greater than ever. For business to go forward, differences must be understood.

The flattering esperanza of media does not suffice. The transfer of money and the transformation and circulation of goods are as delicate as poetry. The media itself, which is just another business, needs a pre-translation before it can create the illusion of universality.

NORRIS: Andrei Codrescu was a professor of English at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

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