Language Language

Sudoku for expats: translating

April 26, 2013
Letter, stamp, alphabet and print HD photo by Amador Loureiro (@amadorloureiroblanco) on Unsplash

Reading between the lines

My image of professional translators has been brainy types with excellent knowledge of the languages they were translating, both into and from. In my mind, translating was intellectual work, for the precise and well-versed. But as the computer age has changed the nature of translating, I expect it’s also changed the profile of a typical translator.

Recently, a friend asked if I could translate his Czech website into English. After brief hesitation, I realized that just because I didn’t have perfect Czech, didn’t mean that I couldn’t try my hand at translation work. I thought it would be an interesting way to approach a language that had already become familiar to me, although I am still far from considering myself a linguistic expert.

When I started, I was tempted to use Google Translate to put the entire document into a rough form of pidgin English and then edit it. Instead, I approached the lines of text slowly and tried to get the gist of each thought before I began to translate it. I kept open at all times, and I managed to get through one page in about two hours, which wasn’t as fast as I’d have liked. Certainly, not fast enough to be profitable. Still, my mind was engaged with Czech language in a way it hadn’t been for years.

As I worked through the translation, I was brought back to the second summer I spent in the Czech Republic, when I attended Charles University’s Summer School of Slavonic Studies. During a written placement test, I’d somehow scored into the Intermediate level, which meant that I was placed in a class with university students majoring in Slavonic studies. The students came from the US, other European countries and even Japan. There were a few exceptions, like the fourteen year-old daughter of our Harvard-based professor or the sixty-something year-old Czech-blooded American.

But most of the students were linguistic scholars. They were serious and well-studied, with excellent Czech language skills and impeccable grammar. My own spoken Czech, in comparison, was rough and child-like. I nearly never remembered to address my teacher in the formal “vy,” and I often left the endings of my words hanging in space from lack of knowing which of the seven cases to use. When we had written homework, I found myself in even worse shape. The university-issued exercise books were nothing like the Elementary Communicable Czech workbooks I had at home. There were no pictures, no exemplary dialogue or how-to advice. Instead, there was line after line of Czech grammar in fine print.

After a few days, I pretty much gave up on doing the homework in the exercise books – I was simply guessing anyway. Instead, I focused on trying to understand my teacher, the afternoon lectures and seminars; I wanted to be able to follow the gist of conversation. When it came time to interpret written texts, I was at a loss, and at every chance I had, I attended lectures in English on Czech history or current events. The summer program was my first and last experience learning Czech in an academic setting. A few weeks after it ended, Radek and I moved to the US for several years. I took my coursework with me, but I never returned to it.

Yet once Radek and I committed to raising our family in the Czech Republic, I worked hard to make my spoken Czech decent enough to be understood. I didn’t care about the subtleties of grammar. I just wanted enough oral comprehension to take care of my children without having to resort to existing in an exclusively English-speaking environment. Understanding and being understood was enough for me, without having to worry about the intricacies of written Czech. Over the years, I’ve managed to speak Czech adequately enough, sometimes even eloquently. I’ve often thought my level of Czech was pretty good, though my frequent mistakes are no less embarrassing than they were in the early days.

Radek occasionally prods me to improve my Czech, to pay attention to the mistakes I’m making, to read the news or watch television. Mostly, his encouragement falls on deaf ears. Although I’d like to improve my Czech, it’s low on my list of current priorities. At most, I can be counted on to read Anna’s second grade Czech grammar textbook, or to take Oliver to his regular speech therapy appointments. In second grade, Anna is already doing grammar exercises that I don’t always know the answer to, or if I know the answer, I still can’t explain to her the whys. Oliver meanwhile is learning the Czech rolled “r” and the unique “ř,” which are sounds that I try to make properly, but fall beyond my comfort zone to teach.

When the translating opportunity came up, it seemed like the right time to make the effort to step up my Czech comprehension. At first read, I didn’t know how I could get the lines of Czech text transferred into something equally readable in English. But, once I began, I realized that far from being discouraged, I actually enjoyed the challenge. Turning the Czech words and expressions into English phrases with comparable meaning was thought-provoking work. A few times, I ran into trouble, such as when faced with the descriptive word uderný, the best translation I could find was “shocking,” which didn’t fit the context. After listening to Radek put the word into a few different sentences, I finally hit upon “striking” as a suitable replacement. I learned a few new terms and managed to find the English equivalent to a few Czech sayings, although in the end, one of the more clever jokes in the document resisted my translation efforts. When I finished, I had a readable document, albeit with a few highlighted question marks.

I hadn’t yet used my live-in native speaker lifeline. I waited until Radek came home from work to enlist his help. When I went through the document with him, I realized that there were a few places where I’d misread the Czech. There were other places where Radek suggested subtle changes to the English text that made the interpretation more precise. Although I thought I had a decent translation, it wasn’t until the following day after another re-read and a few more adjustments that I submitted the translation to my friend. He was pleased, and offered to pay me, or to at least treat my family to ice cream.

Many times when I pick up a newspaper or click on a Czech website, I tend to scan written Czech for the main points, skipping the grammar that I don’t understand and glossing over words that I’m unsure about. When I was doing the translation, I was forced to slow down and really let the language sink in. Turning written Czech into naturally flowing, coherent English had been an invigorating task. Although it had been difficult, I’d also gained a confidence boost from having persevered. Now that I have one translation under my belt, I’m wondering if I shouldn’t stretch my brain and aim for another.

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