Sunday, September 23, 2012

Translation Is Possible

In my last post, I owned up to something: that Shakespeare is difficult and even unpleasant for many because his work requires translation to be accessible. Interestingly, Shakespeare liked the word “translated.” But in his vernacular the word meant “transformed.” For instance, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, an impish fairy encounters a pompous amateur actor, “Bottom the Weaver,” rehearsing a play in the woods. The fairy (Puck) amuses himself by casting a little spell on the unsuspecting Bottom, leaving him with the head of a donkey. When his comrades next see him, they scream: “Bottom, thou art translated!” Which sort of proves my point about how much fo Shakespeare needs to and should be translated in the modern, linguistic sense.

I recently wrote an essay suggesting that seeing legal writing as a second language is a productive methodology. The idea is that approaching legal writing as an act of translation can breed habits that improve the odds of communicating effectively. Maybe someone will publish the essay. Or maybe not.  In any event, I learned several things in the drafting process. Most of the interesting things I learned were from international law students. More specifically, I interviewed law students for whom English is not their native language to test my hypothesis and ended up with an even more nuanced perspective.

Generally, I think writers of any stripe can improve by noting how other languages are different from, and yet similar to, their native tongue and thus appreciate how translation is challenging yet possible. For example, while talking with some former students the other day, I learned that the Chinese have an expression that describes the same phenomenon that English speakers mean when they say: “We’ll play good cop, bad cop.” In China, they say something like: “We’ll be the red face and the white face.” But because translation is hard, one cannot assume that, just because you know what the words mean, you thoroughly “get” the parallel. I bet that non-Chinese Americans would tend to assume that the red face = the bad cop and the white face = the good cop. And that would be wrong. This is because these two colors have different connotations in the two cultures. In the West, red is principally the color of passion, violence, hatred—hot emotions—whereas white is the color of purity and tranquility. By contrast, in the East, red is the color of health, fertility, celebration, while white is associated with death and evil spirits. Indeed, I learned a long time ago from some Vietnamese students that the idea of a bride wearing a white dress was really freaky to them; by contrast, Westerners would see a bride in red as a tad ironic. See The Police’s “Roxanne.” (“You don’t have to put on the red dress.”)

In sum, translation is possible. Yet it requires more than accounting for differences in words, grammatical structures, and idioms. Similarly, Shakespeare can be made more accessible, but not by simply setting the play in a modern context while having the actors speak the text exactly as written. Likewise, translating the law into accessible prose is possible, but not something that just “comes naturally” to anyone. Good legal writing requires careful, cautious bridge-building based on understanding that the person with whom you want to communicate does not speak the same language that you utilize inside your own head.

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