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James Lougheed

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Even more words...

Published by jloug099@uottawa.ca on 2012-03-21

Just when I thought I had written enough about words... (Well, let's be honest, there is no such thing!), I was thinking further on the relation of the translator's mind to these morphological instances. As I mentioned previously, they are a principal and essential part of the field. After all, everything we do is concerned with them: reading them, writing them, transforming them, finding equivalents and researching them. And although I thoroughly appreciate that they can bring joy to any page and create an immense depth, they can be a pain!


If I were to ask you to list the top five attributes of a good translator, I am confident that the term meticulous would be among them. If you were a bit more jaded by the translation world, however, I have a feeling that nit-picky might be the word of choice. This is, of course, for good reason. Translators do need to be accurate in their word choices: even one slip-up could cause damage. When we are always trying to cover our own hides, is it not surprising that we are always asking each other where we draw the line?


During my experience at the University of Ottawa, I had the idea that one must choose one's words with utmost care drilled into my brain. Many a class we would spend going through texts and discussing potential meaning errors, ungrammatical phrases, and politically incorrect and misused terminology. As much as we needed to be good writers, I often felt that we missed out on the liberties that most writers can take in their work. The writers whose work we would translate would clear a new path with their ideas; meanwhile, we would tiptoe behind, careful not to wander off the trail.


Living in the national capital region of Ottawa-Gatineau, we were taught with some emphasis on political correctness. Our region is politically charged for many reasons: it houses the Parliament of Canada and the Federal Government, it (along with much of Canada) is seeing a rise in cultural and ethnic diversity and it is a frontier between the greatest Francophone and Anglophone populations in Canada (those of Ontario and Quebec). When we translate, we have to be very careful so as to not offend anyone or imply anything that would (not anymore so than the writer intended to, at least). Again, we have to really "tiptoe" through our work and analyze it through the eyes of the writer and the reader. As tedious a task as this can be, it only goes to prove the implications words can carry; they have the power to really move us in any way.


When I look at it from a purely physical viewpoint, this seems odd. We create these things we designate as "words" by moving several mouth muscles and our vocal cords. And this physical movement can potentially create this ill will? Words themselves are not the culprit, in my opinion. It is the use of them over time. After all, words are (for the most part) created somewhat neutral to convey a concept. But as they are used more and more, they become implicated with new meanings within the contexts in which they are used. For example, if we deemed a new idea or object as a "Goonk," it would in its first instance be known as exactly what it is. Once we start using the word in relation to other objects, we give it context. It will continue to accumulate meaning, whether good or bad, as it is used more and more.


This reminds me of the work of French philosopher Jacques Derrida, who developed the theory of différance. In one of his essays, he argues that the way we view words is not through the reference they make to the referent, but rather by means of its difference from other words and phrases. By using a signifier (in other words, a word), we convey meaning by eliminating any other possibilities. As an example, a cup can be understood as such by using the term to separate it from things that are not designated as "cups." He also states that every signifier is not only a representation of the signified (the object or concept) as it stands in context; we must also consider everything else that it has ever or will ever signify, whether it is in a political, scientific, historical or cultural sense.*


Although that example is a little more than translators think when analyzing a text, it is because of it that we have to be wary of our every move. Even if they do not directly offend anyone or convey wrong information, our word choices make us the good translators that the world needs. As insignificant as some words may be, think about the words you choose when you are translating your next text or even writing your essay final. Think about how only one word could make all the difference!




*Derrida, Jacques. "Différance." Rpt. in Identity: A Reader. Du Gay, Paul, Jessica Evans and Peter

Redman, eds. London, Sage Publications, 2000.