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Don’t throw in the towel!

Paul Leroux
(Language Update, Volume 6, Number 4, 2009, page 36)

I may be an Anglophone through and through, but my inspiration as a translator is taken from the language of Molière. I have adopted, as my motto, the immortal words attributed to Napoléon: “Impossible n’est pas français.” (In the French language, there is no such word as “impossible.”)

In this respect, I differ from a lot of my colleagues who, unlike the little engine that could, keep telling themselves, “I think I can’t, I think I can’t” at a time when a whole nation to the south of us is chanting, “Yes, we can!”

I have witnessed this defeatist attitude all too often among some of my fellow translators. To my dismay, they scratch their heads and shrug their shoulders, instead of using their heads and putting their shoulders to the wheel. For my part, I like nothing better than to be confronted with such challenges, which “translate” into a very interesting career.

When a difficulty arises amid the daily grind of routine (and, let’s be honest, humdrum) texts for translation, I become passionate, awake and alive. I cannot rest until I have found a suitable solution, an appropriate answer.

Some may argue that meeting such challenges is “too difficult,” a waste of time and money for the Translation Bureau. They believe (wrongly, to my mind) that resolving these difficulties requires too much research. Yet we have access to wonderful tools such as TransSearch, which gives us access to Hansard, with its delightful treasure trove of idiomatic expressions. Hopefully, we also possess a cultural baggage, a body of knowledge, which enables us to give free rein to our imagination and creativity.

I leave defeatists to err on the side of caution, fearful of biting off more than they can chew. I prefer to throw caution to the winds, to have something I can sink my teeth into. As the old saying goes, “faint heart never won fair lady.”

I firmly believe that every language has the resources it needs to express any given reality. It is just a matter of trusting its capacities. I refuse to believe that any language is poorer than another, or at a disadvantage. We need only take advantage of the means at a language’s disposal.

It is true that every language has its strengths and weaknesses, its assets and liabilities. English boasts a vast array of onomatopoeias, or words that reproduce sounds. Aboriginal languages establish infinitely more varied nuances among the different types of snow than European languages. I readily admit that. Yet I still remain convinced that we can overcome these obstacles and render concepts proper to other cultures by drawing on the resources of our own.

Let me tell you about a memorable experience I have had in the course of my own career. A colleague of mine was assigned to translate a rap. Intimidated by the scope of the task, she came to me for advice.

I realized right away that a prose translation would be, well, too prosaic. It would not do justice to the nature of the text. We needed to capture the flavour of the original as much as possible, since a rap is both a poem and a song.

We spent about an hour and a half taking the rap apart, comprehending its deeper meaning, entering into its rhythm. Once we had understood what the rap literally said, as well as the images and symbols it used, we could start to find equivalents in French.

I can tell you, with great satisfaction, that when the French rap was finally posted on the Web, it was a thing of beauty, a little gem that faithfully “represented” the source text, without feeling like a translation.

My high-school French teacher had a motto of her own, from Corneille’s play, Le Cid: “À vaincre sans péril, on triomphe sans gloire.” (In English, we would say, “No pain, no gain” or “No guts, no glory.”) Forty years later, I am no less certain that she was absolutely right.