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A component of our shared humanity

It is a little-known world, hardly limited to its literary dimension: translation is a tool for promoting languages, a discreet part in the economy, and a vehicle for ideas. But it is also a domain in transformation, shaken up by the advances of artificial intelligence. Perhaps above all, it is the means for each civilization to access ‘the other’.
Agnieszka Ziemiszewska

Nicolas Froeliger
A former professional translator, Nicolas Froeliger is now a professor at the University of Paris, specializing in pragmatic translation.

It is omnipresent and everywhere discreet. We all have an idea of what it is, but never the same one. It represents a universal human faculty (to understand is to translate, wrote the Franco-American writer, linguist and critic George Steiner), and it mobilizes very specific skills – translation seems to be nothing but paradoxes. It is not surprising, then, that over the centuries, people have preferred to use metaphors, often disparaging ones, to try to define it: translation as ‘an unfaithful beauty’, ‘a servant’, ‘the reverse side of embroidery’, etc. Translators as ‘go-betweens’, ‘craftsmen’, ‘copyists’, and occasionally as ‘traitors’ or ‘investigators’, and so on.

It is also commonly a place for preconceived ideas: ‘translation is impossible’; ‘with a dictionary, anyone can translate’; ‘translation is a matter of language’; ‘it is impossible to make a living from it’; ‘a translated text is necessarily inferior to the original’; ‘automatic translation will soon replace professionals’, and so forth. All this is untrue – or at least dubious – but revealing.

Therefore, it deserves some clarification. First, let us remember that translation is both an operation and the result of this operation, without these two aspects perfectly overlapping. Many translations are done by non-translators, and professional translators often do much more than simply translate. Moreover, translators are most often female – in fact, three quarters of them are.

‘Saying almost the same thing’

Translation also calls for multiple definitions. From “dire quasi la stessa cosa”, saying almost the same thing, (the title of the Italian semiotician and novelist Umberto Eco's book on translation) to “saying something else in another way” (as expressed by the French linguist and anthropologist Jean Gagnepain). From an activity that presupposes knowledge of languages to an instrument for teaching those same languages. We translate an aesthetic emotion, a message, meaning, an intention, etc. The world of research is not left out. Some within it take translation as an object – they are then called ‘translatologists’. Others use it as a tool in the service of literature –  comparative or otherwise – language sciences, philosophy, psychoanalysis, feminist or postcolonial studies, for example. In any case, the key word is ‘interdisciplinarity’.

It would be easy to get lost in the infinite particularities of this vast universe. Therefore, it would be better to outline some of the issues at stake, at a time when this activity, this profession, this operation is, like many others, being shaken up by the advances of artificial intelligence.

Translation is first of all a necessity for culture

Translation is first of all a necessity for culture. It is through translation that each civilization becomes aware of itself and gains access to ‘the other’. This is the oldest branch of translation, and therefore still the most celebrated. With a historical arc that starts from the first known legal translation in 1271 BCE (a peace treaty between the Hittites and the Egyptians), that passes through the successive translations of the Bible and other great religious texts – from the Septuagint (the first translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, in Alexandria in the third century BCE) to the present day – before being passed on to the literary domain. It allows everyone to access masterpieces, as well as other written and now audiovisual productions of humanity, in their own language, beyond the differences that make some people suspect there may be untranslatable texts or concepts. These are, in fact, eternally to be retranslated, as the French philosopher and translatologist Barbara Cassin has observed.

Enabling the travelling of ideas

In terms of citizenship and public policy, translation is an essential tool for mediation and for promoting languages, national or otherwise. It provides a welcome counterweight to ignorance, hatred and violence, even when it is used in the service of armies. It is through translation that ideas travel. With the development of migration, more and more countries see it as a fundamental right to be able to access public services (health, justice, legislation, and so forth) in a language that one masters. 

Translation is also an essential, albeit discreet, part of the economy. It is a profession in full transformation, regrouping more and more specialized professions: translation and interpretation in the traditional sense of the term, of course, but also localization, terminology, revision, post-editing, project management, technical writing, linguistic engineering, for instance. These are all gathered under the general term ‘pragmatic translation’, in the sense of having above all an aim of communication (technical, scientific, legal, press, economic, financial texts, for example). On a global scale, this involves several hundred thousand people, with a turnover of over 50 billion dollars.

Translation is an essential component of what underlies our common humanity

Superficial reflection could lead one to oppose these different aspects, or to favour one or the other. A methodological error: the social does not contradict the cultural, automation does not doom the professionals. In fact, translation cannot prosper without them. On the other hand, current developments force us to update our ideas about translation, about those who practice it and its place in society. The availability of free automatic translation tools for almost everyone tends to make it a common good, albeit with some imperfections, but without condemning the professionals, since machine translation does not integrate the dimension of communication and the capacity of human language to create novelty from the already existing. In the same way, the translation professions and that which is called ‘pragmatic translation’ provide a foundation for the digitally and economically more limited field of literary translation. 

Beyond these diversities, we must understand that translation is an essential component of what underlies our common humanity. That all these elements can and must be thought of as part of the same whole. That it is an investment before it is a cost.

Yes, translation deserves to be better known and practiced. Firstly, for each individual, because, through the mastery of language, it is a formidable tool for elucidation. Secondly, at the level of societies, because it allows for exchanges that respect linguistic and cultural diversity – which a single or dominant language is powerless to do. In fact, we can affirm, with Claire Joubert, professor of English literature at the University of Vincennes (France), that with translation, it becomes possible to “think the entire chain, from language to geopolitics”. Admittedly, translation is discreet, but it is an extraordinary lever. It is up to each of us to seize it in our own way – translation knows no exclusions.

Top translated authorsTotal number of translations*
Agatha Christie (1890-1976), English novelist7,236
Jules Verne (1828-1905), French writer4,751
William Shakespeare (1564-1616), English playwright4,296
Enid Blyton (1897-1968), English writer3,924
Barbara Cartland (1901-2000), English writer3,652
Danielle Steel (born in 1947), American writer3,628
Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924), Russian politician3,593
Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875), Danish fairy tale author3,520
Stephen King (born in 1947), American writer3,357

*Number of translated works (including republications) in different languages over an approximate 30 year period (1980s–2009/2010). Source: UNESCO’s Index Translationum

What is UNESCO’s Index Translationum?

What do Danish fairy tale author Hans Christian Andersen, English novelist Agatha Christie and the father of Pinocchio, Carlo Collodi, have in common? They are some of the most translated authors in the world, according to UNESCO’s Index Translationum, a unique bibliographical database listing translated books in the world.

The Index was created in 1932 by the League of Nations’ International Institution of Intellectual Cooperation and adopted by UNESCO in 1948 – predating the creation of the Organization itself, making it one of UNESCO’s oldest programmes. It was born out of the strong belief in “translation as a valuable force for understanding among different peoples”, providing an overview of the flow of ideas. Thanks to the Index, we know that the most translated languages in the world are, in order:  English, French, German and Russian followed by Italian and Spanish.  

Until the Index’s discontinuation in 2013 due to financial reasons, bibliography centres or national libraries in participating countries would send UNESCO bibliographical data on translated books in all fields of knowledge. By 2013, it consisted of more than 4 million entries – 2.2 million of which had been digitized – concerning translations to or from 1,139 different languages. It contains works from over 500,000 writers, translated by approximately 600,000 translators, making it one of the Organization’s biggest databases. Although it has been put to rest, the Index is still considered a key source of information on translated books. 

Translation: from one world to another
UNESCO
April - June 2022
UNESCO
0000381067
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