A scholar’s eye for detail

When working with complex texts in the fields of art and culture, where the topic under discussion might range across disciplines, cultures and centuries, having a specialist translating your work can make all the difference. Deep subject knowledge can help the translator catch mistakes in the source text, sidestep pitfalls and avoid garbled content. I think a series of examples from a recent project of mine might serve to neatly illustrate this point.

A linguistic pitfall

While editing an anonymous colleague’s translation of a prestigious new work on Leonardo da Vinci, it became clear that despite being an otherwise outstanding translator, my colleague’s apparent lack of subject knowledge had led him to make a number of unwitting, yet serious, mistakes. In one case, the use of the same spelling in Italian for the names of Judas Iscariot and the apostle Jude (Giuda) led the translator to identify the painted figure of Jude as Judas in a caption for a large-scale detail of the Last Supper, liable to confuse the reader, given the placement of the figure in the fresco and the vastly different roles played by the two in the story narrated by the painting. Knowledge of the Renaissance painting and of the biblical story made the mix-up stand out in high relief in the mock-ups I had been asked to check and reaffirmed my belief in the importance of specialisation.

A source text error

In another instance, the same translator, whether following the source text directly or mistakenly translating it, began a sentence ‘In AD 391, the Emperor Constantine’, and proceeded to describe the construction of Old Saint Peter’s in Rome. What might pass unnoticed by those whose subject strengths lie elsewhere is glaring and obvious to those with greater familiarity with the material. While yes, Constantine was responsible for the building of the basilica, he died in 337, over fifty years prior to the date attributed to his act in the translated text, the sort of mistake that would quickly shake the reader’s confidence in the author.

Garbled content

Similarly, in this same text, the year 1513 was given as when Pope Julius II replaced Old Saint Peter’s with New Saint Peter’s, 1513 being in reality the year of Pope Julius’ death (seven or eight years after he began work on the basilica) and the project itself took well over one year – many, many times over, winding down at the far opposite end of the sixteenth century and beyond. As in the previous case, it was not clear to me whether the error was in the original Italian or introduced into the translation, but an art historian’s knowledge of the infamously long, convoluted history of the building of New Saint Peter’s and the date of this most famous Renaissance pope’s death were enough to make that unfortunate sentence stand out like a flashing neon sign.

Solid writing skills are not enough

The client was extremely pleased with my anonymous colleague’s translation, and expected the final edit to unearth just a typo or two and the odd misplaced punctuation mark or similar. While this admiration was justified by the overall quality of the writing, the above-mentioned problems with the translated text, among others, were enough to give me pause. A specialised translator can work as a real partner with the editor and author of the text, using subject knowledge to correctly translate tricky, densely packed sentences and choose the right path when confronted with a linguistic fork in the road, maintaining and ensuring the integrity of the translated version. On the other hand, lack of familiarity with the subject can quickly and easily lead to unwitting mistakes, along the lines of ‘if you don’t know it is wrong, you can’t know it’s wrong’: in the second and third examples above, where the translator might have thought he had elegantly condensed a convoluted Italian sentence, he had instead created ‘nonsense’ (either that or he unknowingly carried over ‘nonsense’ from the source text).

This experience left me feeling that it had simply not been sufficient for the client to hire a translator with good, proven writing skills; the problems with the final product seemed to demonstrate loud and clear that specialisation is not the ‘cherry on top’ it is often believed to be in the translation sphere, but an ingredient essential to the successful outcome of the work. They should have hired an art translator. 😉