Government of Canada
Symbol of the Government of Canada

A good friend told me one day…

Alain Bernier, BA, MSc Comm, FLMI, C. Tran.
Canadian Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters Council

2013-11-04

A good friend told me one day, "It's better to read authors who ask questions than authors who provide answers." Later on, I made every effort to tailor this advice not only to reading but also to several other aspects of my life, so that when I am given an answer, I often take it one step further and ask another question.

I have found a multitude of opportunities to apply this advice to translation. I make every effort to analyze the text, and this usually leads me to ask myself questions that make me delve further into the context. And, with my thirst for answers, I go on searching, either on the Internet or in other reference sources.

If the text concerns current affairs, I read related newspaper articles to gain a better grasp of the subject, extract terms and find idiomatic expressions.

In the case of an academic text, I read articles on the Internet or chapters in books on the subject, wandering from question to answer and from answer to question. If I still have other questions later on and I have the chance, I contact the author of the text, respectfully, but as an informed and knowledgeable reader. I do all this to ensure that I fully understand the text and render it well with all its nuances because, as the 18th‑century French writer Nicolas Boileau said: "Well thought‑out ideas are those that are explained clearly. What is clearly thought out is clearly expressed, and the words to say it come easily."

When Suite Française, the great novel by Irène Némirosky, was published, I first read it in English, for personal reasons, before reading it in the original. Sandra Smith's translation from French to English is superb. In one passage in the novel, Némirosky describes a cat and has fun competing with Colette's The Cat: "The cat poked his nose through the fringes of the armchair and studied the scene with a dreamy expression... A few seconds later, the arsenal exploded" (Storm in June, Ch. 20, pp. 171‑174). This passage is so well translated that the reader can detect the literary competition between the two great authors.

Translation is therefore not limited to conveying meaning; it also has to convey the author's intention—to be able to move the reader as the author did. It is not enough to understand the text thoroughly. You also have to understand the author thoroughly—the author's works, the works of those who have influenced the author, with their cultural and historical ambiance, and any other factors that may have influenced the finished work.

As Smith explains in her note to the English translation of Suite Française, translation is "an act of faith" enabling you to find the right tone. In a way, it is borrowing the author's pen and letting yourself be guided by the author's hand into a great intellectual adventure.

You'll tell me that all this certainly applies to literary translation, but where would you find the time for it in business translation? In my opinion, it's not so much a matter of time as it is a matter of having an inner fire and loving your work. As Boileau said, "Put your work twenty times upon the anvil." And to feed this sacred fire, you must constantly bear this crucial question in mind: "Who are we translating for?"

In Les mots de ma vie, Bernard Pivot quotes a letter from Jack London to Ina Coolbrith, the librarian who encouraged him to read when he was little. In this letter he said, "No woman has so affected me to the extent you did."

As far as I know, few translators have ever received such a letter, however deserving their translations! Yet it is translators who have enabled the transmission of science, philosophy and ancient cultures over the years and who still facilitate the practice of administration, justice and even diplomacy in today's world.

But, in our obsession to master language techniques and computer‑assisted translation software, we sometimes forget this crucial question: "Who are we translating for?"

In a country like ours, with its rich cultural mosaic, our profession plays a front‑line role. When we translate, we are helping to cement the cultural mosaic, and we are leading the way in the fight to preserve our compatriots' cultural identity. We are also helping to improve understanding between different communities and to promote more harmonious human relations. We are playing a very significant role in defending Canada's unity and independence and spreading its humanitarian mission throughout the world.

We translate for flesh‑and‑blood human beings, who have a history, a philosophy of life and a culture. And to translate well, we have to be able to convey these sociocultural realities from community to community. So we must soak them up by reading major works in both the original culture and the target culture. Like the great Renaissance translators, we ourselves must become bearers of humanism.