Government of Canada
Symbol of the Government of Canada

But what of excellence in translation?

Alain Bernier, C. Tran. ATIO
Canadian Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters Council (www) English Hyperlink Notice


After the appearance of my article "The Secret of a Good Translation," a good friend suggested that I continue developing the topic by addressing excellence in translation. My friend is quite right, because it is not enough to convey the message of the source language faithfully and accurately (ethics); the translation must also convey the message in a form that respects the culture of both the source and the target languages (aesthetics). If ethics represent the cornerstone of translation, aesthetics represent its crowning glory.

In the technical, scientific or commercial fields, translators seek primarily to respect the target culture, using expressions that are as idiomatic as possible. In the field of human relations and the arts—for example, in literature—the issue becomes more complex. Can we do justice to both the source and the target cultures, or should the translation focus more on one at the expense of the other?

This question is not as crucial in the case of cultures with extensive overlap, as is the case with Western cultures. However, this question becomes more crucial in the case of cultures which have less overlapping.

Some time ago, I shared with some colleagues the saying of Prince Myshkin in The Idiot by Dostoyevsky: "Beauty will save the world." They expressed considerable doubt. It is aesthetics that first attracted me to translation, but it is daily practice that led me to look at ethical considerations.

After reading the Nicomachean Ethics, I cannot help but question Aristotle's theories: firstly, his theory that virtue is the happy medium, and secondly, his theory of the lesser evil. I rather believe that one should aim to achieve the ultimate Good, as envisaged by Plato, and that we should always strive to achieve excellence, in translation as in all other areas of life. If we wish to accomplish anything, we must strive towards the goal with all the passion and all the inner fire we can muster.

The writer is the advocate of the people, in the eyes of Hugo, Zola and Sartre. The translator is the voice that allows the writer to go beyond cultural boundaries and to be heard in the four corners of the universe. But often their hearts beat in unison. When one has the courage of one’s convictions, the words are engraved on one’s heart, and one has only to put pen to paper to express them.

At the beginning of my career, I recall attending a workshop by the Association of Translators and Interpreters of Ontario (ATIO) where the lecturer pointed out the importance, in translation, of culture in general. In retrospect, he was so right! There are two major approaches to learning translation. One is based on the study of comparative grammar and stylistics. The other focuses on the study of literature. To date, university programs have focused mostly on the former.

In my opinion, these two methods complement each other. The study of comparative grammar and stylistics equips us with the basic skills to practise our profession. However, mastering these techniques is not enough. To achieve excellence, we must immerse ourselves constantly in the study of literature. This alone can supply us with idioms and elegance of style.

Not only does the study of literature allow us to hone our skills, but it also enriches our cultural experience. As translation is basically the transmission of a reality from one culture to another, it is vitally important that the translator possess a rich cultural background.

The study of literature also teaches us to evaluate situations, to judge the facts and circumstances, and similarly, to probe hearts and minds. All of these skills are very useful when it comes to weighing the nuances of a text and to transposing them into the concepts of another culture. Added to this is enrichment of the personality, which allows the translator to have the strength of character necessary to convey the message with professional integrity. Excellence in translation is our contribution to art and beauty. Let us not underestimate it, because in a country like Canada, it is the glue that binds our cultural mosaic.