Understanding one another through translations | Sunday Observer

Understanding one another through translations

25 September, 2022

The world will indeed be a dull place if there were only one or two languages such as English and French. Around 6,000 languages are spoken around the world, but only a few of them have more than a million speakers. Chinese, English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Hindi, Japanese, Russian, Arabic and Swahili (the phrase Hakuna Matata or “no problem” popularised by the Lion King movies is Swahili) can be considered as some of the leading languages.

Here in Sri Lanka, we speak Sinhala, Tamil and English. Both Sinhala and Tamil are now spoken around the world by the Sri Lankan Diaspora and are in no danger of going extinct anytime soon.

Some languages are indeed vanishing as the number of native speakers dwindles – there are a few languages that have only one or two native speakers left alive. Some tribal languages have disappeared altogether as the last speakers have taken them to the grave.

Language skills

It would be pathetic if we cannot understand what another person is saying in another language. One way is learning that language, but this is not something everyone can do and besides, it would take years to develop native level language skills. Franfkly, the ideal time to soak up another language is one’s formative years, beyond which it is somewhat difficult to pick up another alien language. This is where translators and translations step in.

Just the other day, I was watching the Oscar award-winning Korean movie “The Parasite” on DVD. Of course, I did not understand a word being spoken by the characters, but I followed the action thanks to the subtitles.

In other words, someone unseen helped me to understand what was going on – that is the power of translation. Actually, you must always watch a foreign film with the native (original) soundtrack and the English subtitles – many of the English dubs are not up to par.

Translations come in two flavours – translating the written word is the first one. When someone translates a book written in Sinhala to English, that is a translation of the written word. It is often impossible to translate word to word – there are play on words, idioms, nuances and expressions that may not lend themselves well to direct translation. The job of the translator is to convey the original writer’s ideas in the other language to the best of his or her ability without distorting the meaning in any way.

Thankless jobs

The other flavour is even more challenging. It is called interpreting – one has to translate the words of a live speaker in real time. The interpreter has to think on his or her feet as the words flow in the native language of the speaker and quickly translate it for the benefit of listeners.

Unlike with the written word, there is no time to pause or edit. Once at an international event, the President of a certain country paused his native language speech for a moment and let out a laugh. The interpreter was momentarily flummoxed because this was an untranslatable play on words. So she simply said “the speaker just said something I cannot correctly translate - please laugh”. The audience did so and the speaker carried on happily.

Translation and interpretation are thankless jobs by any measure. It is a profession and a skill worth celebrating. Hence the International Translation Day, which falls on September 30. International Translation Day is meant as an opportunity to pay tribute to the work of language professionals, who play an important role in bringing nations together, facilitating dialogue, understanding and cooperation, contributing to development and strengthening world peace and security.

Transposition of a literary or scientific work, including technical work, from one language into another, professional translation, including translation proper, interpretation and terminology, is indispensable to preserving clarity, a positive climate and productiveness in international public discourse and interpersonal communication. Thus, on May 24, 2017, the General Assembly adopted a resolution on the role of language professionals in connecting nations and fostering peace, understanding and development, and declared September 30 as International Translation Day.

Breathing entities

The day celebrates the feast of St. Jerome, the Bible translator who is considered the patron saint of translators. St. Jerome was a priest from north-eastern Italy, who is known mostly for his endeavour of translating most of the Bible into Latin from the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. He also translated parts of the Hebrew Gospel into Greek. He was of Illyrian ancestry and his native tongue was the Illyrian dialect. He learnt Latin in school and was fluent in Greek and Hebrew, which he learnt from his studies and travels. Jerome died near Bethlehem on September 30, 420.

Languages are living, breathing entities that change over time. Languages evolve and take on words from other languages. Thus language professionals have to be on top of their native language as well as their other language(s). Real-time translation services can also be a huge logistical nightmare.

Take the rather simple example of the Parliament of Sri Lanka - simultaneous translation facilities are offered for Sinhala to English, Sinhala to Tamil, Tamil to Sinhala, Tamil to English, English to Sinhala and English to Tamil. Now think of an institution such as the European Union (EU) that requires translation among 10 or more languages and you can imagine the complexity of it all.


But what if we can outsource this to machines or Artificial Intelligence? We can already translate say, from English to Sinhala on Google and several other platforms. It is sometimes not accurate but we can suggest the correct wordings, which the machine will then ‘learn’ (this process is called Machine Learning) to do a better job the next time around. It thus gets uncannily accurate over a few years.

There are also smartphone apps that accept spoken word inputs from one language and output them in another. For example, when travelling in Japan, you might want to ask where the nearest train station is. You input that question to the smartphone app in English and it will output that question in Japanese.

The machine will then translate that response back to English. Video cobferencing systems have a similar algorithm that gets updated every day. These systems are likely to get better and better until we can carry on a natural, real time conversation in two languages with zero time lag. Then there will be no pressing need to learn new languages too.

But it is difficult to believe that humans will be left out of the translation process altogether. A machine, however advanced it is, may not be able to completely comprehend human emotions and subtle nuances and turn them into suitable words in another language. That calls for years of experience not just in languages or linguistics, but also in the vast range of human frailties and emotions. In this context, translators and translations will continue to play a significant role in our lives well into the future.