Quality control: reflections on the translator as mediator

This post comes as part of a reflexive series accompanying our first crowd-funding campaign. Please visit pozible.com/marcopoloproject

One question that often arises about our model is: “How will we control the quality of our translations?” Behind this question lies a specific fear that we will misinform people by providing erroneous translations, but also a more general anxiety that writing should always be somehow approved and authorized by a  ‘competent expert’.

The short answer I like to give is: “We won’t, but we’ll indicate how adequate a translation is by a colour code.” I’d like to reflect a bit more on the question, and start giving the long answer.

A translator is a mediator between reader and writer, converting a text written in a certain language into a new linguistic artefact which – ideally – will conjure up the same vision and elicit the same reaction in its reader as the original would in those accessing the original.

Some things are lost in translation. Subtle rhythms and echoes, an immediate sense of aesthetic beauty. Subtle patterns of implicit allusions and memories that come from a shared linguistic universe between reader and writer. And concepts unique to a given culture or language, which do not directly translate, or require long-winded explanations. In other words, accessing a text in translation is likely to reduce the sense of immediate comprehension and resonance.

But some things can be gained in translation. Mediated experiences are no less enriching than immediate ones. A translated text combines familiarity – the language is that of the reader, after all – and exoticism – the names, places, experiences, come from a mental universe usually not accessible to the reader. Reading a translation is a mediated way of experiencing the mental landscape of a person living in a different language and culture. And such an experience can have a powerful impact.

Whether translated or not, writing can be misinterpreted. “A wealth of interpretative possibilities” is considered by some as the touchstone of quality literature; others will judge a piece of writing by how clear it is. And some writers voluntarily produce misleading texts, shaping their description of events and facts in order to bring about a certain emotional or moral reaction among readers.

In any case, meaning is constructed through an act of interpretation, which can succeed, or fail. But failure can take two very different forms. One I would call plain failure – when a reader cannot derive any meaning, or satisfactory meaning, from a text, and just leaves it down, frustrated and confused. The other I would call error – when a reader’s interpretation does generate meaning, but that meaning is widely different, or even opposed to, that intended by the writer, or commonly derived by a majority of readers.

Bad writing and bad translation can lead to both. The reader’s competence, attitude and effort will dtermine which occurs. And the role of the ‘publisher’ – in our case, Marco Polo Project – is to both increase the quality of writing and translation in order to improve successful reading experiences, but also influence the reader to avoid both plain interpretation failure, and error.

Our new interface will offer readers the possibility to read texts in bilingual format. By presenting texts in both languages, side by side, we make the mediated nature of the translated version explicit, thereby encouraging a more cautious reading, but also enabling the reader to more fully experience the delightful exoticism of writing originally produced in a radically different code – with characters instead of alphabet – and direct access to a Chinese subjectivity.

A colour code will also mark how advanced each translation is. ‘Doubtful’ passages will appear in a different colours. And users with experience on the platform will ‘validate’ a translation paragraph by paragraph. These methods will not directly increase the quality of the translation, but indicate to the reader where the potential interpretation pitfalls lie, and therefore allow them to either ‘skip’ dangerous passages, to reduce the risk of frustration, or read them with care and suspicion, to reduce the risk of error.

Beside, we will create incentives – in the form of point systems, badges, and systematic engagement – encouraging more expert users to review and improve existing translations, in order to improve the overall quality of our text library.

So the short-long answer to the question “How will we monitor the quality of our translations” is: by making their mediated status more explicit, and ensuring that the design of our reading interface will assist readers in their interpretative endeavour, to minimise the risk or error or frustration, and maximize the delight of accessing the mental world of a Chinese subject.



One thought on “Quality control: reflections on the translator as mediator

  1. A fascinating post. All too often, we try to completely mask the process of change through translation, hoping that readers will forget about the linguistic and cultural mediation that has taken place. I like the way your site makes that mediation visible, not just acknowledging it but also inviting the reader to receive the text in an active way, to share responsibility, through their way of reading, for the eventual finished product.

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