Translation and Consciousness: a State of Grace

December 10, 2014

I will never get tired of saying this: we are not machines. We are not in competition with computers. They are not going to take over. They are mere tools at our disposal that make our work faster and more efficient. Unlike them, we have a consciousness, which allows us to understand concepts that in turn lead us into action or bring about certain feelings. This is exactly what philosopher Frank Jackson tries to explain through the story of Marie.

 

 

“Imagine that Marie is one of the world’s greatest neurobiologists in the field of colour vision, but that she has lived her entire life enclosed in a room where everything is black and white. Everything that she knows about colour vision, she has learned from the books, printed in black ink on white pages, that she has been reading since she was a little girl. Thus Marie has come to know all of the relevant facts about how humans perceive colours. Then suppose that one day, for the first time in her life, Marie leaves her room and sees the real colours of the world around her. She sees some red tulips and exclaims, “This is what it’s like to see red!” As Jackson tells us in his thought experiment, at this point Marie appears to be experiencing something completely new. So how it is possible that even though she has had access to absolutely every imaginable piece of information about colour vision, she is now discovering something new by simply seeing a colour? This something new, Jackson’s fable concludes, is the qualium of the particular red of the particular flowers that she has seen.” (The Brain from Top to Bottom)

 

This kind of sensitivity is a tremendous asset to translators: it allows us to bring words into life in an elegant way and use empathy with our clients (we tailor our work to their specific needs rather than translating a document as we would if we had written it).


As for translation, this is not a natural process. Actually, translation is a combination of two natural processes, understanding and the production of statements. Our work is no easy task: we are required to merge different processes. To add insult to injury, such processes are automatic in nature, beyond our own consciousness. Ever since grade school, we have lost track of how information is processed when we read or write, which is completely normal. How embarrassing would it be to have to bring those processes back to our consciousness! How can you actually understand a concept and produce a related statement at the same time, and in two different languages at that? Specific processes must be aligned in order to avoid a word-for-word translation. How do you go about that?

The first step is to become aware of these processes, bring them back to consciousness and play with them based on what the translation dictates. The second step consists in controlling them and using them at will. As would a dancer use his muscle to express certain emotions through movement. Such control can be exercised by any translator using conscious breathing in order to regulate the heartbeat. This in turn produces impulses that also regulate our brain, thereby allowing all processes to work in unison as would a conductor and his musicians. That is the state of grace you must aspire to as a translator.

 

Sources: The Brain from Top to Bottom,. Consciousness: Unity in Time Rather Than Space? (vidéo), Wolf Singer et Mind Blanking; When the Stream of Consciousness Runs Dry, Adrian Ward (video)

 

Sylvie Lemieux

B.A. (translation), M.A. (translation and terminology), Ph. D. (linguistics)

Translation: Traduction-Québec

 

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