Pavel Soukenik

Updated March 2, 2021

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Building Bridges of Understanding

What Should We Ask of Translators

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Most of my career has centered around languages, translations, and building technological and figurative bridges that allow people to communicate and collaborate with each other regardless of their native language, country of birth, or the color of their skin.

What should we expect of people whose vocation it is to take the words and experience of people from other countries, ethnicities, or even different times, and translate them — in the true meaning of that word — into another language? It is my deep conviction that what we should expect is that they take those words, treat them with the deepest respect, and pass them on so they can be read, understood, and empathized with by people whose native language is different that the author’s. That is how we honor the words, cultures, heritage, and thoughts of people whose culture is different than our own.

The controversy that flared up in 2021 related to translating Amanda Gorman’s poetry shows that some people also ask that the translators should share the same characteristics as the author. In case where it is possible, I do believe it is desirable. At the same time, translations are best done into the native language of the translator, and since the translator was rarely born into and grew up in the same circumstances as the author, their own life experiences will be quite different. That does not mean they cannot relate to someone else’s writing and translate it in a compelling way.

Demands that a translator be of the same race, same gender identification, same nationality, or similar upbringing as the author are counterproductive and even insensitive. Taken to their logical conclusions, no work of art could be translated into any other language. Korean, Hebrew, Russian, and Japanese translations of Amanda Gorman will be done by translators who are Korean, Jewish, Russian and Japanese. Even though their skin color and background will likely be different, they can empathize, honor, and faithfully carry other people’s words into their languages.

Translators build bridges. Whoever you are, whatever your language or color of your skin, they are on your side. They have often dedicated their whole lives to making this world a better, more compassionate, and understanding place by taking the words of other people and making them available to readers around the world. When they do their jobs right, their color, age or sex do not matter because they disappear. In their stead, the readers see and understand the author.