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by Dr Kai Jensen

Presentation by Pam Allen at the IPEd conference. 

Pam Allen drew parallels between the role of the translator and that of the editor. Both, she said, are gatekeepers between the author and reader; the two professions have a similar technical language and toolkit.

Pam has long worked as a translator from Indonesian to English — pretty important, it occurs to me, for helping Australians understand our populous but very different neighbour to the north.

To show the importance of translation, Pam read a moving list of great works we’d hate to be without, all written originally in languages other than English. Most philosophy, she observed, comes to us in translation.

Yet translation can rarely be exact. She offered as an example the impossibility of translating the opening sentence of Camus’s L’Étranger, ‘Aujourd’hui ma mère est morte,’ exactly into English. The perfect tense with être has no English equivalent.

Pam no longer translates poetry: the inevitable distortion of poetry’s ambiguities, multiple meanings, syntactic edginess and sound-play is too great for her to accept.

Translators, she said, continually make decisions between unsatisfactory alternatives. They risk blocking cultural understanding in favour of ease of reading. These days, the ‘domestication’ of home-language terms and cultural concepts by replacing them with familiar new-language terms and concepts isn’t favoured: many translators view it as a form of colonisation.

For example, translating northern Spanish pintxos, bar snacks held together with toothpicks, into ‘nibbles’ or ‘finger food’ wouldn’t cut it — the translator would leave them as pintxos and expect the reader to work it out from the context. And she doesn’t favour explanatory footnotes, Pam said.

Going the other way, translating a line from Harry Potter, ‘silver boats of delicious cranberry sauce’ into an Indonesian phrase meaning ‘lots of rich sauces’, loses the rich cultural flavour of the original. 

The presentation was liberally sprinkled with tasty examples like this.

Again like editors, translators have to manage the relationship with the author, understand their expectations on matters such as sentence length and keep home-language words when there is no good translation. For example, the Indonesian word mudik — Muslims’ return home after a festival — conjures up traffic jams, joyful reunions, special foods: no English word or even phrase serves.

Towards the end, Pam quoted Edith Grossman on how the translated work is the translator’s creation, yet mysteriously also remains the author’s; and Margaret Atwood on the impossibility of translation, because it can’t capture the original’s many specific qualities — its gestures, shapes, flavours, nuances, shades, ‘half-colours’ and more.

This presentation was both an education in intercultural thinking and great entertainment. But you had to be there — this summary has lost some of the flavour.

Dr Kai Jensen AE lives on the NSW Far South Coast; Kai mainly helps organisations improve their policies, does a smattering of academic editing and is also active as a poet.

A/P Allen’s involvement is with the assistance of the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.

Copyright Agency Cultural Fund