Saturday, January 27, 2007

The labor of translation

My latest book project -- being copyedited as we speak and hopefully on track for a Fall 2007 printing -- deals with issues of transcoding and translating information between the modes of text and speech, specifically in the case of television closed captioning. Along the way I learned a little bit about the information labor of print translation, a fascinating subject about which further information studies and print culture history volumes should be written. So it was with some appreciation that I read an article in the Guardian today about the labor necessary to translate Harry Potter to cultures and languages around the globe:

Of the 325 million Harry Potter books sold around the world, some 100 million copies don't contain a single line of JK Rowling's prose. They're mediated by the work of other writers who set the tone, create suspense and humour, and give the characters their distinctive voices and accents. The only thing these translators have no impact on whatsoever is the plot, which of course is Rowling's alone.

The moment Bloomsbury put out their next press release announcing that Rowling has delivered book seven and the publication date has been set, more than 60 translators across the world - from Europe to South America, Africa to Asia - will start sharpening their pencils. When that first published copy appears, their race will begin.

It's a race against publishers' deadlines, of course; in certain countries, where the quality of second-language English is very high, it's a race to get the book published in (say) Norwegian, or Danish, before your entire market decides not to bother waiting for the translation, and you find that you're trying to sell it to people who've already read the book in the original.

In some cases it's a race against unofficial translators, too; in China, where enforcement of international copyright law leaves something to be desired, IPR parasites churn out their quick and shoddy renegade versions more or less with impunity. These range from fan-produced translations published online, to brand-new books in the HP series sold on street corners, like the rather peculiar attempt at a book five that appeared while Rowling was in fact still hard at work in Edinburgh writing it (Rowling shares this distinction with Cervantes, who was understandably taken aback to find the second part of Don Quixote published unofficially before he'd had the chance to get round to writing it).


As this excerpt suggests, translation is not simply a straightforward word-substitution process, in danger of being replaced by simple software algorithms, but a very human pursuit somewhere between "art" and "science". Yet it is also a pursuit constrained by the technologies and economics of printing and distribution on a global scale. (Read the full article here.)

1 comment:

mccalmont said...

In my long-time interest of web advertising, I came across this article on how everyday bloggers are getting paid for inserting plugs for companies and products into their online ramblings.

The full article is at: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/business/la-fi-bloggers9mar09,1,3465781.story?ctrack=1&cset=true

This kind of work, although the FTC is requiring some diclosure now, is perhaps similar to how piece-work used to be taken into the home. Or is it just a new kind of contracting?