How understanding language as disruption and conciliation can help you translate more effectively

A summary of Dr John Jamieson’s presentation at the 2017 FIT Congress: “Single to Turku, please” – or Translation as the Art of Managing Disruption.

A long-term and fondly regarded figure on the New Zealand translation scene, Dr John Jamieson is known for his unique insights into the nitty gritty of translating. He gave us a brief outline of his theories and approach in his presentation at the 2017 FIT Congress, entitled “Single to Turku, please” – or Translation as the Art of Managing Disruption.

With the theme of this year’s congress being Disruption and Diversification, Jamieson’s focus on disruption was fitting. However, while other presenters discussed the disruptive influence of technology on the translation process and profession, he took an entirely different view and explored disruption as a defining feature of communication.

He began by postulating that communication comprises two things: disruptive information and conciliation, which he described as a form of reassurance or smoothing over. According to Jamieson, these two aspects characterise all human interaction, with each statement sitting somewhere along a spectrum – some being more disruptive, and some much less so.

Jamieson noted that the disruptive information is stressed, while the conciliatory language is unstressed. This can be helpful in differentiating between the two aspects. He explained that in all communication there is ongoing tension or interplay between the disruption and conciliation that is in a continuous state of flux.

But why is this relevant to us as translators? Well, when translating, we must communicate both the message content – the disruptive information – and the smoothing language that represents the feeling and relationships underlying and enveloping the content. And interestingly, each language (and culture) handles the disruptive information and the conciliatory smoothing in different ways.

To illustrate this, Jamieson explained how he applies his concept of disruption and conciliation to translation from Finnish to English. According to Jamieson, words are rude and disruptive pointers, for which syntax must apologise. However, this rudeness varies between languages. In his view, Finnish ‘points’ less rudely than English on the word level, and so has less damage and disruption to repair on the syntactic level. So when translating into English, nouns are demoted to pronouns or verbs, for example, and a degree of politeness must be added that is simply not required in Finnish.

He explained that the title of his presentation, “Single to Turku, please”, relates to a subtitle for Finnish dialogue that got his late friend and mentor Rod Fletcher into trouble. Fletcher was criticised for adding the word “please” in the subtitle when the original Finnish appeared to simply be “single to Turku”. He did this as he believed in translating from ‘normal’ to ‘normal’, i.e. what is normal in the source language should sound normal in the target. Jamieson’s theory of disruption and conciliation backs up this decision and adds depth to the explanation of why the addition of “please” is required.

Another application of this concept is a technique that Jamieson uses to decipher the meaning of a complex source text: he reads the passage aloud and experiments with where to put the stress. This can aid in picking out the disruptive content – which is where the stress lies – in order to separate this from the unstressed, conciliatory language, enabling the text to be translated more effectively.

Jamieson also examined how the distinction between disruptive and conciliatory language relates to machine translation (MT). His view is that MT can frequently deal well with the disruptive content of a text, but its attempts to handle the smoothing, conciliatory aspects can be quite woeful. Currently we ask MT to handle both types of information, but we humans are incomparably better at doing the modulation and smoothing. His proposed solution to this problem is to let MT handle the purely disruptive content of a text, with no conciliation, and have human translators add all the syntactical and phraseological smoothing. He gave some suggestions as to how this could be achieved, leaving both MT and human post-editors to focus on the parts of the process that they do best.

I found this idea of disruptive-content-only MT interesting, and agree that it is the syntax and phrasing that MT usually messes up the most. However, I think it is unlikely that investment would be made in creating a system to separate out these two components of language.

Personally, I find Jamieson’s ideas helpful for translating the traditional, high-quality, human way. I also love the simple advice passed down from his former mentor to translate “from normal to normal”, which neatly summarises my own approach to effective translation.

By Jayne Fox

Image of the Brisbane River by Jayne Fox

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