Wednesday, May 27, 2009

What Will Become of The Literary Translator?

Back before I went off to graduate school, an earnest literary-minded guy who really wanted to make the most of his studies, I earned enough money to attend a language school in Zurich where I would get to live with a host family. That host turned out to be Frau Annaliese, an amazing Swiss woman who'd once worked as a cook for a Minnesota politician.

Learning German in Switzerland is actually not that easy, but it's what I wanted to do. I'd always wanted to visit that country. Upon returning home six weeks later, I was better able to converse in German, but I wasn't great. So I enrolled in classes at my local university in western New York. (Okay, it was Geneseo.) By the time I launched my graduate "career," I knew German pretty well. I'm a fast learner. Once there--at Kansas State--I continued to take German classes and even won a scholarship to attend Justus Liebig University in Giessen, Germany. I'd had a notion in my head that if I was interested in comparative literature, as I was, and if I was in graduate school, as I was, then doggone it I needed to know another language.

Which turned out not to be true, to my great, great disappointment. Though I would've learned Germany in either case. I'd wanted to learn it from the time I was small--my name is Semmel, after all, and my father's interest piqued mine.

But all was not a loss. I also happened to meet my future wife in Kansas. She happens to be Danish. After Giessen, I finished up my graduate studies and together we moved to Denmark. Thankfully, my German studies really helped me learn Danish. After taking some classes with a bunch of other international students--an experience that was unbelievably funny, worthy of another blog post some day--I picked it up. Nowadays, in between doing my own creative work and working at The Writer's Center, I translate fiction from Danish to English. (You can read an interview with me here.) It's not easy to do, translate, but I enjoy it. Often, I do it on the bus or Metro on my way to work. And I've discovered there's a hunger for translations here, and many of the stories I've translated have been published in literary journals like Hayden's Ferry Review, Redivider, The Brooklyn Review, The Bitter Oleander, Aufgabe. And I'm certain now that more will come--it's an interesting creative endeavor.

Where am I going with this? Let's flash forward to Sunday, May 25, 2009. I'm reading the Washington Post. There's this article on a new program Google is making called Google Translate. Google's truly amazing. Seems they're developing a tool to translate text from one language to another just like that. Great. But I have to confess I'm pretty disheartened by the thought that all a future person might have to do to "translate" is use this program, click a few keys, and voila, a translation. In the same way I was disappointed that I didn't actually need to know a language to finish graduate school.

When I told Pia about this she pooh-poohed it. They've been doing this for years, she told me, you know that.

That's true. You can translate text from one language to another pretty easily on the Net using programs like Yahoo's Babel Fish. But what comes out is usually silly and needs repair. Human repair. But what if they fix the problems and it truly becomes a near-perfect machine?

Don't worry, she said, they're not interested in literary translation.

I'm not sure that's a comfort. But I wonder enough about it to write a longer-than-expected blog post about it when surely there's something else I can do. Electronic translation. Nonhuman translation. What will become of the literary translator?

1 comment:

Bernadette Geyer said...

I'd be very interested to know how well they will handle idioms and slang, which mutate at a rapid rate.

For instance, the term Gammelfleischparty (http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,3864360,00.html). How do you get a translation "program" to handle that one?

It's one thing to translate words, but exactly how do you get across meaning, which can be a completely different matter altogether?

I believe there will always be a need for literary translators...