• Sijin Xian

A Translator's Instinct

Updated: Feb 3, 2020

I've been obsessed with The Great British Baking Show. To state the obvious, it's a show about baking set in Great Britain. Each week, the bakers go through three rounds: signature bakes, technical, and showstopper, ranging from the familiar shortbread cookies and English muffins to the impossible-to-pronounce vol-au-vents and Gugelhupf.

For the first and third challenges, the contestants get to practice and perfect at home. In the technical portion of the show, however, they are tasked with a pared-down recipe they have not seen before. It is the ultimate test for a baker's instinct as there are no instructions on how long to proof the dough for, how thick to roll it out, or under what temperature to bake it. It puts to test how much the bakers know about the science of baking: the sugar and butter ratio, mixing and folding methods, and how will heat and moisture affect the results.

It gets me thinking about what a translator's instinct would be like. The thing is, you can never know everything. However, you need to have an inner navigation system to help you arrive at the desired translation and avoid driving off the cliff. In my opinion, this instinct is strongly correlated to sensitivity to context and logic. Here are some examples:

  • The report further notes that: It can refer to taking something one step deeper, as in 进一步, but it can also just mean "and" or "also." You have to make the call based on the logical connection between the "further" segment and what comes before it.

  • I don't know: It can mean "I don't have the knowledge of something." It can also express doubt, reservation, or uncertainty as in 恐怕不一定吧.

  • Compass: This word can mean either 指南针 or 圆规 depending on whether you are talking to a sailor or a graphic designer.

  • Sensitive: A sensitive person can be either 敏感 (easily offended or upset) or 善解人意 (be considerate of other people's feeling), depending on the context.

  • Righteous: As a slang term, it means excellent.

  • Implicit: When paired with words like faith or trust, it means absolute instead of implied.

  • I don't suppose you can drive me to the airport: This is a polite way to request a favor.

  • I may have eaten all the cookies: "May" is a tone softener for admitting something with embarrassment or guilt. It doesn't challenge the certainty of the fact itself.

To me, a translator's instinct is to know it when things don't seem right by staying vigilant and never making assumptions. Translating should never be an activity of automatic equivalence or knee-jerk reaction. If a sentence reads funny with your established understanding of the words, you are probably not reading it right. Only when one has the radar to detect irregularities can they proceed to figure out a solution to get back on the right track.



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