On the translator’s (in)visibility

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A translated text is often structured as a cake – a dash of source language features, a handful of editor’s comments all layered on top of the message you’re trying to get across. Should the translator’s voice be added to the mix?

The role of translator in the process of rendering a text into a different language remains a hot topic in the theory and practice of translation. While a translator’s scope of responsibilities might be well-defined, the depth of their involvement in the project and the magnitude of their impact on the final text remain vague.

For a long time, translators were overshadowed by the fruits of their labour – words they crafted, cultural connections they nurtured, ideas they helped spread across the globe. Even now these humble wordsmiths often remain invisible behind their work, succumbing to the power of the text and the language system it belongs to. How many of you can name the translator of your beloved foreign text? Did you notice that the text was borrowed from a different literary tradition? Chances are, unless you take a keen interest in translation, you’ll remember words that beautifully flow in sentences rather than the translator who brought them to you.

In terms of translation, invisibility stands for following the translation canon, adapting to the target culture rules, and diluting the foreign flavour of a text. This often results in a foreign text being digested as native to the culture it has entered thanks to translation. For translators, invisibility means that their role in enabling the exchange of ideas is suppressed, along with their political or social standpoint as they attempt to meet the professional expectations. 

Text’s visibility centres around recognizing its heritage and original environment.  In a way, a ‘visible’ approach to translation undermines the flow of the translated text, challenges the established traditions in the receiving culture, and shines a light on the translator’s contributions.  A ‘visible’ translator has more freedom to let their opinion and beliefs seep through their work. In practical terms, translator’s visibility is associated with more creativity, freedom to revisit the canon and innovate the field. A translated text’s invisibility, on the other hand, with well-established traditions, norms, and rules.

As a translator, you’ll come across projects of various genres and formats along your career path. Some of them might require a more ‘invisible’ approach; others, on the other hand, may offer room for innovation. Your job as a professional is to tell them apart. Don’t be afraid to voice your position to clients and suggest new approaches to handling a foreign text. As you grow in the profession, strive to develop a diverse skillset that would allow you to take on projects that prioritize a smooth transition into the target culture as well as those that value your input and creativity. Translation as a process of sharing ideas, cultures, and beliefs can take various forms – be informed about your options, know the current trends, be honest with your clients, and respect your opinion.