This year has seen literary translation hit new prominence on the news and feature pages. Earlier this week the BBC marked the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, noting how its turns of phrase have permeated everyday English:
The Sun says Aston Villa “refused to give up the ghost”. Wendy Richard calls her EastEnders character Pauline Fowler “the salt of the earth”. The England cricket coach tells reporters, “You can’t put words in my mouth.” Daily Mirror fashion pages call Tilda Swinton “a law unto herself”.
Now today’s Observer is going even further: it carries a full page article proclaiming “This is the age of the translator”. This marks the same anniversary and the recent appetite in the English-speaking world for “foreign fiction”, such as the Millennium trilogy by Steig Larsson, claiming “2011 has been an extraordinary year for the art of translation” But this is more than a paean to translation. The article also attempts to deconstruct what Google Translate does in contrast to what a “proper” human translator does, and quoting David Bellos (author of the excellent Is That A Fish In Your Ear?) saying
“Translation is what you get, but translation isn’t really what Google does. It’s like the difference between engineering and knowledge. An engineering solution is to make something work, but the way you make it work doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the underlying things. Airplanes do not work the way birds fly.”