What is success in translation?

runner - japan

For the past few weeks, this question has been lingering in my mind: How do you define success? Or better yet: How do you know if you’ve succeeded? In his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (Vintage International) author Haruki Murakami talks a lot about himself, how he became a “successful” novelist, and how he prepared for long-distance marathon running. I have yet to feel “successful” in any walk of life and am still transitioning the road to physical recovery that will ultimately result in my first full distance marathon (for those of you who are not runners, by “full distance” we mean 42 kilometers). I’m slow compared to other runners, mainly because I’m still hauling around some of the weight I put on during my “dark years” (and by “dark years” I mean law school, when I struggled with obesity). Though I’ve lost most of that weight running, the remaining part still weighs me down at times, and not just physically.

Even though I’ve been running for some time now, I have not yet worked up the physical strength for competitive running beyond 10 kilometers. I can endure very long distances at a very slow pace, but my lungs can’t take a speed of 8 kilometers per hour for more than an hour at a time. Despite my best effort, I’m far below the average 10 K in under an hour. But week after week, I gear up anyway and keep trying. A friend of mine who is a great runner claims that you succeed every time you gear up and run. Success to her is fighting the little voice in your head that is full of self-doubt and believes you can’t measure up, and then proving her wrong, run after run. So one way to look at it is that you succeed by trying.

She also says that you succeed by outgrowing older versions of yourself. I know I’ve come a long way since the first time I ever geared up, gave it my best, and then crashed 700 meters later. By that rationale, I am a successful runner. Apparently, you succeed by overcoming yourself. Mr. Murakami talks about this a lot in his book; he too struggled with a weight problem and had to overcome many personal challenges to become a runner.

I like both ways of looking at success in running, but I feel there’s a little more to it than that. Although I’m very much aware of my shortcomings as a runner, I don’t really think about any of them when I run. Once I pass those first tricky kilometers when I feel I could drop dead any minute, I stop thinking. It’s hard to explain in rational terms, but it’s like my brain quiets down. There is no voice in my head saying pretty much anything; there’s just the music playing in my little music thingy and a feeling of connection with the world around me. If I’m running outdoors, there’s the scenery, the sunlight, or the rain, or the cold. When running indoors on a treadmill there’s nothing but the tree outside the window. There’s an overpowering sensation that nothing exists outside the reality of that moment. At times it’s peaceful and at other it’s challenging, but either way, for a while I am connected to nothing and everything at the same time. I am not caught up in the urgent yet insignificant problems of day to day living in a competitive professional world. I am undoubtedly alive and living the moment in a context far greater than myself. Success, by that rationale, is loving what you are doing so much it makes you feel alive.

Enter translation.

You often read about how to become a successful translator, yet nobody really bothers to define success. When I was younger, I thought success was making money from translation. Once I achieved that goal, I realized money had nothing to do with success. Not that I’m herding in the bucks or anything, I’m merely talking about a nice steady income by which I can afford a comfortable standard of living. Then I thought success was enjoying a certain reputation among your clients and peers. Great though that feels, I can’t honestly say that’s it. With age I am becoming more humble. So for a while I thought success was simply a job well done and happy clients. That doesn’t seem to be it either.

However, it occurs to me that sometimes when I find myself translating something I am genuinely interested in, mainly human rights or humanitarian issues, my brain quiets down like it does when I’m running. I connect to the text on a deeper level. I let it transport me and connect me to the cause that inspired it, to the people the author is advocating for, to the here and now of a reality far more complex than my own. I am part of something amazing, something too large to even fathom: a living breathing world that struggles and expresses itself in and through humanity. A human rights violation expressed in Spanish in Peru or Argentina is being heard by the Human Rights Committee in English in Europe, via my client, my language skills, my computer and a system that connects yet exceeds us all. Nothing exists outside that translation and the reality it represents. I am undoubtedly alive and living the moment in a context far greater than myself. By that rationale, then maybe like in running, succeeding in translation is loving what you do so much it makes you feel alive.

Translating Jurisprudence: How a Bad Translator Killed Law’s Empire

killing laws empire

I have two great intellectual passions: law and philosophy. When you put them together you get what is known as jurisprudence or theory of law. I have taken countless courses and seminars on jurisprudence in several languages and read many authors in their original languages as well as a lot of others translated into either Spanish or English from French or German, yet I have never encountered a worst translation than the one I am going to discuss here today.

In one of my current jurisprudence seminars, we studied, among other great works, Law’s Empire by Ronald Dworkin. Because Dworkin was an American thinker, Law’s Empire was written in my language, so I would never have even looked at a Spanish translation were it not for the fact that the seminar I am attending is in Spanish and three of the other participants (all lawyers) read the same Spanish translation, which apparently was so awful, that they spent at least 40 minutes from a two hour session discussing how the translator had killed Law’s Empire. Curiosity, of course, got the best of me and I just had to check out the translation for myself. Here are my thoughts:

Lack of Background Knowledge

This is not the first time I mention lack of background knowledge on this blog, but this translation is a perfect example of what I mean. The translator was completely clueless about philosophy in general and jurisprudence in particular, and it showed! In jurisprudence, like all other areas of philosophy, authors often build their thoughts on the groundwork laid out by prior thinkers in a sort dialogical form. When referring to very well-known works, ideas or theories, they assume the reader is also familiar with them and, therefore, will not explicitly clarify to whom or what they are referring every single time they make reference to it. So, for example, when referring to the categorical imperative an author will assume you know he’s referring to Kant, and if you don’t, you should not be translating philosophy (seriously!). The same happens with jurisprudence. In this case, the translator’s overall ignorance led entire references to be lost in translation by rendering word-for-word interpretations of very well-known philosophical and jurisprudential concepts to the point to which they became unrecognizable.

Using Non-Interchangeable Terms Interchangeably

Although it’s true that concepts such as “fairness” and “justice” can, in certain contexts, be translated interchangeably into Spanish, which has only one word for both concepts, in the case of jurisprudence, this simply does not hold. Interpretation is an essential part of jurisprudence and great thinkers –especially those heavily influenced by Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language or who pay special attention to logical accuracy– are extremely careful about using accurate and consistent terminology.


Building on the idea expressed above, it is not OK to translate terms inconsistently, which is something this translator clearly ignored. With some thinkers, a single change in terminology can affect the entire logical flow of their arguments, thus weakening the argument itself.

Lack of Comprehension

This was directly related to all of the above items. The translator clearly understood the words but not the ideas in Dworkin’s work. I have to admit, Dworkin is not a particularly easy thinker to understand, but many of his ideas were incomprehensible after being re-interpreted and re-signified by an utterly incompetent translator –to the point to which several PhD students and a renowned Professor of Jurisprudence were unable to follow the logic in the translated version not only in entire sentences, but entire paragraphs, and not for lack of capacity on their part.

Closing thoughts

I know that most of what I have identified as the main flaws in a certain Spanish translation of Law’s Empire is applicable to translation in general. These four weaknesses can affect any translation, even extremely simple ones. But I think when accepting the honor of translating the ideas of some of the greatest minds in jurisprudence, one is especially obliged to remain as faithful as possible to the original meaning of the source text, and if a large part of what the author wrote rests on his or her ability to accurately follow logical propositions to their most significant conclusions, then the least a translator can do is humbly evaluate whether he or she has the proper training and experience for the task. Most of the translators in my network would be up to the challenge and would do an excellent job. Yet, ironically, when asked about this, they agreed they would also think it through before accepting a job of these characteristics and many, with different training or areas of specialization, said they would turn it down. And that level of introspection and awareness of their own limitations is what sets them apart as real pros in my book! So to the translator that killed Law’s Empire, please, learn from the pros, and think twice before embarking in such complex tasks.