The importance of the reader

One difference between translation and interpreting is the durable nature of translation, compared to the ephemeral nature of interpreting.

Verba volant, scripta manent.

Admittedly, nowadays up-to-date technology allows for interpretations to be recorded – thus increasing access to them – but the nature of the interpreted content in question informs the way in which such recordings are used: the interpreted version of a speech can be used for many different purposes, but the interpreted version of an informal conversation would be less useful. Just as we only tend to write down what is important, only the most significant communicative or expressive acts will be recorded. In this way, recordings and sound reproduction imitate writing. However, for now we will only focus on written content: translation.

The fact that a translation is permanent leads to the possibility of multiple readers accessing it in different spaces and times. Therefore, these readers may be completely different to each other; the only thing that would necessarily unite them is knowledge of the target language and how it is written. Variable characteristics such as age, gender, previous knowledge of the translation subject matter, culture etc. can be applied. Because these characteristics can influence a reader’s understanding of a text (or even an image), it is always vitally important to consider who the intended reader is (in principle, as it is almost impossible to know who exactly could access the text).

Whispered interpretation

In terms of the reader, there are various points to consider.

One is the issue of a text’s appropriateness for the age of the intended audience; when translating children’s literature, for instance, this should be taken into account. In texts aimed at young readers, ‘adult’ themes, such as death, sex, torture, etc. should be avoided. Even something as apparently innocent as a popular saying or idiom could lead to questions about topics inappropriate for children. For this reason, it is important to translate every word carefully. Adaptation also comes into play here, since many texts include topics which should be avoided. One example is classic fairy-tales – such as Cinderella – which, in their original versions, could include macabre elements.

Another pertinent point, this time in relation to any kind of translation, is the reader’s previous knowledge. This depends on various factors: age, level of education, interests, availability of reference material about the subject matter… Depending on the audience’s prior knowledge, certain information will need to be added to a translation to facilitate understanding of the text. On other occasions, particular explanations could be redundant, as the reader’s existing understanding of the subject matter is sufficient to grasp, for example, the meaning of a specific term. When possibly unfamiliar elements appear in a text, a third translation option is that of explanation through context: although the reader does not recognise a given term, context allows for adequate deduction of the role of this element in the text.

Sometimes, a translation may be aimed at a more comprehensive group of users than normal: people who speak different languages or who are from different cultures. For instance, some parts of an original text could be in different languages, with the aim of transmitting the document’s most important content to the largest possible number of people. In these cases, the geographical zones where the source and target languages are spoken need to be compared; the closest languages can then, as far as possible, be used. One such language will, almost definitely, be English, which acts as the language of global communication in modern times. For that reason, if the original text is in English and also in other languages, we must remember to include the original English text in the translation.

In addition to the abovementioned issues, importance should also be placed on audience expectations, both in terms of the text content itself and the text’s intended purpose. Where content is concerned, and especially in different cultures, in certain cases a reader’s previous experiences could lead to certain presuppositions which change his or her interpretation of a text. For example, if in a story a character is lost in the forest and forced to eat insects, this would be a sign of the character’s extreme hunger in Western culture; however, in other cultures, where insects are commonly eaten, these events would simply represent a form of subsistence. In relation to the text’s intended purpose, this needs to be consistently present in the translator’s mind, so as to meet the audience’s needs: the text may be required to prevent someone from getting lost, to make food, to buy a product… In artistic contexts, we could also be creative with these expectations by offering something completely different: rather than a typical translation, a specific adaptation which does not serve the originally-intended purpose.

Whatever the case, the role of readers will always be essential, as translations would not exist without them. We could say that there are as many different translations as readers, since each individual will link particular ideas to a text or image. Moreover, the rise of modern technology means that a text’s potential audience size is continually increasing, making translations more relevant than ever.

About Sara Novo Carballeira

Naronesa (A Coruña), licenciada en Traducción e Interpretación por la Universidad de Vigo. Traduce del inglés y el alemán al español. Interesada en la localización de videojuegos.

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