Stop Literalism

Recently, a client approached me with an editing job. The translated text was about the client’s organizational goals. They needed the Farsi translations to accurately convey the English materials and they suspected the current translation had some major flaws.

They were right. The translations were word for word, too literal. I have to admit, the translator had done a thorough job looking up the words in Google translate. What was missing, however, was meaningfulness and cohesion. Reading it felt as if you were stumbling from one word to the other. Unlike the English text, it had no depth and the meaning was obscured by an attempt to remain within the boundaries of the English structure. It was, after all, designed for Farsi speaking individual who did not have an understanding of English. I wonder how many of those would continue reading the translation after the first couple of sentences. Certainly, my client didn’t want this to happen.

Unfortunately, we encounter these types of translations way too often. For some reason, the bilingual translator’s goal is to become proficient in finding the right words rather than constructing a text that actually makes sense in another language. There is more to translation than understanding a language or knowing the vocabulary. For example, if a translator does not have deep understanding of both languages’ grammar, he or she cannot render an accurate translation and convey the right meaning.

I believe that the Farsi speaking individual has as much right to know the real meaning of a text, just as much as my client has a right to convey their full intention. In 2015, I started my work to establish an ATA Farsi Certification program to address this issue. I was hoping, and still am, that with such examination, a Farsi translator’s proficiency can be assessed. That at least we can begin working toward a higher standard for Farsi translations. Today, we are only months away from the very first ATA Farsi Certification Examination.

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A Tribute To Sa’di Shirazi

Today I came across this beautiful poem from Sa’adi Shirazi.

بنی آدم اعضای یکدیگرند

که در آفرينش ز یک گوهرند

چو عضوى به درد آورد روزگار

دگر عضوها را نماند قرار

تو کز محنت دیگران بی غمی

نشاید که نامت نهند آدمی


banī ādam a’zā-ye yekdīgar-and
ke dar āfarīn-aš ze yek gowhar-and
čo ‘ozvī be dard āvarad rūzgār
degar ‘ozvhā-rā na-mānad qarār
to k-az mehnat-ē dīgarān bīqam-ī
na-šāyad ke nām-at nahand ādamī

As it happens, April 21, is the great poet’s birthday and is registered in the Iranian calendar as Sa’adi’s commemoration day. It is interesting to note that a Persian rug presented to the United Nations in 2005 and currently on display at the entrance of the Hall of Nations at the UN Headquarters in New York, has an inscription of this poem.

There are many translations but below are two that capture the true meaning of this poem.

This is a verse translation by Ali Salami:

Human beings are limbs of one body indeed;
For, they’re created of the same soul and seed.
When one limb is afflicted with pain,
Other limbs will feel the bane.
He who has no sympathy for human suffering,
Is not worthy of being called a human being.

And by Richard Jeffrey Newman:

All men and women are to each other
the limbs of a single body, each of us drawn
from life’s shimmering essence, God’s perfect pearl;
and when this life we share wounds one of us,
all share the hurt as if it were our own.
You, who will not feel another’s pain,
you forfeit the right to be called human.

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