Reasons to use a professional translator - by Dostoyevsky

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As a New Year's Resolution, I challenged myself to read one World Classic in translation every month.  Something I did not appreciate at the outset was how huge a task this actually is. World Classics tend to be mighty tomes and so far I have found that I am behind on my quota!

However, my quest has not been entirely in vain, for, when reading Fyodor Doestoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, I came across this passage which is a perfect illustration of one reason to use a professionally trained and qualified translator and not to believe that by using a student you will obtain a product of equal quality.

In this short scene Razoumikhin meets his friend Raskolnikoff in the street.  "Stop a minute, Mr Chimney Sweep! You are positively out of your mind! I am giving no lessons myself, either. I am at present doing translations for a publisher. I had counted on you as being useful to me. My orthography is rather bad and I am very weak in German - indeed, I only undertook the work with the hope of its leading to something better. Look here, he will pay three roubles for translating these German pages, and you may do them if you like. Here!"

Raskolnikoff is not tempted by the handsome sum on offer and refuses the translations and payment. He has weightier matters on his mind - namely the premeditated murders he has just committed for little material gain. His mental anguish is such that he is unable to function properly and has made himself ill.

Now, I am not suggesting that students are known for committing murder but it is clear here that Razoumikhin realises that he has bitten off more than he can chew. He admits that he cannot spell and that his German is not up to the standard required. His inexperience and eagerness have caught up with him.

Professional translators will know their limitations; for example, I know that I do not know anything about nuclear physics and so will not attempt such a text. Conversely, translators do know which texts they can tackle to make a difference and make the language sparkle. Recently, I was asked three times by a project manager to work on texts concerning railway engineering. Each time I reiterated that he would be better advised to ask someone qualified to undertake the work. I did not omit to mention that would be happy to help him if he required translations of texts in my specialist areas of marketing and advertising, travel and tourism, education, human resources and cookery!

[Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dosteyevsky. Penguin Popular Classics 1997]

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