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The Languageness of Things

I don't mention my day job very much out here, and I felt I probably should. At least to explain where I am when you don't see me, and maybe to give you an idea of why the wording of things has a way of bugging me as much as it does when the messages aren't brought across as well as they could be.

For the most part, I work as a freelance translator, working from Malay or Indonesian into English. I am able to translate from English into Malay, but I can't do the same with Indonesian. To explain the language differences in a nutshell, it's somewhat like a speaker of Cantonese and a speaker of Mandarin trying to communicate with each other. The writing and syntax are essentially the same, but the word choices and pronunciations differ. I can usually read an Indonesian text with no trouble, double-checking Indonesian-specific terms with a few good dictionaries, but translating into the language itself requires a fluency and familiarity with the local slang I don't have.

Translation is fascinating to me, in that even the simplest texts have so much to say about the people they speak of, and the authors of the documents as well. More than just stylistic elements, I'm learning stories in the way, for example, different Malaysian states declare the births of new citizens. There are liberal states and old codger states in the Malaysian system. By having to work with samples of birth certificates from different states across different eras, I've noticed that certain states and time periods have demanded that parents declare their religion(s) to the registrar. The standardised, national identification card that all Malaysians are obligated to carry from the age of twelve, however, mandates that all Malaysians declare their religion on the card.

Some states expressedly request the father's name and the mother's maiden name, as well as the mother's usual place of residence. This is particularly true of the relatively newer federal territories. A few years ago, Malaysia reformed its constitution to explicitly state women had equal rights as citizens to men. Laws pertaining to child custody were also modified to allow mothers more direct rights to their child, like being able to sign for passports on behalf of their child, where the father's signature was once preferred. Registering a newborn child to the mother's name and address is a logical step in this process -- it acknowledges the mother's (superior) right as a guardian to the child in a legal dispute. Prior to this change, it was difficult for single mothers and widows to obtain traveling papers for their children. Divorces, especially for the Muslim half of the population, are still unfairly difficult processes in Malaysia, where the husband can still hold the children over the wife's head. Any move to help improve the situation is helpful.

Translation allows me the honour of looking through someone else's eyes, however momentarily, as I figure out the best ways to phrase their vision for a different audience. I constantly ask myself if my translations are true to the original speaker's intent, and if the translation was done in the most natural manner for the target audience. It helps my own editing skills, because I also edit as a freelancer, as learning to cut down words, to phrase things in the most concise ways possible, is exactly what I hope to achieve in my writing. I am honoured to be trusted with translating a person's most personal details, to reshape their messages so that more people can understand them. I don't take even the smallest jobs lightly, because I realize that even the smallest jobs affect someone's means of communication in some way. If I can do a job better, I'll learn to do that. If I can do it more accurately, I'll work my hardest to achieve it.

My own reasons for getting into translations were both personal. I wanted a way to practice my country's language, as I am not able to do so on a daily basis beyond the confines of my home. I did not want to see my own skills in Malay die out from lack of use, and the language used in my home is a loose form of Malay that didn't cover the range I'd have liked to have seen. Translating from my father tongue connects me to my country in a more real way than actually being in my country does. Perhaps, I could explain it as this: translations I do often involve Malaysians like myself, who are adrift from their native land. It doesn't matter whether or not we agree with our country, or what we make of its people. It doesn't matter that there are aspects of my country that make me frighteningly sad, angry or merely frightened. The language we share is comforting because it's familiar, one of those things we all can share without getting into personalities.

Secondly, I just love languages. I love the way languages are the key to understanding the way entire cultures think. I love the etymology of words, because they reveal the most relevant pieces of a culture's history -- the people's history is often evident in the symbols they use the most to depict their lives. I love the way being around languages challenges me to think and to imagine the stories behind the language people use. I love the fact translation challenges me to learn every time.

That isn't to say there aren't a few bugs in my favourite beverage here either. Working freelance means working erratically. I began translating freelance a year ago, and I've only just been able to earn a few steady contacts with reasonably regular work. The work is still by no means regular enough to be fully self-sufficient. (I do light technical support/web design work and freelance editing alongside.) My work of late has developed the habit of arriving between midnight and 3AM -- and I am still on call during the usual 9 to 5 hours locally. Deadlines do not always coincide with the kind of fees people pay for translations. There are strains of clients out there that just about venture into pestilent. Bidding sites depend on one's sheer inability to sleep and pay one's bills.

I do get lots of spare time to stare aimlessly at my single-branch-upon-which-cherry-blossoms-will-not-congregate-in-a-meaningful-manner brand of writing, one petal at a time. As for my sleeping habits, it serves me right to find a job that works for my insomnia. I like tight deadlines. I'm willing to guarantee 2-hour deliveries for single/twin page translations after confirmation of receipt, and to date, I have not yet delivered a translation of this type outside of the deadline I set for myself. It's not that I'm trying to kill myself over my work -- though that could be a bonus -- I just don't like sitting idle, and the prices I'm paid per job usually just about justify 1-2 hours work, but not more. I am capable of editing as I go along, and that's what I do best. I am a fast translator, and I am a fast editor, and it won't be a case where I rushed work without bothering to look at what I typed. If I make mistakes, I'm willing to correct them, and apologize for them, and I have. If something needs explaining, I'll explain it, simple as that. (This is why my own writing frustrates me so much. The work does not write itself fast enough to catch up with my editing.)

I could just say that freelance translating is a fulfilling and fun job and end it this way, but it's not. I make the translation work fulfilling and fun, and that's how it attunes itself to me. I acknowledge the deadlines, the frustration and the money mightn't be for everyone, but it's a gig I like nearly as much as writing. I'll keep it at that.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 12th, 2007 05:10 am (UTC)
My work of late has developed the habit of arriving between midnight and 3AM

No wonder I find you online when I am!

(but right now - I'm going to bed. It's late and Kaikan Phrase is cheesier than I could have ever imagined. I think I've hit my "inane" limit for the day.)
Apr. 12th, 2007 06:32 am (UTC)
I'm not nearly as young as I used to be. Staying up late has grown harder. *sad* There was once a time I could game and anime myself till dawn! And work for about as long. But now, I am saaaaaaaad. ;)

Still watching Jigoku Shoujo. I'm completely in love with the Hell Girl's voice. So soft. So creepy. So gentle. So pleasant! Especially the way she asks, "Would you like to see what death is like?"
Apr. 12th, 2007 03:10 pm (UTC)
She is the flight attendant of Hell! :)
Apr. 16th, 2007 06:22 pm (UTC)
Some nice thoughts on why you translate and what it means for you (and how it helps people).

I find that translating and writing are complementary, in that translating doesn't exhaust me creatively the way writing does.

(Although I may get tired of so much typing.)

I can translate and then still write later, in a way that I couldn't write the same number of pages as I'd translated and continue writing (ont he sam eor a different piece).
Apr. 25th, 2007 06:38 pm (UTC)
I like to think of translating as an exercise that helps me think through writing. While it's not possible for me to translate with my brain turned off, it feels enough like rote that I can still work through stories at the back of my head while translating. Unfortunately, depending on the length or difficulty of the translation, it can still be exhausting.

But as you've said, it's nowhere near as exhausting as trying to write. It's the trying that's trying. :)

Interestingly, have we met before? Random strangers in my journal are remarkably rare, so I am curious!
Apr. 25th, 2007 09:57 pm (UTC)
We haven't met, so I am a semi-random stranger. I forget now where I saw a positng you made and followed it here.
Apr. 26th, 2007 07:18 am (UTC)
Well, hello then, semi-random new friend. It is always a pleasure to see new faces! :)
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )