[Column] Lessons in translation

Columnist Bob van Vliet is pretty sure that his English is above average. But he also realises that he has far less nuance at his disposal in English.

(Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

For a while now, I’ve been meaning to write about my experience of translating this column into English every month. So when fellow Delta columnists Claudia Werker and Monique van der Veen started a series on language this past month, I couldn’t put it off anymore.

Claudia argues that switching from Dutch to English to include foreign colleagues can sometimes do more harm than good. Monique feels we shouldn’t pay too much attention to whether our use of language is ‘correct’. She hints at the Orwellian threat of a ‘newspeak’ that makes critical and subversive thought difficult – even impossible – because the words necessary to think and express such thoughts are simply unavailable.

But being free to use every word in the dictionary is not the same as being able to. As speakers of English as a second language, we commonly know less than half as many words in English as we do in our native tongue (the linked article is in Dutch, how ironic). And the words we do know, we know more superficially, with less of a sense of their nuances and connotations. In other words, we are less equipped for complex thought in English.

‘Although those words are published as my words, at times I feel that they are not’

I used to think that this didn’t apply to me. I’ve been reading, writing and speaking English much more than my peers since high school. I’m pretty sure that my English is well above average. But when this column started to appear in both Dutch and English every month, I realised that I still have nowhere near as much nuance available to me in this, my second language, as I do in my first.

At first, I would translate my columns from Dutch to English myself. But that was much more work than I expected it to be. Like I said, I write a lot in English. But that writing is usually only in English. And that turns out to be radically different from trying to capture the tone, character and nuances of something you first wrote in Dutch. I mean, I knew translation was a craft, but I assumed it would be relatively straightforward to translate something that I wrote myself into a language I use almost as much as my native one.

These days, the English language editor at Delta writes the first draft of the English version of my columns. This saves me a lot of work, but it can be just as frustrating. Often, the translation includes sentences or a choice of words that I am extremely unhappy with, but that I find myself unable to improve. So although those words end up being published as my words, at times I feel that they are not.

Knowing and using multiple languages can enrich our thinking and our work. But I’ve become less comfortable with the ubiquity of English at universities. Using a second language as if it’s our first is dangerous. It’s easy to believe that our thinking in English is as precise and complex as it is in Dutch. For me, at least, that confidence turned out to be false.

Bob van Vliet is a lecturer at the 3mE Faculty and is specialised in design education. Reactions are welcome via B.vanVliet@tudelft.nl.

Bob van Vliet / Columnist

Columnist Bob van Vliet

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