The Problem with Metaphors

Translation is a dance. Interpreters are ninjas. Translators build bridges. Interpreting creates conduits.

Whenever we try to describe the power of translation and interpreting, we instinctively reach for metaphors. In fact, even the etymologies of the English words are metaphors: translation as carrying over, interpreting as standing between. But there are two fundamental problems with metaphors that must be understood, lest our metaphors stunt our thinking, rather than developing it.

The first problem is that every metaphor hides as much as it reveals. Yes, we can argue that translation is an act of imperialist appropriation but that declaration comes with an imperialism of its own. It stakes a claim on the land of translation and makes it the place of political interference, military strategem, personal ambition and power games.

But it isn’t always any of those things. What about when translation is an act of allowing two people to marry, by ensuring that the right documents are read by the right people in time? What about those times when it’s a lifesaver by allowing medical notes to be used by specialists treating someone flown home from a holiday? What about when it is the work of a child helping their parents survive in a country that has accepted the responsibility of caring for them while they are refugees?

Every metaphor privileges one form of translation or interpreting and relegates the rest to some other place. Call interpreters ninjas and you reduce their role to being invisible and inscrutable. Pity the poor interpreter who feels that they have to clear up a misunderstanding to ensure a patient gets the right treatment or worse, seek mental health support after working an emotionally-scarring assignment.

Metaphors, which are often meant as tools to help us see new things, can often become a wall to prevent us from seeing others. There will probably never be a perfect metaphor to describe what every translator or interpreter does, so perhaps we should be more careful before we say “translation is X” or fight for our description of “interpreting as Y.”

The second problem, which is simply the logical result of the first, is that there is always a danger that metaphors move from being useful descriptive tools to becoming markers of loyalty to an entire school of thought. If we are not careful, we serve metaphors instead of having them serve us.

Take the old “interpreters are impartial conduits” metaphor. Almost as soon as you start seeing the world through that metaphor, it creates a host of associations and assumptions. If interpreters are conduits then what matters is simply that the content is relayed as it was heard or seen, never mind the interpreter’s cultural skills or knowledge of the target audience. Never mind that people could lose their jobs or their lives over a simple misunderstanding. Never mind that the interpreter’s life might be in danger. Just say what was said. Ditch your humanity and become a language pipe.

It sounds harrowing but it is simply the logical result of adopting the metaphor uncritically – a point that has been made by many researchers since at least the mid-1990s. The same thing happens in translation.

If translation is rewriting then let’s all expect marked difference between the source and target text. Let’s value the ways in which the translator has reworked the text to make a point in their culture. No-one is going to care if the surgeon can’t read the guidance notes for this new drug or the guests think the fire safety instructions in the hotel are actually an example of dadaist poetry. Rewrite away!

I’m deliberately being obtuse but for good reason. So often, it is tempting to debate metaphors and models as if they were the thing itself. We can be caught defending our pet picture of translation or interpreting as if any threat to that picture was a threat to translation or interpreting itself. Call into question the viability of the conduit model of interpreting and you might be seen as questioning the need for interpreters to be ethical. Ask tough questions about translation as liberation and you could be seen as imperialist.

But the truth is that metaphors are more like impressionist paintings. From far away, they may look like a perfect representation. Get close up and suddenly you see the brush strokes, the dots and the technique used to make something that has the appearance of the thing but is not and cannot ever be, the thing itself.

And yes, I realise that I just used a metaphor there. The irony and implications are not lost on me.

In fact, that little flaw in my argument might be useful. You see, the biggest problem with metaphors is not that they are partial, nor that they can inspire unfortunate levels of loyalty but simply that they are inescapable. Whenever we try to sum something up, whenever we try to do more than recount case study after case study, we need metaphors. We instinctively reach for them to try to reduce complexity, connote ideas and relate something we don’t know to something we do.

My argument is not, therefore. that we should try to break our addiction to metaphors, as if purely literal language existed and was proven to be any better. No, my plea is not for them to be put down but for them to put on tighter leashes.

Perhaps, if we can hold them more lightly and accept them as necessary but fallible steps towards understanding, we might get to a stage where we can borrow something we learned from one metaphor and link it with an idea from another and a perspective from a third to make something that is both descriptive and intelligible, useful and accurate.

Actually, that’s probably what we want from translators and interpreters too.

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