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The Jungle of Translation from English into Slovak: A Central European Perspective

Translation in Slovakia has grown to become a professional field that has reflected the country’s political, social and cultural development, especially the diverse changes after the political changes in 1989. The overwhelming impact of Slovakia’s transition into Western democracies has affected translation in many ways, often with unexpected results.

By Ivan Lacko


Au cours des dernières décennies, en Slovaquie, le marché de la traduction anglais-slovaque s’est rapidement transformé. En conséquence, même s’il existe des associations professionnelles œuvrant à créer de l’ordre, il ressemble à une jungle où se côtoient les professionnels, les nombreux diplômés universitaires et toute personne qui a une compréhension d’apprenant intermédiaire de l’anglais.

Les divers programmes universitaires en traduction et en interprétation sont courus par les étudiants et produisent des centaines de nouveaux langagiers chaque année. Cependant, la formation est copiée d’anciens programmes de littérature et de linguistique qui préparent mal les nouveaux traducteurs aux réalités du marché et qui ne bénéficient pas tous d’accords de coopération internationaux pour améliorer l’enseignement.

De fait, les traducteurs slovaques ne connaissent pas assez la culture, le contexte social et les circonstances historiques dans lesquelles les textes de départ sont rédigés. En conséquence, des erreurs de sens provenant de la mauvaise interprétation de références ou d’allusions sont commises, même si l’internet et les effets de la mondialisation améliorent la situation.

Qui plus est, les entreprises mondialisantes compliquent l’exercice de la traduction vers le slovaque, car elles désirent conserver les appellations internationales des produits qu’elles vendent. En effet, le slovaque étant une langue flexionnelle, les mots devraient être modifiés selon leurs rapports avec les autres mots d’une phrase. De fait, les traducteurs sont pris entre la mode terminologique de langue anglaise et les règles régissant la langue slovaque.

Par ailleurs, l’influence de l’anglais sur la langue slovaque est importante. L’anglais se reconnaît dans les structures mêmes des phrases écrites en slovaque : la syntaxe et la phraséologie sont alors modifiées. La traduction contribue ainsi à modifier la langue et les structures empruntées à l’anglais deviennent la norme.

Le tchèque influe aussi sur le slovaque. En effet, ces deux langues sont restées en contact pendant sept décennies dans les frontières de la Tchécoslovaquie. Pour se différencier des édictes de l’école tchèque, prônant, par exemple, l’appropriation des noms propres ou encore l’imitation des accents régionaux, les traducteurs slovaques cherchent des solutions originales aux problèmes traductionnels auxquels ils doivent faire face.

Contribuant à l’impression de jungle, les pratiques commerciales des cabinets et des agences de traduction sont à la fois constructrices et destructrices. En effet, alors que certaines entreprises créent des équipes de langagiers compétentes et équipées des outils appropriés à leur tâche, d’autres font chuter les prix et montrent une préférence marquée pour la quantité plutôt que la qualité.

De plus, pour faire des économies, des entreprises font traduire leurs textes par des non-traducteurs, voire par des machines, ce qui entraîne des résultats désastreux. Elles emploient alors les traducteurs comme réviseurs ou correcteurs et semblent se satisfaire d’un produit final assez bon pour transmettre le message.

Malgré ses faiblesses, le marché anglais-slovaque reste hétérogène, dynamique et surprenant, et les traductions les plus valorisées démontrent l’utilité de comprendre parfaitement la langue de départ, d’adopter un excellent style slovaque et d’être pleinement conscient du domaine (politique, juridique, économique) du texte de départ.

Translation from English into Slovak is an intricate and highly interesting phenomenon that has undergone rapid and sometimes quite chaotic changes in the past two decades. A profession that was once the domain of a chosen few – mostly literary translators – has recently grown to become a field of study preferred by large numbers of university students, as well as an activity performed by virtually anyone who has at least an intermediate command of English and some skill in Slovak syntax and style. In other words, despite the existence of several professional translators’ associations, the translation services market still resembles a dense and daunting jungle and the job itself is frequently misconstrued.

Roadmaps and jeans

Translation in Slovakia has been shaped by several factors. First, there is the overwhelming influence of the English language, now the lingua franca, that has continuously pervaded the linguistic structures of Slovak written communication. Quite naturally, this has resulted not only in borrowings and a strong English influence on Slovak syntax and phraseology, but also in the growing use of English words, despite well-established Slovak equivalents. In addition, translation often introduces incorrect phrases that penetrate the language and become the norm – a good example is the translation of the American “Roadmap for Peace in the Middle East” that was translated as “cestovná mapa” – meaning a traveler’s map, or a map one can take on a journey rather than a map of possible paths or a strategic plan to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Second, Slovak translators still seem to be struggling with insufficient cultural awareness and knowledge about the social and historical circumstance in which the English source texts are produced. Misinterpretation of references, allusions and contextual information – mostly caused by a different cultural experience – can sometimes lead to shifts in meaning or result in the inability to find functional equivalents. This issue, however, is rapidly changing with globalization and the spread of the Internet. No longer a country behind the Iron Curtain, but a full-fledged member of the EU, Slovakia is now part of the cultural map of the West. As a result, translators do not need to rack their brains about the meaning of some words like their predecessors did in the 1950s, for example, when Czech translators of The Catcher in the Rye were struggling to identify what “jeans” meant.

European and Czech influence

However, the sole fact that young people in Slovakia might feel more “European” and “Western” than “post-communist” or “Eastern European” is also a potential source of problems in the translating process. Slovak, as an inflected language, struggles with the rules of corporations that do not like to see their brand names inflected, or having their advertising slogans translated. The work of translators is frequently complicated by corporate English-based global jargon that prefers to use the same names for products, lines of business or company departments all over the world. The young generation’s use of language reflects this trend and translators are constantly torn between their learned inclination to use original Slovak vocabulary – which is also rigidly taught in translation courses – and the fashionable and sometimes more fitting English terminology. A cynical linguist might say that this, of course, only mirrors the development of languages as we have known it for centuries, but it is the sheer speed and scope of this development that has made it a great challenge for translators and linguists alike.

Another interesting trend, though more of a geopolitical and cultural nature, is the waning influence of the Czech language. During the seven decades of cultural (and bilingual) coexistence of the two languages within Czechoslovakia, the impact of Czech on Slovak was immense both in linguistics and translation. Even though, particularly in literary translation, the Czech school always presented a different approach (e.g. appropriating proper names or imitating regional accents), its influence over Slovak translation has resulted in the desire to move away from the examples set by Czech translators to find a unique, Slovak approach. This was both a good thing because it has helped establish a distinctive translating style, but also a dead-end street because it catalyzed translations that were only done “out of spite” and not with any valid claim to offering a new approach or to finding an innovative solution.

The (not so bright) future of translation

And so translators steered away from dependence on the Czech translation production, just as the two languages kept growing more and more apart. But English, as the source language, has also changed, not only as far as its own style is concerned, but mainly in terms of how it is perceived by a Slovak readership. Regardless of the type of text – literary, expert, legal – many more Slovaks now speak English as their second language and, when reading translated texts, are much more aware of any interference from English. Particularly when it comes to vocabulary, Slovak professionals are proficient in the use of technical and expert terms, even though they might lack the linguistic means to put their rich word-stock to use. This is where translators seem to be stepping in at present – often in the unfortunate role of editors and proofreaders of texts that have been either machine translated (with horrendous results), or converted into Slovak by non-translators. There is one obvious reason why businesses prefer this kind of “translation” – proofreading is cheaper and the result seems to be good enough to serve its communicative purpose.

Another important aspect (and perhaps even a cause) of the current state of translation in Slovakia is the way translation is taught at universities. Immensely popular translation and interpreting programs are among the most preferred study fields and are also the most subsidized by the government. Translation and interpreting programs thus yield hundreds of graduates every year. And yet the programs – which include various combinations of languages – are often based on just slightly adjusted and old-fashioned linguistics and literature syllabi and do not reflect the present requirements put on translators. Even more importantly though, students are rarely contextually prepared for the complex work of a translator, and the study programs mostly lack any kind of international cooperation to compare best practices with other institutions.

In the professional field, translation agencies have become a double-edged sword – while some set up expert teams and provided translators with sound know-how and helpful instruments (glossaries, technical support, CAT tools), others have aggressively dominated the market, dumped prices, and ostentatiously showed their preference for quantity over quality.

That said, translation from English into Slovak is diverse, dynamic and full of surprises – some translations are done by people with proficient English and a poor awareness of the translation skill, producing texts that are full of heavy interference from English. Other works, most notably the recent Slovak translations of Shakespeare by famous Slovak author Ľubomír Feldek, are his poetic rewrites of verbatim translations of verses done by Feldek’s assistants. But the most valued translations are those that combine the need for a perfect understanding of the source language, an excellent style in Slovak and a keen awareness of the source text’s field of expertise (legal, economic, political).

Ivan Lacko is an Assistant Professor in the Department of British and American Studies, Faculty of Arts, Comenius University in Bratislava. He teaches courses in American literature and culture, creative writing, and translation. He also works as a professional translator, mostly for the theatre.

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