Just Being Respectful

Imagine visiting a new friend’s house - say, to share a meal in good company. Before this you may have interacted with this person in a professional setting, or maybe somewhere more informal, but this is the first time you’re in their space. And suddenly you find out your expectations and those of your host don’t align: you were supposed to help with food without being asked and you didn’t, or the exact opposite, you tried to help and that didn’t go over well. How might you justify what you’d tried to do?

“I was trying to be polite.”
“My parents raised me to be respectful.”
“That’s just how I was always taught.”
“That’s what you’re supposed to do.”
“I didn’t want to be rude.”

And it really shouldn’t need explaining beyond that - should it? The way we use a lot of these words - polite/politeness, respect/respectful, proper, right - often assumes that everyone knows what we’re talking about. But our imagined scenario shows that not everyone does - and that doesn’t mean that one person is wrong. In one culture (or even in one family, one community, one social class), it may be expected that guests will help themselves or help the host with preparations, whereas in others doing so would be an insult to the host’s hospitality. The problem is that we are so used to leaning on these assumptions of what constitutes proper behavior that we often don’t realize when they don’t apply.

So how does this relate to translation? In almost every single way! Even a text that does not appear to deal directly with very culturally-dependent issues like hospitality is still likely to trigger these underlying assumptions. Translation forces the realization that certain assumptions are not universal. For example, wouldn’t you agree that writing a recipe in the imperative (“chop these ingredients, put them in a bowl and mix, fry them,” etc.) makes the most sense? Russians beg to differ! Russian recipes and other instructions are often written in the infinitive, which sounds somewhat bizarre if translated back into English: “To chop ingredients. To mix in bowl. To fry until done.” But the bizarreness cuts both way: addressing the reader directly in Russian in these contexts is at best unconventional or inappropriate, and at worst impolite.

So here’s the takeaway: translation is not just a complex matching game. Hopefully, what you want when commissioning a translation is to communicate effectively.* In attempting to do so, you can demand the perfect equivalent for the vocabulary, the syntax, the style - but it’s not going to be effective communication without those underlying assumptions, conventions, sensibilities about what’s right and what’s wrong. And that is the kind of knowledge that a professional translator working into their native language brings to the table.

*There are, of course, instances where that is not the primary goal, such as interlinear, very close translations of literary texts for scholarly study. Every rule has its exception.