In the last fifteen years technology has radically transformed the way in which translators work. Translators used to spend most of their time browsing through heavy paper dictionaries and glossaries, lose their eyesight in the small lines of a definition to look for an idiomatic phrase, and planned regular trips to the local library to research the most puzzling references.
In the 1990s dictionaries started to be published on CD. You wrote the word, it popped up. You wrote the key word of the idiom you were looking for, and there it was, highlighted in a split second. It sounds normal, today, but it must have seemed like magic, at first. This relatively recent development truly boosted translators’ productivity, while reducing anxiety, depression and frustration – not a mean feat. And that was just the beginning. When the Internet became affordable for the average translator working from home, it opened up spaces where one could research huge directories, at speeds never imagined before. Yahoo!’s directories where huge and searchable. Could it get any better than that? Of course it could. Enter Google. Fast-forward to thirteen years later, and Google is the main tool I use in my work as a translator.
If most translators would probably confirm that they use Google more than any other tool, and if the average person can easily understand why that is, fewer people would guess that Street View is a precious tool in our trade.
Google Street View is nothing short of awesome. Many people use it to show their friends where they have been on holiday, or the street where they grew up. Others like to get a feel of an area before booking a hotel or venturing out to a late-night concert. Those with a lot of spare time simply get virtually lost through the streets of an unknown foreign city. It’s a precious tool for everyday life and a bonanza for the chronically curious.
As I said, not many people would assume that Street View is an amazing tool for literary translators. When I encounter a reference to some place in a text, I immediately Google it, check out if it exists, check the Wikipedia entry for it, find a few pictures, maybe a tourism website. Tourist websites and photo galleries, though, are pretty much limited to the main attractions – not to mention that you’ll find countless pictures of Paris, but a small town in rural Texas, well… that’s another story. With this kind of tool, the translator can easily get a very precise idea of the most obscure place where a story is set.
While translating Galveston, the amazing debut by Nic Pizzolatto, I truly got lost through the dingy streets of that Texan island, I “walked” along the seaside to see what the characters where seeing. Ok, the businesses and addresses he wrote about were not really there (although countless others, of the same kind, were) but I got the feeling, the atmosphere of Galveston island. Needless to say, one can of course translate without having the vaguest idea of what a place looks like, and writers used to set their stories in exotic places without having been there, and without having seen a single picture of them. And that’s probably one of the greatest skill an author needs, the ability to imagine how a place looks, smells, sounds, feels like.
Still, being able to get at least a visual impression can make all the difference when we have to establish which one of two quasi-synonyms we need to use, and allows us to visualise the events a lot better, which certainly helps to dissipate any doubts about the setting, and therefore to produce and accurate and meaningful translation.
In his brilliant novel Everything Matters! Ron Currie, Jr. mentions heaps of bars, restaurants and shops. Much to my surprise, that time I discovered that they all exist in the real world. Whether you are a translator or just a reader, being able to stand in front of the Chicago pub where your main character is getting drunk with his drug-addled amputee friend certainly adds to the experience, and – quite simply – an enhanced reading experience will result in a better performance by the translator.
Anyone else out there using Street View to check out the locations of the story they are translating?
P.S. interestingly, I have found Google Street View much more useful in my job than the surprising but still dreadful Google Translate.