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Constantine Maurocordato, one of the Ottoman Empire's dragomen, whose work as translators of the "infidels" language gave birth to the word "infidelity."

Constantine Maurocordato, one of the Ottoman Empire’s dragomen, whose work as translators of the “infidels” language gave birth to the word “infidelity.”

Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s superb article “Is Translation a Language or Math Problem?” has many things to recommend it, most particularly this aside on the roots of the word “infidelity”:

Translation promises unity but entails betrayal. In his wonderful survey of the history and practice of translation, “Is That a Fish in Your Ear?” the translator David Bellos explains that the very idea of “infidelity” has roots in the Ottoman Empire. The sultans and the members of their court refused to learn the languages of the infidels, so the task of expediting communication with Europe devolved upon a hereditary caste of translators, the Phanariots. They were Greeks with Venetian citizenship residing in Istanbul. European diplomats never liked working with them, because their loyalty was not to the intent of the foreign original but to the sultan’s preference. (Ottoman Turkish apparently had no idiom about not killing the messenger, so their work was a matter of life or death.) We retain this lingering association of translation with treachery.

Later in the piece, Lewis-Kraus limns what happens when engineers obsessed with using brute-force computation for online translation tools run up against the vagaries of literary nuance:

One computational linguist said, with a knowing leer, that there is a reason we have more than 20 translations in English of “Don Quixote.” It must be because nobody ever gets it right. If the translators can’t even make up their own minds about what it means to be “faithful” or “accurate,” what’s the point of worrying too much about it? Let’s just get rid of the whole antiquated fidelity concept. All the Sancho Panzas, all the human translators and all the computational linguists are in the same leaky boat, but the machinists are bailing out the water while the humans embroider monograms on the sails.

Nothing wrong with Google Translate, of course. But let’s hope that translating literature is left in the hands of people who, well, like literature and acknowledge the importance of linguistic subtlety. You wouldn’t hire a Ph.D in comparative lit to beta-test your server network, now would you?

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