One of the most interesting things I'm doing right now is translating letters from Russian into English for one of my evening students.
Pause for a second and think about that. What are some of the reasons a Russian woman who's taking free evening English classes might need letters translated into English?
If you guessed, "because she's a mail-order bride," you would be correct! Or rather, she's going to be a mail-order bride, if it all works out.
So in addition to my duties as an English teacher, I'm now serving as the one tenuous link between two souls forced apart by a language barrier (and a cultural barrier, and several thousand miles), since she doesn't speak English and he doesn't speak Russian. Yes, there's already a 'he,' one 'he,' in this situation. Apparently they've been communicating for some time through the mail-order bride agency, which presumably offers translation services, but she recently had a falling out with this agency, by which I mean she got tired of having to pay a lot of bribes. That's where I enter the scene. From what I've gleaned from the letters, they're now at the stage of planning to actually meet.
Needless to say, this is an interesting vantage point. Translating people's personal letters is, quite frankly, kind of awkward work. On the one hand, I have plenty of cultural bias against mail-order brides (or rather, against the guys who order them), like most of you probably do, which makes me constantly question the character and/or intentions of this guy "I'm" writing to – is he a sleaze-ball? A misogynist? A psycho? Abusive, alcoholic, egomaniacal? On the other hand, I know enough about the subject (we watched a touching-but-sad documentary about a couple in upstate New York in third-year Russian) that I can imagine this man as simply lonely and awkward, or interested in Russian culture, or really hoping for a chance at true love, or just a regular guy in hundreds of other ways. Besides, it's hard not to root for the love you're helping to foster.
So, wanting this to work out (at least half the time), I want Valeria's letters to be successful. Therein lies the problem of the translator, or at least this translator: do I stick to the task and go word-for-word, or do I embellish where I think more explanation is needed, leave out the parts I think might be off-putting – in short, make it more like the kind of love letter I would write?
Obviously, omitting large chunks or adding my own thoughts isn't fair to Valeria, who has no clue what I'm writing, or to the man, who presumably takes my letters to be accurate representations of what Valeria wrote. And it's not like I'm a certified expert in affaires du coeur anyway. But where does one draw the line between translating what's actually on the page and translating what one perceives to be the spirit of the letter? I've already decided to stay out of the romantic parts – if Valeria wants to sign her letter "hugs and kisses," it's certainly not up to me to decide whether Mark'll go for that or not, even though it's much less smarmy-sounding in Russian than in English – but it becomes an especially sticky problem when there are bigger cultural differences involved. Is it my prerogative to explain situations that Valeria writes about familiarly, if I can guess that Mark won't be familiar with them?
More specifically, can I vouch for Valeria's character, for the difficulties she claims she's having with her passport and visa, for the bribes she says she had to pay the agency - which could easily sound like whining or scheming to someone unfamiliar with Russia? Am I the referee here? Or is a translator just a vessel for transmitting ideas from one code into another? I haven't quite figured that out yet.
(I'll keep you updated in non-privacy violating ways if anything happens. And of course, their names have been changed.)