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But no matter how many fields we master as translators, awaiting us at that same cocktail party will be the eternal question that has been asked of translators since the Tower of Babel: It’s a question that suggests an innocent, almost whimsical notion of translation as a low-stress career of light reflection, picked up effortlessly while flipping through phrase books and sipping sweet tea in the afternoon shade. In my case, for example, I’d arrive at such parties after having worked out certain issues in my translation work such as the principles underlying optical excitation of Rayleigh waves by interband light absorption or coherent acoustic resistance to an electron-hole plasma or approaches to calculating the electronic structure of alloys.
So my response to this friendly question of “how many languages do you speak?
” would be a bit playful and would always be delivered with a smile: It’s not the fault of our polite party-goer asking the “how many languages” question, since it’s just an attempt to strike up a friendly conversation.
A more problematic case are translations that describe a world that doesn’t, can’t or will never exist.
One is the word “” in Russian, which means a physical telephone line such as a hard-wired copper landline.
Unfortunately, the exact same Russian word also means a radio link to a remote terminal, satellite or cell tower, which is what cellphones use.
Buried deep in the bedrock of every profession are certain truths that are universally understood and accepted by modern practitioners.
In medicine, for example, those include a recognition that the human body exists in a physical universe subject to the laws of science and not to a fictitious universe of mysterious spirits accessible to the chosen, pre-ordained few, a concept that had dominated human medicine for millennia.