Translating the Spirit of Christmas

The twinkling lights strung along Oriental Plaza in downtown Beijing is a sign that Christmas is alive and well in China. Local teenagers can be seen wandering through the shopping malls wearing furry reindeer antlers or sporting red and white Santa hats. Christmas has become both a commercial and a fun fashion statement in China. However, in many troubled spots around the world, any hope of a joyful Christmas is somewhat remote. Like last year, there will be few Christmas lights or decorations in the shopping district of the Christian quarter in Damascus, where a bloody civil war continues to rage. Conflicts are often across cultural or ethnic lines – but the spirit of Christmas encourages to extend our goodwill to all people, irrespective of race or creed. While many of us will take a well-deserved break over the coming festive period, legions of translators around the world will still be working to bridge the linguistic and cultural divides that separate us from our global neighbours. In the true spirit of Christmas, translators have an obligation to take a strictly non-partisan attitude when conveying messages across different linguistic and cultural traditions. Christian or Jew, Muslim or Hindu, monarchist or republican, translators of all creeds and political views are expected to relay the intent of the original message irrespective of their own personal views. A deep knowledge and a sympathetic understanding of both cultures and languages is an essential part of the translator’s basic toolkit and requires a sense of goodwill. Accurately and impartially conveying pronouncements from the Al- Assad regime for a Jewish audience, or the Chinese position on global warming for Western ears is not only a feat of skill, but can be a test of the translator’s character. Santa Claus has come to personify the very spirit of goodwill. The roots of the story lie in 4th century Turkey where tradition has it that St Nicholas made gifts of money to the poor. Today, in Istanbul’s Nisantasi shopping district, fashionable boutiques are adorned with sparkling Christmas decorations and passersby in the large department stores are served with mulled wine. One might even spot the occasional costumed Santa Claus mingling with the shoppers. However, in a country with a 98% Muslim population, Christmas day is a regular shopping day like any other. Like any other work day in Turkey, scores of translators will be at work over Christmas. Servicing the needs of the mass media alone requires a huge effort – the major news sources are not only in English but in the languages of Turkey’s neighbours – Arabic, Hebrew and Russian – and translation into Turkish of breaking news is required on a daily, or even an hourly, basis. Over Christmas and New Year another band of translators will be busy on a variety of humanitarian projects in many of the world’s trouble spots. Ever since the devastating Haiti earthquake in 2010, Translators Without Borders (TWB) has been stepping up its efforts to provide multilingual communications for global aid agencies and NGOs who provide disaster relief and healthcare, or who sponsor critical education initiatives. Over Christmas this year, TWB will be providing translation work to international NGOs in an effort to combat the current cholera outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The spirit of Christmas encourages compassion for all mankind, for all our global neighbours. The work of translators, often hidden in the background, embodies this spirit by keeping communications open between culturally and linguistically disparate global communities. Let us not forget that the very spirit of Christmas has come to us via a story, itself translated into our own vernacular by the forefathers of our modern profession.

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