Studying grammar to uncover translation problemsToo often students of translation (this is especially true of self-taught translators) concentrate on words alone: students learn word meanings as if they were labels, unconsciously trying to match them to the words in their native language. Grammar, frequently, is neglected: the student thinks of it as something he had to learn while learning a language, perhaps, but that now he already knows (or so he assumes).
Studying grammar, however, is important throughout the study of translation, and even beyond, when the translator is already a working professional.
One exercise I think is important and interesting is to study the examples given in grammar books and see how they should be translated to convey their meaning best. Usually there will be several correct solutions, although often none perfectly so.
Take a book on the English verb, or the section of a grammar book devoted to verbs. My first example is taken from Meaning and the English Verb, a slim textbook by Geoffrey Leech I had for a course in text linguistics I followed at the University of Genoa.
The way you can do the exercise is this: you read a statement about the use of a verbal tense...
8. The simple present is suitable for employment in the expression of 'eternal truths' [...] "The Atlantic Ocean separates the New World from the Old."Simple enough, apparently. In Italian also we can use the present tense: "L'Oceano Atlantico separa il Vecchio Mondo dal Nuovo". But here already we can think of other ways such a sentence could be written in Italian. Perhaps we can use of the passive voice: "Il Vecchio e il Nuovo Mondo sono separati dall'Oceano Atlantico". Too heavy? Maybe "Il Nuovo Mondo è separato dal Vecchio dall'Oceano Atlantico". This also seems worse than our first try.
Back to the simple present, at least for now. Let's go to the next example, and see how it can be translated best.
This is from Rafael Seco's Manual de gramática española:
El presente expresa una acción no terminada que se ejecuta en el momento de la palabra. Entiéndase bien que el presente no debe estimarse como un instante fugaz, sino como un plazo de tiempo más o menos largo, en el cual está comprendido el momento en que se habla. Así puede decirse en presente: "Pedro estudia para abogado". No es que Pedro, en el preciso instante en que se habla, esté trabajando en sus estudios, sino que este trabajo lo viene realizando durante cierto período de tiempo dentro del cual está comprendido el instante en que se enuncia el verbo.How best do we translate this simple sentence in English? Does the simple present work here, or is the present continuous better? If so, why, or why not?
I think you can see how doing often such an exercise may be invaluable for really learning how best to express a language's nuances in a different language.