The Weight of the World: Translating Nobel Prize Laureate Amartya Sen

weight of the world

This year, I translated five Nobel Prize Laureates, one of whom was none-other than economist and philosopher Amartya Sen. This was one of the greatest honors of my entire 13 year career in translation. The International Bar Association (IBA), via Professor Martin Bohmer, JSD, entrusted me with the Spanish translation of “Poverty, Justice and the Rule of Law,” which is coming out this month. The book was commissioned by the IBA in the framework of the Presidential Taskforce on the Global Economic Crisis. The book’s mission was to find new ideas and perspectives on how the contemporary legal profession can contribute to eradicating poverty and strengthening the rule of law. These five Nobel Prize Laureates as well as international experts each contributed a chapter to this influential book and I did my best to render an accurate, faithful and idiomatic translation of their thoughts. Although I am happy with the outcome (and thankfully so was my client!), I must confess that throughout the project I sometimes felt I was carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders. It was a great a challenge, and I hope that by sharing this experience, I can help those who are thinking of embarking in the translation of jurisprudence or legal philosophy to know what to expect.

Philosophical Complexity

It is no surprise that even when a certain publication is not fully philosophical, as was the case with this IBA book, reference will implicit or explicitly be made to theory of justice, ethics, or other areas of jurisprudence and philosophy in general. In this case, translating Amartya Sen required considerable background knowledge of Rawl’s theory of justice, which in turn, also required considerable background knowledge of Kant’s theory of right, and so on.

Technical Complexity

From a technical point of view, the book in general also required background knowledge on macroecnomics. However, Sen’s chapter in particular involved a great deal of care into accurate and consistent interpretations of the concepts of justice, on the one hand, and fairness, on the other, as well as adequate understanding and rendition of transcendental versus comparative notions of justice.

Linguistic Complexity

In addition to being able to follow Sen’s logical arguments and how they related to Rawlsian theory, there was the additional component of capturing the concepts of niti and nyaya, classical Sanskrit terms that have long been used by legal theorists in Ancient India, and which Sen brought back to life in his theory of global justice.

The Author

Nothing puts more pressure on a linguist than translating for someone who you admire on a personal level, but when you realize that that person is one of the most cited authors in the world and that your translation will be cited by others who want to cite the author in the target language… well, let’s just say that you get all sorts of butterflies in your stomach!

All in all, this was an amazing experience. One I will never forget; and will probably brag about to my children someday! But bragging rights aside, I can’t think of anything more rewarding in translation than working on a project of this caliber, and I can only hope my translation was up to the challenge.

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