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Google, Chess, and the Art of Letting Go

By Elizabeth Heighway

I don’t play chess. I can name the pieces, I can just about remember how they move, but that’s about it. And yet here I am translating Shota Iatashvili’s My Story of Chess. Does it matter?  Not knowing much about chess certainly doesn’t affect my enjoyment of the story; like any reader I can enjoy a text without understanding every reference, and this because each reference is only one element supported by contextual clues from the rest of the text. And although I like to think of myself as an active reader, as long as I understand enough to follow the story I rarely stop to look things up.

But when it comes to translating a text it’s a different matter, because now those unfamiliar references are no longer benign little gaps in a text I am receiving but the very building blocks of a (translated) text I am producing. Until I understand the references I have no hope of translating them. And so I stop, and I look things up, and it’s one of things I enjoy most about being a translator.

So I come to this story with little knowledge of chess, and with my translator’s hat on I start to identify the elements that are going to need a bit of research. As with any text there are a number of straightforward fact-checks, such as how the proper names Suetin and Intskirveli are normally written in English. Then there are the references to concepts I am unfamiliar with, such as "Swiss rules" and "the Spanish game," where I am relatively confident the English term will be the same but which I’d like to double-check anyway. I also come across references which I think will require a little more unpicking, for example the “hole-filled chess boards” of the blind chess players. Not fully understanding why their boards would have holes in them, I hesitate about the best way to translate this. And then there are those words and sentences I understand perfectly well in Georgian and which I could translate easily enough into English, but where I suspect a particular expression is used in this context. For example, the girl who keeps adjusting the pieces says "vastsoreb, vastsoreb" as she does so. This translates literally as "I’m straightening it," and I consider using "I’m just lining it up." But the author mentions an established chess rule according to which players say something as they move the piece, and this makes me think there’s a particular phrase I need to be looking for.

But that’s all fine because it’s 2012 and I’ve got Google, and Google’s got everything.

Google’s got everything. And there’s a double-edged sword if ever there was one. Because once you’ve done the simple fact-checks and looked up the Spanish game and checked what chess players say when they adjust a piece, you start thinking that maybe you should just check whether chess players really do talk about "returning a move" and "conceding defeat" (Does that sound "chessy" enough?), whether the convention when writing about chess is to capitalize the names of the pieces, or even whether the squares on the chess board have a center or a middle… Because you want it to be right, and Google’s got everything, and if you wanted to you could check everything, and if you’re not careful you just might.

What on earth did translators do before Google, I wonder?

But back to my translation: for reasons I won’t bore you with I’m translating this story on holiday. I’m at the seaside. I’m in a village. It’s lovely and quiet. Armed with my list of queries I try to get online. Ah. The lovely quiet seaside village is not well equipped with Internet access points. I try a few local places that claim to offer Wi-Fi access—the bench outside the bakery, the village pub, the campsite café—but no, it’s not working. What on earth am I going to do?

Well, I’m going to radically shorten my list of queries for a start. I have no hope of being able to check everything. All those minor queries evaporate—poof!—along with my Wi-Fi hopes. So I prioritize a few more vital queries… and then I start asking around. I phone a chess-playing relative. I chat to a couple of elderly gents in the pub. And I find out that players say "J’adoube" when they touch a piece, and that Swiss-system tournaments use points rather than elimination to decide a winner. I find out that blind chess players fix their pieces into holes drilled in the center of each square so that the pieces don’t fall over when the players feel the board. I find out that conceding players "tip their King" rather than knock it over. And I find out that "letting go" of the possibility of checking absolutely everything is actually rather liberating.  

When I get back to civilization—after I have submitted the translation—I do check a couple of things. Old habits die hard. I’m relieved to see that I haven’t made any huge errors of judgment with the things I couldn’t check before. It makes me think I should trust my own judgment and experience a bit more, and check a bit less.  I certainly won’t be giving up Google any time soon, but this story has definitely made me change the way I use it.

Published Sep 28, 2012   Copyright 2012 Elizabeth Heighway

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