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Monthly Archives: September 2011

What is “Accurate Translation?”

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: September 13, 2011

Ask readers of the Bible and many will say that they are looking for an accurate translation. Ask many clients and they will tell you that they want to buy an accurate translation. Look at the results of surveys into what people want from interpreters and “accuracy” of one kind or another always tops the list.

But that is precisely the point. There is more than one kind of accuracy. To explain what I mean, I will be borrowing heavily from the work of J. L. Austin in his book “How to do things with words,” a book I highly recommend for those who are interested in how communication might actually work.

If we follow Austin then there are different kinds or levels of accuracy. I would like to illustrate this with a simple situation.

It’s around midnight and a moody teenager arrives loudly back into their parents’ house. They were told to be back home before ten. In the hallway stands their mum (or dad) and in their best, patient-now-but-don’t-test-me voice, the mum (or dad) says:

What time do you call this?

There are three things going on here. Firstly, there are the actual words said. The parent has spoken a question about the time. However, no sane teenager and no sane reader of those words would assume for a second that what the parent wants to hear is:

It’s almost midnight. Why do you ask?

The result of this answer would not be pretty for anyone involved! It would likely involve shouting, threats, banged doors and some kind of punishment. Obviously, seeing the parent’s question just as the words are and without context would be a misinterpretation.

So let’s go to the next level of what is going on. Obviously, in addition to their straightforward meaning, there was some kind of intention behind them. By sheer guess work (and experience!) I reckon that the idea behind these words was to point out that coming home late is not acceptable. So we could probably rephrase this sentence as:

Coming home at this time of night is not acceptable.

Or could we? I would doubt that any mum (or dad) would ever say these words just to explain the concept behind them to a teenager. Put another way, I doubt the idea was just to let the son (or daughter) know that midnight is not the same as ten pm. The next level then is the effect that the sentence had on the person who heard it. Perhaps the teenager apologised and decided to buy a more accurate watch. Perhaps they got in a huff and muttered something under their breath. Perhaps both of these happened at once.

Knowing that there are different levels of accuracy means that we can be much clearer about what we want from a translation. It is always impossible for translators to perfectly give you every single level of meaning so you need to choose your priorities.

Do you want the “words on the page” meaning that won’t give you the full story? Do you want the “force and intention” meaning that tries to produce the same kind of strength and tone of voice as the original at the cost of the words and their effect? Or do you want the translation to produce the same effect on the reader as the original did, at the cost of both the original wording and their original tone of voice?

It’s your choice.

Making Academia Accessible

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: September 6, 2011

Ask a hundred translators what would improve their work or make it easier and I am sure that very few would suggest that “better access to the latest translation research” might do the trick. Yet, there is a growing body of work that could do just that.

Work on the use of corpora (think translation memories and parallel texts) is improving our understanding on how translators can and do use existing texts to improve their work. Work on expertise is teaching us more on how translators and interpreters can improve their skills. Work on ethics is helping us to gradually look for routes through the minefield of translation and interpreting decisions. Work on client expectations is giving us new insight into what clients want and how that relates to the brief they give you and the job you take on. The list goes on.

On the other hand, it’s not as if those outside the ivory tower are failing to think carefully about their work either. Debates rage about the effects of globalisation, technology and marketing strategies on our work. Professional journals and magazines show that there is a growing interest in understanding our work above and beyond the level of typing a sentence into a TM and hitting enter.

As has been mentioned elsewhere, the problem doesn’t actually seem to be that there isn’t academic work out there that might be of interest to translators and interpreters but that it is not always accessible to them. How many of those who chip away at the wordface each day would ever consider subscribing to an academic journal? How many academics purposefully ensure that they present at least some of their work to practising professionals?

If the ivory tower is going to affect the wordface (and what good is research if noone ever uses it?) then perhaps some subtle shifts are needed. On a purely pragmatic level, the world of academia and the professional world need to learn to speak the same language. Outside of a few journals, noone calls their clients “commissioners.” Similarly, I have yet to read an academic paper on payment practices.

For academics, the challenge then is to “sell” their work to the profession in a way that aligns nicely with professionals’ everyday concerns. For freelancers and agencies, there is the arguably tougher challenge of making some kind of headway into existing research to ensure that all their hard work isn’t simply a reinvention of the wheel. Believe it or not, many of the issues the freelancers face, from status to ethics to CPD, have already been the subject of academic enquiry. It will surely pay to find out what has been achieved so far.

There are, of course, a growing number of academics who continue to translate and interpret – a position which leaves them ideally placed to build bridges between the two worlds. With one foot in either camp, these “practisearchers” (to borrow a term from Daniel Gile) can and do serve as mediators, or even interpreters. They instinctively know both “languages” and understand the concerns of both worlds.

Perhaps then the ivory tower isn’t a tower at all. Research isn’t and needn’t be entirely separate from the cut and thrust of professional life. Now, if only everyone understood that…

The Solution to Price Pressure

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: September 2, 2011

It doesn’t take a long time around translators for the conversation to move to pricing. Just about everyone is conscious, or even worried, about what they see as the continual pressure to reduce their rates and accept poor conditions. According to some, this has only been exacerbated by the growth in popularity of translation portals that allow the assignment of work to become a bidding war, with the spoils going to the lowest bid.

While it can be enjoyable to complain and blame it doesn’t really do anything constructive. We can grump all we like about reverse bidding, we can protest and write and even sing if we like, but those sites will not go away; neither will those who use them.

So what is the solution? For me it is incredibly simple: just say “no.” If a client asks you to work for less than you are comfortable with, say “no.” If a project proposal seems to lean towards getting the most work for the least money, say “no.”

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I realise that the rates issue is not really about online portals at all. It’s actually all about the decisions translators make. We can complain about cheap providers and unrealistic clients all we like but if we choose not to work with them, it doesn’t really matter anyway. There is no way that we will ever prevent people offering and getting translators for ridiculous rates; what we can do is ensure that we don’t work for those rates.

For as long as translators will accept silly rates, there will be clients who will try to get them. On the other hand, there are still plenty of clients who realise that when you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. It is those clients we need to care about and it is that market that we need to be concentrating our attention on. After all, who is worth more to us, the client offering rock-bottom rates or those who actually care about the quality of the work they get?

Let the low payers find low chargers. Just make sure you are not one of them.