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Hold That Thought! The Thoughtful Translator Part III

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: May 19, 2011

If you have been reading this blog over the past two weeks, you will know that I have been going on about the importance of learning from our work by thinking about it. The question I haven’t yet answered is how. The answer is simple: to make sure our thinking leads to learning we need to write it down when we apply it.

Most translators will be somewhat familiar with writing down what they have learned. Many of us keep glossaries, long lists of words, phrases and their set translations, based on hours of research for previous jobs. CAT and TM tools can help us reuse our previous work in a slightly different way by spotting where phrases or parts of them have come up before meaning that, in theory anyway, we should never translate the same thing twice.

How many people actually think about how and where they found this information in the first place? For instance, say you found a great way of translating the French concept “Master 2.” You could then add it to your glossary and use it in a translation. However, what if, a few weeks later, you were looking for a translation of “DESS”? If you hadn’t bothered to note down how you discovered the translation of “Master 2” you could find yourself having to run through the whole search process again, only to find that the translations of both terms were on the exact same page.

This could get even more frustrating. If one day you are translating a manual and manage to find a manual for an earlier version of the same piece of equipment, you will find your life a whole lot easier. If you don’t write down where you found it and/or you don’t save your translation, you might find yourself having to repeat the process all over again. This is obviously not the best use of your time.

Simply put, the more we can remember about how we did things, how we found information and why we did things that way, the more time we save in the future. An unexpected benefit might also be that we will be able to look back on our previous thoughts and approaches and learn how to speed up the work.

Aside from adding notes into glossaries, keeping copies of your translations and adding sites to your bookmarks or favourites, it might also be useful to keep a diary. Even something as simple as “Today I found resource X by searching for Y in search engine Z” could be enough to start us off. As we move on, we might want to record things like “Client ABC really seems to like it when I do D but wants me to revise the style of section E.” A few entries like this and we will not only spot patterns of preferences for each client but we might, just might, begin to learn our own strengths and weaknesses.

Once we know our own strengths and weaknesses, we are already half way there. Organisations like ITI offer lots of targeted training for translators and we will spend our money much more wisely if we know exactly what training we need and when. Add this in to the idea of the personal development plan I suggested hereand you have two excellent tools. Go on, try them, and send me a comment with your results!

The Thoughtful Translator, Part II

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: May 12, 2011

Last week, I posted a bit about my journey as a thoughtful translator. Much of the same happened to my interpreting work. This week, I want to look at another aspect of this idea, one that most professional translators may not be aware of.

According to some Iranian researchers, it turns out that all that translation theory stuff might be more useful than we think. In an ongoing project, one translation teacher is experimenting with the effect of different translation theories on students’ translation quality. She teaches one group one set of translation theories called ‘functional theories’ (basically the ones covered in this blog) and another group a different set, called ‘cultural theories’. So far, it seems that the group taught the ‘functional theories’ are producing work that is of better quality than the group taught the ‘cultural theories.’

The difference isn’t enough yet for any final conclusions to be drawn but there is enough evidence for us to start thinking through the basic idea. What if it doesn’t just make a difference that you think about translation but also how you think about it?

Let’s take a rather silly analogy. Imagine three people painting a fence. One of them doesn’t think about his technique and just splatters paint everywhere. ‘I don’t care how I do it, I just want it done’ he says. So, on goes the paint and the fence gets done. So does half the garden and his dog and three quarters of the washing that is hanging up and his wife, who was all dressed up for a party.

The second guy decides that he will think about paint. So, he gets a book from the library about paint, reads up on the contents, learns inorganic chemistry so he understands the reactions going on as it dries and, after five years at Oxford, paints his fence with organic, chemically stable hand mixed pigment and a sable brush. It has taken him the best part of a decade, cost him a six figure sum but the fence, she is complete.

The third guy decides he wants to take a different approach. He wants to think about painting rather than paint. So, he finds a skilled painter and gets lessons in how to paint. He finds out how to get the best equipment and looks into the best way to paint the specific kind of wood his fence is made of. Armed with that knowledge, he sets to work and paints the fence.

Which one would you say had the best approach to painting his fence? What does this mean for you? Which approach do you think that you will tend towards?

Applying this idea to translation and interpreting is fairly simple. We simply need to spend time thinking about what we are translating, how we will translate it and the best way to improve our practical skills. How we might manage that, is the subject of next week’s post.

The Thoughtful Translator Part I

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: May 5, 2011

How do you become a better translator? Is practice enough in itself? If it is, why is it that some translators with ten years of practice are still at the same level as some new university graduates? Is it all down to talent? In this three part series, I intend to look at one way that experience can be turned into improvement. And it all starts with a single question.

Yesterday, I was asked to take part in a survey of people’s views on the Nida School, a translation and interpreting summer school, which took place last summer. One of the questions asked whether the summer school had improved my skills. For most people, the answer would have been an obvious “no.” There were no translation workshops, no interpreting teaching and no displays of new translation tools. The vast majority of presentations were on translation theory rather than individual translations. Nevertheless, I answered with a strong “yes.” How on earth could ten days of semiotics, cognitive science, literary studies and Bible translation theory have altered my translation practice?

My answer is simple: those ten days allowed me to become more thoughtful and this thoughtfulness has impacted my work. The idea goes like this: the more I am able to think about my own work, the more I am able to see new approaches to translation problems. The more I am able to think about translation problems, the more patterns I can see and the more I can find even better approaches to solving them. The more effective I get at solving problems, the better I work.

Here is a very simple example. At the Nida School, there was a lot of discussion about what translators are actually doing when they translate. Are translators simply handling the words on the page or are they thinking about how the document will be used? Do they only care about what their clients will say or are they thinking about how their translation fits into society as a representative of a certain kind of text and even a symbol of a certain ideology?

Everyone will have different answers to those questions. For me the main point was to be able to reflect on a) why I translate b) the purpose of translating this particular document I am working on and c) the standards expected of this work. Starting from this angle, I can see my work in a wider perspective, which helps me to move away from simply seeing it as a collection of French words that have to be turned into a collection of English words by 3pm Wednesday morning.

Once I am thinking about the purpose of this translation, I can start to think about what type of text it is, what people expect of that type of text in the UK, the kinds of translations, styles and documents the client has already used and who is going to read this thing. Some of this I have already covered in other posts but here my emphasis is on how I arrived at this point.

What is even more exciting is that being able to translate thoughtfully puts me in a strong position to find solutions to problems than I haven’t even discovered yet. If I get into the habit of actually thinking about my work, then the chances are that I can see problems before my clients do, avoiding embarrassing mistakes and keeping quality high. So, the question remains: how much thought are you putting into your work?

Starting Out pt. 4

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: November 25, 2010

How Are You Improving?

I am not one for regrets but one of the things I wish I had known looking back over the early days of my translation career is the importance of intentionally improving myself. What do I mean?

Well, my first job was a translation of a commercial lease, I took two days longer than I would for the same length of job today but it went well. The client paid on time and I was happy. The next job was another legal document and I did it, got paid and went on with life. After I finished each job, I would dutifully send it off to the client, create my invoice and never think about it again.

Not once did it enter my mind that it might be useful to spend a few seconds on reflecting on what I learned. Even later on, when I had my first unhappy client, I tended to blame the client for being unreasonable rather than thinking about what I might have done to cause the problem. Worst of all, aside from learning the hard way that translating tired is not a good idea, it was some time before I really learned anything concrete that I could apply to future work.

Funnily enough, a great way of learning was under my nose all that time. Since I left uni, I had maintained a casual interest in translation and interpreting research, especially work in conference interpreting. However, in my efforts to get the best out of my time, I deliberately choose to severely limit how long I spent reading articles and found other things to do instead.

That was not a good idea. While I sooned gained the revelation that it was a good idea to nurture this interest rather than starving it, the big turning point was when I attended the Nida School this summer. Not every presentation was on the more practical aspects of interpreting and translation but they did all open me up to a greater appreciation of seeing the documents I worked on as complicated, intentional texts that someone was going to use once I was finished with them!

Suddenly, I became a lot more thoughtful and careful about how I translated. Rather than seeing each sentence as an independent unit, I began to think about what the author actually meant, how the text fitted together and how the eventual reader might understand it. Yes, I know that this sort of thing is covered by most good translation courses but the truth is that we can easily forget that someone is going to have to read what we type and listen to what we say.

For me, research and summer school gave me a vital opportunity to reflect on my own work and how I could improve it. Nowadays, much of my reflection ends up being done as part of my part-time PhD, in discussions with other professionals and service users or, you’ve guessed it, while writing blog articles. It actually doesn’t matter how I turn over these issues and reexamine what I do, what matters is that I make space and time to do it.

In our busy lives we can often forget that, as John Maxwell points out in Leadership Gold, experience isn’t the best teacher; evaluated experience is! Each of us will have a different way of evaluating our experience and learning from it. For some, it could come in the useful discipline of compiling, tagging and sorting terminology. For others, writing a diary entry on your work at the end of each week might be more useful. For still others, you might find that you learn best in discussion with others or in some form of writing.

For brand new translators and interpreters, the idea of intentionally learning might seem a bit strange. After all, how much can you learn before you start getting regular work? And what good was your degree if you still need to learn? Trust me, if you take the time, even a few minutes a month, to find a way of intentionally recording your experiences and what you have learned from them, it won’t be long until you see a difference.

Do Translators and Interpreters need theory? Guest Post

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 31, 2010

Note: It gives me great pleasure to publish this article by Dr Martin Djovcos of Matej Bel University in Banská Bystrica, Slovakia. I first met Martin at the Nida School this year in Murcia, Spain. His research in the way interpreters process speech is a rare instance of excellent academic work that will have real practical application. In this article, he tackles the tough question of the relationship between interpreting and translation theory and the every day world of professional practice.

Do we need theory for translation and interpreting?

We don´t. Not in case that you approach translation as replacement of words and if you believe that all you need to know in order to translate is to have knowledge of two languages. It is as if you declared that surgeons don´t need medical training. It is enough to know how to hold the lancet and if your hands don´t shake, you can go for it. Who cares whether in the end of your wrist surgery the patient is not able to use his/her whole hand (he/she can still use the second one and the function to remove the pain was fulfilled) and whether he/she experiences a few heart attacks during the operation. It is the same with translation. However, I believe that our goal is to do more than just ensure that the function of the text is preserved at any expense. Unfortunately, this has often been the case. I find it very interesting that while barely anyone would dare to start surgery without appropriate training, many people do translate with zero knowledge of translation theory. Au-pairs, lawyers, engineers, economists, journalists, physics…

On the other hand, I don’t find it surprising that practicing professional translators are frequently annoyed with the theory arguing that it offers no solid clues for their work. I do agree that recently a number of studies has been published which were more philosophical than practical. Well, there is nothing weird about it; academics need to publish in order to gain higher university degrees and increase their salary. I don’t think that this is wrong, either. In my opinion, the theory of translation and interpreting can be viewed from two points of view:

1. Philosophical theory or theory for intellectual pleasure
2. Pragmatic theory or how to translate in practice

Both of them are equally important. We need the first one in order to establish sound social status, something like an institution which can provide our work with philosophical shelter and basis, something which would give us the feeling that we are different than others and that provides us with the professional basis. The second one is useful for its explanatory power (as Daniel Gile would say). It is dealing with everyday translations, observing frequent mistakes and searching for methods how to actually make our work easier, better and more efficient.

However, instead of cooperation, these two branches argue among each other and thus discourage professional translators from following them. “Philosophy” of translation claims that the pragmatic branch is too prescriptive and that translation in general is a very ambiguous activity which in many cases can´t be performed while it doesn´t reflect cultural specifics etc… This may be true, but as one friend of mine told me at the Nida School this year, “still, in the end we all have to translate and handle these problems.”

A lot of professionals can save a lot of time by reading useful practical books on translation as, let’s say Daniel Gile´s book, Basic Concepts and Models for Interpreter and Translator Training or Newmark´s Textbook of Translation or Mona Baker´s In Other Words. Books like these help us avoid mistakes and make us understand the process; however, in many cases they omit its philosophical background.

Ridiculing theory means ridiculing ourselves and depriving us of the powerful tool of self-determination and regaining of sound social status. So, if I was to answer whether we need theory for our everyday work, I would surely answer – yes, we do!