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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…

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.

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!

Translations are Meant to Work: the World of Skopos Theory

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: July 27, 2010

For years, academics and professionals alike have been mulling over a single, simple question. What makes a good translation? And, while no-one has managed to formulate an answer that everyone will accept, a few German theorists have come up with a definition that will make a lot of sense to professionals. It goes like this:

A translation should function in the situation in which it is used and with the people who want to use it and precisely the way they want it to function.

(Christiane Nord, Translation as a Purposeful Activity [1997] 2007: 29, translating Vermeer)

If we strip out the academese from that, we could rewrite it in these simple terms: translations are meant to work. Simple isn’t it? In the world of commercial translation, noone ever translates for the sake of it. We translate because someone out there has decided that they want a document in a certain language for a certain purpose. If we want them to hire us again, we’d better make sure that our work fulfils the purpose they had for it in the first place.

Now, that might be painfully obvious for some professionals but it is still a useful thought. When we find ourselves agonising between two or three options for a word or phrase, knowing that someone will expect the document to be able to DO something might help us make the right decision. A dictionary might give us ideas as to our options and WHEN each is used but only the purpose of the document can tell you which will work HERE.

Similarly, how easy is it, when using our favourite CAT tools, to get distracted by fuzzy matches, segmentation and glossary suggestions? Before we know it, we can easily lose sight of the fact that the project we are working on is much more than a bunch of neatly segmented sentences. At some point, someone is going to need to USE this document to help them do something they couldn’t do without it. If we take a step back and look at our work from that angle, we will find ourselves in a much better position to assess the quality of our work and the results of our decisions.

Lastly, knowing that translations are done for a purpose can help us explain our decisions to clients. Rather than just throwing out some old chestnut like “that’s how we say that in English” we can explain that our solution is more likely to get them the result they want. Speaking in their terms and showing a real interest in creating a successful product, we are far more likely to make and keep solid relationships with the people who are kind enough to pay our fees.

So there you have it, translations are meant to work. If we remember that then we are likely to find ourselves in a position where we have more translations to work on.