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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…

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.

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.

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.