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Make it Work

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: April 14, 2017

Recently, one of my very first clients came back to me after a break of several years. The work was as tricky and as interesting as ever but now I had a lot more confidence in my own abilities.

 

With one translation – a CV – I asked permission to omit sections that would be legally uncomfortable for both the end client and anyone reading the CV. They were also entirely unnecessary and irrelevant for the job. What did my client say?

 

“Of course, please take out the unnecessary parts to make it work.”

 

Make it work. That’s what our clients really need us to do. Making it work means being more than a walking or typing dictionary. It means knowing more than where to find the French for “spinneret” or the Spanish for “left-handed wedge sprocket”. It means caring about and knowing about the end result. It means understanding the processes that the document or meeting will be part of and making sure that your document of meeting will work for that purpose.

 

This is why accuracy matters – because without the right kind of accuracy, nothing will work.

 

This is why partnership and transparency is a much more useful set of concepts than “neutrality” or even “impartiality”. Interpreters and translators are always intimately linked with the work they produce. Our skills and personality and expertise shine through and we absolutely should care deeply that what we produce works for everyone involved. We are never truly neutral. We are always involved.

 

Make it work. It’s not a theory or a philosophy; it’s the basic standard of all real professional translation and interpreting.

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?

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.

What Good is Translation Theory Anyway?

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: July 24, 2010

That’s a good question and it is one I will attempt to answer in this blog.

This blog will examine how knowledge of some translation theory, plus a little effort and some spare time to think, can help make us better translators and interpreters. But first, some background.

For almost as long as people have been doing translation, people have been talking about translation. In his book, Exploring Translation Theories, Anthony Pym suggests that what has really been happening is something like this:

A translator is busy working at their desk when they come across a problem.

“Oh no,” they say. “How am I going to solve this?”

After a bit of work, some head-scratching and a coffee (or tea) they crack it.

Now, if they are smart, they will not only write down their solution but they might take a note of where and how they found it.

A little later, when they come across a similar problem, they now have at least the beginnings of a solution because they have seen a problem like that before.

After a bit more time, maybe in a later translation, they might find that the process they used to find the solution (and maybe even the solution itself) can be used elsewhere. If they are a nice translator, they might even tell other translators about what they did and, before you know it, you have the start of a theory they reads a bit like this:

Doing x is a good way to solve problem y.

Of course, it can get a lot more complicated and there are more people involved in this translation thing than just us translators but you get the picture. If you see theory as something that originally arose from translation practice, you can well imagine that there might be something in it for the people who are doing the translating.

As we will see later, things have got a lot more complicated than that nowadays but the fact remains that the vast majority of translation theory needs to have some grounding in actual translation. It is because of this that we can find gems scattered throughout theory that can actually help us. We just need to know where to hunt and how to polish them up. With that in mind, next week, we will look at one theory that claims to be much more connected to real-life than much of the work you might expect from academia.