Saturday, December 30, 2006

Inttranews

I recently stumbled on this site, called Inttranews. It has links to news on translation and interpreting from around the world, so it is a good resource.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Monolingual UK and Globish

As in the US, residents of the UK are not so good about learning other languages. Here are a couple of interesting articles I noticed recently about learning and using a variety of languages.

The first one, Monolingual Britain, looks at how British students have stopped studying languages as much as they used to, in part because of the sense of English as the world language, and the idea that everyone speaks English. Sound familiar to you Americans? The article also mentions Globish, a simplified version of English with a truncated vocabulary of only 1500 words, no humor, and no idioms. In other words, the goal of Globish is to be a pared-down languages that serves the simplest communication purposes. Some also believe it could save languages that might be threatened by English.

The second article, called Babelling On, discusses how many official languages the EU should have. Of course, to be completely fair, the EU should include all European languages (yes, even Welsh – and now that I live in Wales, I find it odd that Irish Celtic is included and Welsh is excluded, though there are more speakers of Welsh) and should subsidize translation to and from all the languages. In practice, this is not plausible and it is also very costly. So perhaps the EU should make sure that all major decisions are available in all languages but otherwise just stick to one language, which would likely be English. Or maybe the EU should switch to Globish. Many legal decisions are often difficult to read anyway, so Globish could be an improvement!

Saturday, December 23, 2006

How to Read as a Translator

The last two posts looked at reading and critiquing translations. Now we’ll look at reading and analyzing a text from the translator’s perspective.

Do translators read differently than others? Should they? If so, how? What should they be looking for as they read?

Well, translators who are reading something they are about to translate clearly do have different goals and needs than critics, academics, people who are reading for pleasure, or anyone else. In her book, Text Analysis in Translation, Christiane Nord offers a method for reading as a translator that will be helpful to students training to be translators and also for relatively new translators, but I personally find it too detailed and time-consuming for experienced translators, not to mention the fact that people with quite a bit of translation experience probably do much of what she suggests automatically.

Nord recommends a careful analysis of all extratextual and intratextual factors and she writes that doing this will “ensure full comprehension and correct interpretation of the text” and “explain its linguistic and textual structures and their relationship with the system and norms of the source language (SL). It should also provide a reliable foundation for each and every decision which the translator has to make in a particular translation process.”

Examples of extratextual features are the sender (not always or necessarily the same as the producer of the text), the intended audience, the medium, and the reason behind the production and translation of the text (what Nord terms “motive for communication”). Intratextual features include things such as the subject matter, non-verbal elements, and sentence structure.

After an explanation of what these extratextual and intratextual factors are and how they combine and relate in a text, Nord offers lists of questions for translators to consider in regard to these factors. Among many others, there are questions such as “What clues to the ST addressee’s expectations, background knowledge etc. can be inferred from other situational factors (medium, place, time, motive, and function)?” and “Is the subject matter bound to a particular (SL, TL, or other) cultural context?” and ”Which sentence types occur in the text?” and “What model of reality does the information refer to?”

Nord seems to suggest that by answering all these questions as they read a given text, translators can ensure that they have a firm grasp on all essential details related to the text, which in turn helps them make and defend translatorial decisions, and she writes that her system can be used with any kind of document, in any language, at any level. I am not convinced that her method covers absolutely everything, nor that all the questions offered in her text really need to be answered about each document a translator works on, but it is a good start, especially for new translators. As already mentioned, though, Nord’s method of reading and textual analysis does require a lot of time and effort, and that is just not plausible, or even necessary, for experienced, professional translators.

Does anyone use Nord’s system? What other ways of reading and analyzing do translators have?

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

How to Read a Translation

The last post looked at critiquing translations. But let’s take a step back and think about simply reading translations, without any intention of critiquing or reviewing them. How should we do that?

Look at this article by translator and academic Lawrence Venuti; appropriately enough, it begins with a translation of The Aeneid, the very work that spurred the writing of the last post.

Mr. Venuti, as is well known and has been mentioned on this blog before, is a critic of fluency, and he writes “[p]ublishers, copy editors, reviewers have trained us, in effect, to value translations with the utmost fluency, an easy readability that makes them appear untranslated, giving the illusory impression that we are reading the original. We typically become aware of the translation only when we run across a bump on its surface, an unfamiliar word, an error in usage, a confused meaning that may seem unintentionally comical.”

Mr. Venuti believes readers should understand what translation is and what a translator does “as an attempt to compensate for an irreparable loss by controlling an exorbitant gain.” His essay offers five rules for reading a translation that aim to make readers aware of the very fact of the translation, and, through this, come closer to the original text while also learning about translation.

His first rule is: “Don’t just read for meaning, but for language too; appreciate the formal features of the translation.” Since translators carefully choose each word, Mr. Venuti suggests that paying attention to linguistic features brings the reader closer not only to the original text, but also to an understanding of the translatorial choices.

But what linguistic features are there in a text? Well, the second rule is: “Don’t expect translations to be written only in the current standard dialect; be open to linguistic variations.” Translators might use temporal or geographical dialect/slang, or foreign words, or other features that somehow deviate from the norm, and this might surprise or confuse readers who expect a smooth, fluent text.

That relates to Mr. Venuti’s third rule: “Don’t overlook connotations and cultural references; read them as another, pertinent layer of significance.” Along with the linguistic choices, cultural references may also be part of the translator’s strategy, and can help the reader come closer to the original text, even if they affect “easy readability.”

His fourth rule is: “Don’t skip an introductory essay written by a translator; read it first, as a statement of the interpretation that guides the translation and contributes to what is unique about it.” Introductions, afterwords, footnotes – any paratext that a translator adds to a document is useful to the reader, because it helps explain the translator’s thoughts, processes, and choices.

And the fifth rule is: “Don’t take one translation as representative of an entire foreign literature; compare it to translations of other works from the same language.” Here, we could add that readers might even want to compare multiple translations of the same text, and various translations by the same translator. These are all useful ways of learning more about translation, as well as about other cultures and specific translators.

Mr. Venuti reminds us that translators do not just make copies of the original document in a different language. He writes, “[t]o provide this sort of experience, a translator would have to endow us with a lifelong immersion in the foreign language and literature.” And, of course, if we had that “lifelong immersion in the foreign language and literature,” we wouldn’t need translation anyway!

So as we read translations, we should keep Mr. Venuti’s rules in mind, and in general try to remember that we are reading translations rather than books that were written in that language. That will give us a better reading experience while also making translation and translators more visible.

The next post will look at reading from a translator’s perspective.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

How to Critique a Translation

Not long ago, I linked to an article about translator Robert Fagles. Today’s New York Times includes another article about his most recent translation, of The Aeneid. The article, by Mount Holyoke professor Brad Leithauser, mentions how many people have translated this work over the years, and then goes on to compare Mr. Fagles’ translation to that of Robert Fitzgerald.

Of course, it is always good to see translation highlighted and made more visible, but I do wonder about Mr. Leithauser’s methodology. Although he does mention metrical issues involved in translating Virgil’s work, he basically just compares short quotes from the two translations. He does not, unfortunately, include quotes from the original (which, obviously, would require back-translations). Perhaps he had strict space limitations for his article, but since the quality of a translation is not just about how it sounds in the target language, but also how it relates to the source text, I think a critique of a translation has to include a more in-depth analysis of the original document as well as of the finished product.

After all, what does it mean to critique a translation? It doesn’t mean just reading the end product and deciding if it “flows” well in the target language. A translation has to have some sort of connection to the original text, and it is impossible to judge the success (for lack of a better work) of the translation without referring to the work it is a translation of. And yet, many reviews attempt to do just that. It is likely the case, especially in English-speaking countries, that most critics don’t know the language/s of the book/s they are reviewing, or at least not at the necessary level, but that is a failure of the educational system and ought to be rectified.

In an ideal world, reviewers, like translators, would have a firm grasp of the source language and culture, including general literary history and specifically in terms of the writer in question, as well as of the target language and culture. Otherwise, they are, frankly, not capable of truly critiquing the translation, and are just reviewing the book as though it had been written in the target language.Just as reviewers are supposed to make public any ethical considerations related to their reviews of specific books (for example, if they know the author, or the book was published by the same company that publishes their own work), I think they should also make it clear whether they know the source language and whether they actually have read and analyzed the work in the original.

The next post will look at reading a translation in general.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

If the Clothes Don't Fit...

We’ve looked at various metaphors for translation, and most recently that was the clothing metaphor.

Lawrence Venuti, one of the major critics of “invisible” translators (i.e. that “fluency” is not necessarily the major criteria we should judge in translations), also refers to translation as clothing.

He wrote: “The translator is no stand-in or ventriloquist for the foreign author, but a resourceful imitator who rewrites the original to appeal to another audience in a different language and culture, often in a different period. This audience ultimately takes priority, insuring that the verbal clothing the translator cuts for the foreign work never fits exactly.”

Clearly, his idea that the clothing doesn’t fit, relates to the idea of visibility. You generally don’t notice someone’s clothes if they are neat, clean, fashionable, and well-tailored. We can compare that to invisible translation; it serves a specific purpose and is unobtrusive. But you would notice clothes if the clothes are dirty, out of style, and ill-fitting. That is visible translation. You are aware of the lack of fit, even if it is just slightly off. You, as the reader of a translation that doesn’t fit exactly, probably feel a little uncomfortable, and your attention is drawn to the very fact of the translation.

What’s interesting is that Mr. Venuti suggests that it is the translator’s concern for the target audience that ensures that the clothes don’t fit and that the translation is visible, whereas others might argue that it is the translator’s faithfulness to the source text that does that.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Do Writers Make Good Translators?

In the last post, I looked at reasons why writers might be put off from translation (the belief that translation is not creative or stimulating, the idea that it is not a well paid job, and a simple lack of knowledge about how to begin), but I didn’t explore a somewhat controversial point made in one of the first paragraphs. I wrote: “Writers are the ideal people to work as translators because they generally already have excellent writing and language skills and an enthusiasm for words”, but is this in fact true?

Well, let’s compare the qualities the typical good translator needs to those the typical good writer has. To start with language ability, a translator must have native proficiency in the target language and near-native proficiency in the source language. A writer obviously ought to have exceptional language skills in the language she or he writes in, but that doesn’t mean that she or he knows a second language at the necessary level. However, being immersed in the world of words and having a deep understanding of language does suggest that one would be open to and capable of learning another tongue.

Next, a translator has to have excellent reading comprehension abilities, because she or he is, it can be argued, the closest reader a text will ever have. Many writers are also voracious and careful readers, or at least they should be because reading and analyzing works by others is beneficial to their own work. A translator can not translate well without thoroughly understanding what the text is about, who the audience is to be, what the author’s style is, what kind of vocabulary is used, what the source and target cultures and literatures are like, and so forth, and these are all issues that writers presumably have also considered.

Translators also need to be good writers. They are taking documents written in one language and basically rewriting them in another. Translation is not simply just choosing a word for word equivalent or copying out the text in a foreign language; it is finding a way in another language of expressing the same thoughts and feelings the author did in his or her language, so translators must be sensitive to what good writing is and how to put words together. Writers, it goes without saying, also care intensely about how to craft texts.

Finally, editing skills are essential in translation, because a translator has to be able to review his or her work, check it against the source document, and also make sure it reads well and makes sense in the target language. Writers, too, typically rework their rough drafts, improving them, seeing if they make sense and use words well, and so on.

In other words, translators must have good language skills, reading skills, writing skills, and editing skills – and as for writers, check, check, check, and check!

So, while certainly not all good translators are or would want to be writers, and not all writers are suited to be translators, I think it is safe to say that many writers potentially could make good translators, and that it is a career path they should consider.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Do You Have What it Takes to Be a Translator?

Here is a recent article, published online at Writing-World.com, that explores reasons why few writers incorporate translation into their careers.

Do You Have What it Takes to Be a Translator?

Translation, just like writing, is a creative, challenging craft that requires excellent writing, analytic, and editing abilities, as well as a love and feel for language. The major differences between translating and writing, of course, are that translators must have near-native skills in at least two languages, and work with transferring words an author has written in one language into another language, whereas writers need only work with one language and with their own thoughts and texts.

Writers are the ideal people to work as translators because they generally already have excellent writing and language skills and an enthusiasm for words, yet not many attempt it. There are several possible reasons for why few writers make translation part of their business.

The first is a belief that translating is less creative or interesting than writing. As both a writer and a translator, I'd argue that translation is incredibly demanding and creative. The limits imposed by the fact that a translator has to understand what the author meant and be able to recreate it in another language for a different audience forces translators to work very hard to find just the right way to express the author's thoughts given the target language's vocabulary, grammar, melody, and culture. This process can be compared to how some poets prefer to write haikus or sonnets rather than free verse, or how some fiction writers create artificial rules for their work (they can't use a certain letter, for example, or they have to focus on a specific topic). The fact is that the restrictions imposed by the form compel translators to be creative in a new way.

The second reason is that writers don't think they can earn money by translating. It's true that literary translation generally does not pay well and that it can be difficult to find such work; most English-speaking countries publish few literary translations, in part because publishers don't see much importance or profit in foreign literature and thus aren't eager to pay for it. Nonfiction translation, however, is very lucrative. Literary translators report getting around $2000 per novel, while nonfiction translators can earn that in just a week or two. Rates vary quite a bit, depending on the location, customer, level of difficulty, and the languages involved, but 12¢ per word is about average. Large companies with customers in many countries need translators and are willing to pay for quality work. Although some writers fear that it would be boring to translate user manuals or articles, such work can be quite stimulating and demanding. Translating court documents, for example, can be like reading a thriller; working on annual reports can teach you something about finance; while translating advertisements requires not just an understanding of language, but an ability to subtly make the ads more appropriate for the new culture. Translators I have spoken to report just as much satisfaction from finding the right word for a translation of a website as they do for a poem.

The final reason why writers are reluctant to seek translation work is because many simply don't know where to begin. The easiest way to start is sign up with translation agencies and to join one or more of the many e-lists that focus on translation. It is generally more common for translators to work for agencies rather than directly with customers, especially when starting out. Though agencies usually pay less, many translators like working for agencies because then they don't have to try to market to, contact, and sell their services to customers and also because agencies edit all the translations before sending them to the end clients, which means that an extra pair of eyes always checks over the work.

E-lists are useful because they often have job announcements and one can also meet other translators through them; more experienced translators might have advice for new ones, and they also might have too much work on occasion and be willing to subcontract assignments. For people who are more serious about translation, joining a professional organization, such as the American Translators Association or the International Federation of Translators, is a good credential. Such associations often have databases of translators where potential customers can find you, as well as newsletters with information, and conferences to attend. It's not cheap to join professional organizations, but the investment is worthwhile. Finally, make sure you tell your family, friends, neighbors, bosses, writing clients, and everyone else that you work as a translator. You might be surprised by how many people know someone who needs a translator and how many jobs friends or colleagues can pass on to you. In any business, making contacts is important.

Translation is a creative and stimulating art and craft, it can be lucrative, and there are easy steps new translators can take to find business. Not least, many writers are uniquely suited to being translators. All that remains now is for writers to expand their writerly horizons and start translating!

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Pamuk’s Nobel Lecture Online

Today Orhan Pamuk gives his Nobel Prize lecture. While only a select crowd gets to be in the audience, we can all watch the broadcast live on the internet at 5:30 p.m. CET. The science and economics lectures will be online tomorrow and the peace lecture on Sunday.

I’ve recently heard that Pamuk’s work is “better” in Swedish translation than it is in the original Turkish. I have only read it in English, so I can’t compare it, but it would be interesting to know if others feel that is true. Translation doesn't only involve losses; something can be gained through translation, too.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Translators’ Responsibilities: When the Source Text Has Issues

The definition of a translator is someone who translates a text from one language to another, carefully considering the cultures involved, the style of the text, the purpose of the text and of the translation, and the potential audience. That’s all challenging enough, and there’s much to consider in that about what the translator’s responsibilities are and what s/he should prioritize, but in this post, I’d like to look at an aspect of the job that is rarely mentioned: what should a translator do when faced with a source text that is, to be perfectly frank, not well written?

Some source texts themselves are poorly done translations while others simply have been authored by people who either didn’t put much effort into the document or don’t have good writing skills, or both. A sloppy text might have misspellings, grammar mistakes, factual errors, unclear meanings, or other problems. What options does a translator have when working on such a text? And, more to the point, what is the translator’s responsibility in this case?

Some translators believe that their job is simply to translate whatever is on the page, without questioning it. So they’d generally correct misspellings and bad grammar (that is, they wouldn’t create equivalent misspellings or incorrect grammar in the translation), but they wouldn’t rewrite awkward sentences, mention factual errors to their client and/or the author of the text (that’s not always the same person, obviously), or ask what was intended by a certain phrase.

Others will ask the client to clarify confusing passages or to re-check facts. Still other translators would go even further and give the customer feedback on the text, pointing out some, or even all, of the problems.

There are translators who offer to rewrite and/or edit the source document for an additional fee, and there are some who refuse to translate poorly written documents until they have been reworked, whether by themselves or by the author and/or customer.

All of these different responses show the various ways translators view their job and their translatorial responsibilities.

I have tried a variety of these methods myself, but most often what I do is ask about anything that seems unclear or especially awkward plus point out mistakes I find in the source text. If I can’t understand what is meant by a phrase or a paragraph, then I won’t be able to translate properly, so I do feel it is my responsibility to make sure everything is clear to me (and, I should note, if something is seemingly incomprehensible, it may, of course, be attributed to my own lack of understanding or knowledge, and not just because the writer is not proficient as his or her craft). As for the reason why I mention mistakes to the client, I feel it is a courtesy to them, and it also shows that I am observant and take my work seriously. A client who later finds mistakes in the source text but remembers that I didn’t bring them up might wonder whether I even noticed them and whether, if I didn’t notice them, I paid as close attention to the document as I should have.

There have been occasions when I have received a document of low quality that has had such a number of careless errors and sloppy phrasings that I didn’t feel I should have to spend the time necessary to edit the whole text, especially as I wasn’t getting paid for that, so I instead just gave the client a general summary of issues I noticed in the text, with a few specific examples. Once, I had a text so riddled with problems that I found it very difficult to translate, and I suggested that I or someone else be hired to fix the document, but the company I was working for made it clear that they didn’t care enough about having correct and well-written language to spend additional sums on the document, so I could only do my best with the text as it was.

So I suppose where I stand on this issue is somewhere in the middle: I believe translators have a responsibility to thoroughly understand the documents they work on, and that they must ask questions or do research if a certain text doesn’t make sense to them in some way. I also believe that translators should fix problems such as misspellings or incorrect usage as they translate (unless such things are part of the style of the text, as in some fiction or in reproductions of dialect), and I think it is respectful to the customer to mention whatever issues come up in the text, even if in a general way, without necessarily sending back a completely marked-up source text. But I don’t think translators should have to rewrite source documents (unless they get an extra fee for that) or that they should feel the need to give the client detailed feedback on them.

What do other translators think? And what about those of you who employ translators?

Friday, December 01, 2006

Paying Markets for Translators from Erika Dreifus

Erika Dreifus’s helpful blog for practicing writers offers some paying paying literary markets for translators. Those of you who want to publish translations of fiction or prose might find her links useful.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Translating from English to English

In the last post, I mentioned that American and British English are not always the same, even if they are, obviously, mutually intelligible for the most part. Something many people don’t realize is that there are translators who translate between American and British English.

Why would such a job be necessary? After all, if you can read English and have some basic knowledge about vocabulary and grammar differences among the various Englishes, why should seeing the word “boot” (UK English) instead of “trunk” (US English) bother you? Wouldn’t you understand if a character in a novel asked, “Do you have a pen?” (US English) instead of “Have you got a pen?” (UK English). Wouldn’t it just add to the flavor (or flavour) of whatever you are reading?

Well, I believe that is generally true for literary works; after all, just as it would be odd if, in a book set in Spain, a character suddenly used American slang, I think preserving the original style and feeling of an English text is important. Publishers tend to disagree with me, however, in part because they seem to assume the audience would find it confusing or disturbing if a book was in any way “foreign.”

This is especially the case with children’s literature, because it is erroneously believed that children don’t understand that people in other countries might speak differently or have different traditions. So publishers worry that Americans kids might think it is “weird” if an English boy in a book that takes place in England says “lift” and not “elevator,” and therefore such things are translated to American English (or to British English, in the case of American books). I have not read any of the Harry Potter books, but I have been told that the vocabulary and grammar in them is Americanized for US audiences, and that some American Harry Potter aficionados insist on buying their books from the UK, so they can read the original texts. And, as another example, I received some information not long ago about a children’s book translated to English from a Scandinavian language. An editor at the British publishing company implied that major, “neutralizing” changes were made in the translation (including removing all mentions of the setting), so the book would be ready for child audiences in both the UK and the US, and so a second, American translator wouldn’t later be needed, at an additional cost to the publishers. To me, this kind of translation amounts to a sort of dumbing-down of the book, because it makes it easier for readers to access. Sure, explanation may sometimes be needed, and that can be given in a footnote or by adding a word or two to the text, but remaking parts of a novel so it appeals to foreign readers is going a bit far.

When it comes to non-fiction, though, I have more understanding for publishers. In some non-fiction works, it is essential that the message not be lost because the audience doesn’t recognize the words or the style. For example, I have seen an ad here in Wales that says “Have you sussed it?” As an American, I had no idea what that meant when I first saw it. Then I learned that “to suss” means “to check out” or “to find out” or “to understand.” If that ad were used in the US, perhaps it would be changed to “Do you get it?” and the company wouldn’t have to worry about losing potential customers because of the incomprehensibility of their message. That’s the kind of thing an English to English translator can help with.

Cultural references can add quite a bit to a novel, but might need explication in a work of non-fiction. Recently, I read Simon Winchester’s book about the OED, The Surgeon of Crowthorne. That’s the original British title, anyway. In the US, the book is called The Professor and the Madman, apparently because the American publishers thought (correctly, I suspect) that their more dramatic title would appeal more to Americans. Knowing that fact made me wonder what else beyond the spelling and grammar had been adapted or translated for American readers. I have not read the American version, but I would imagine that the mentions of the Civil War are not necessarily as detailed in the American book, since Americans are presumably more familiar with the facts of the war, and that there might be more information about the locations in the UK, so American readers can understand distances and issues of, say, fashionability. I wondered, too, if the tone of the book, which seems rather British to me, might have been changed a bit.

In short, translators from English to English analyze texts for issues of grammar, vocabulary, and culture-specific references (locations, politics, educational systems, and so forth), and they adapt such “problem passages” to another kind of English. As I made clear above, I see the need for this in non-fiction documents, especially for ads, user’s manuals, tourist information, and other such texts that are to serve an informational purpose. But I don’t think much of it when it is applied to fiction.

Have you sussed all that?


To learn a little more about this very specific kind of translation, check out this article. It would also be interesting to know whether this type of translation is common in other languages that are spoken in two or more countries (such as German, French, Spanish, or Swedish).

Monday, November 27, 2006

English for Native Speakers

Now that I’ve lived in the UK for two months, I’ve become more and more aware of the differences between UK and US English. We don’t just spell some words differently (colour versus color) or use different vocabulary at times (hoover versus vacuum) or have some different usage rules (such as for apostrophes and commas, but I won’t let myself get started on that!). There are some significant issues that separate American English from British English, and those of us who claim to be able to translate to or copy edit either variety ought to make sure that’s really the case.

So here are some references I’ve found:

American versus British English

Vocabulary differences

Grammar and spelling differences

English-English dictionary


I’ve given them to my students and I’ve sometimes found them useful myself, too, especially if I’ve needed to translate to British English (just because English is my native language doesn’t mean I can’t learn more about it!). And, yes, of course there are many other kinds of English as well, but I think it is safe to say that American and British English are by far the most influential.

The next post will look at translating from English to English. Yes, you read that right!

Friday, November 24, 2006

A Translation Metaphor

I always enjoy reading metaphors or other descriptions that involve translation in some way (both metaphors that depict translation and those that describe something else using translation), because they offer a view of what people think translation is. One day it might be interesting to study these metaphors and see how the sense of translation has changed over time.

For example, last month, I mentioned Alistair Elliot’s idea of translation as powdered eggs. Henry Rider, in the preface to his 1638 translation of Horace to English, offers a very different metaphor, that of translation as clothing:

“Translations of Authors from one language to another, are like old garments turn’d into new fashions; in which though the stuffe be still the same, yet the die and trimming are altered, and in the making, here something added, there something cut away.”

I’d thought of translation as many things before, but I hadn’t thought about it as “old garments,” and though I like Mr. Rider’s metaphor, I don’t really agree with it.

Do you have favorite translation metaphors or descriptions?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Just Be Honest

As a brief follow-up to the recent post about writing letters of inquiry, I have to add one more piece of advice. I didn’t mention it before because it seems so obvious, but then I received yet another such letter from a freelancer and his letter made me realize that sometimes the obvious is, well, not quite so obvious.

Here it is: you can, and should, proudly mention your education, your work experience, your skills, and anything else related to the prospective job that sets you apart from all other applicants, but please, do not pretend to be, do, or know more than is actually true. In other words, do not exaggerate or lie in any way.

If a potential employer believes that you are not being completely honest, she or he will not feel enthused or confident about hiring you. And if someone does ask for more information or even hires you, but later discovers you were not telling the truth – perhaps by the low quality of your work or by you being unable to do something you claimed you were proficient at – not only will that negatively affect your working relationship with that person (as in, you probably won’t have a working relationship anymore and she or he will certainly not recommend you to others), but you may also make that employer more suspicious and less likely to employ other freelancers in the future. Even one small lie can make things difficult for yourself and for others.

If you are exaggerating because you feel you don’t have enough experience, be honest about that instead and realize that you may have to accept lower fees or less challenging work until you can build up your CV. If you are exaggerating because it is part of your culture to do so, keep in mind that this may not work in other cultures and that you might have to adjust your approach. If you are exaggerating to make yourself feel better in some way, that is something for you to think seriously about.

So, do not say you have near-native fluency in seven languages (like that “interpreter” mentioned a few posts back) or that you are equally comfortable with literary, financial, legal, technical, and academic documents, or that you regularly translate 15,000 words a day. Do not pretend to have degrees from schools you only took one or two classes at or that you are familiar with all the translation software programs when you have in fact just heard about them. Do not give as references people who wouldn’t even recognize your name, and do not lard your CV with claims of work that you did not actually do.

To summarize, be honest about who you are and what you can do. Often, that’s good enough, and there is no need to employ exaggeration or lies; doing so will probably backfire in some way, and it will likely make you disappointed in yourself as well.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Updated Archive by Category

I’ve now updated and reorganized the archive by category (see the left side of this page), so it should be very easy for you to find posts on whatever topics interest you, such as practical advice, interviews, poetry, translation technology, and so on. I hope this is helpful!

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Writing Good Letters of Inquiry: Advice for Freelancers

Lately, there’s been a plethora of new freelance translators wildly sending out their CVs to any translation agencies, companies, or even other freelance translators that they find. Most of us who get these e-mail messages tend to ignore them. Why? What are these new translators doing wrong? Or, rather, let me rephrase that question positively and ask: How should freelancer translators write good letters of inquiry?

First of all, if you’re looking for work – and this applies to any job, not just translation – you need to do some research. I suspect that many of these new translators are buying or finding lists of translation companies on translation websites or else that they are doing quick Google searches and that they don’t bother to carefully look at the companies’ websites before hurriedly sending off letters of interest. If you translate from Spanish to Chinese, there is no point in writing to a company that only works with Scandinavian languages. If you only have experience translating personal letters, don’t try to get work at a company that just hires authorized translators. And, frankly, there isn’t much call at all for you to write to other freelance translators, since chances are that they don’t want or need to hire someone, and that even if they do, they already have the contacts they need. So make sure you check to see what languages and what subjects each potential employer works with, and what needs they might have, before you waste both your time and theirs sending them a letter.

Once you have narrowed down your list and know where you want to inquire about work, you have to write a good, brief letter. Some of the applicants who have sent me letters have rambled on about themselves or mentioned things that have little to do with translation, and that doesn’t make me want to keep reading. Say who you are, what your background is, what you can offer the company you are writing to, and why you are interested in just that company. Each letter should be personalized; it is always obvious when someone is sending out a mass mailing (especially when there are lots of e-mail addresses listed in the “To” and “CC” fields, which really looks unprofessional) and mass mailings show that little thought or effort went into it, and that won’t make people want to hire you. This is why research is so essential; if you know something about the company, you’ll be able to add a sentence or two about why you would fit in well with their business objectives and needs. If they haven’t advertised for new freelancers (and, of course, even if they have), then you have to be able to clearly and succinctly explain why they ought to consider you.

Speaking of personalization, find out the actual name of the person you are writing to and don’t just write “Dear Madam/Sir.” If you are unsure of the gender of the person you are addressing, study the company’s website a little more; usually, the biographical information will refer to the person as “he” or “she” and then you know whether to use “Mr.” or “Ms.” Don’t use first names (or any other casual language or slang, for that matter) and make sure you spell the name of the person and the company correctly. In fact, check all your spelling carefully. Correct spelling and good language usage are always important, but this is particularly the case when you want to work with language!

So, if you want your letters of inquiry to be read, start by doing thorough research, then target your letters appropriately, write personalized and brief letters, and use correct, polite language. If you take the time and make the effort to look for work in this way, potential employers will see that you are conscientious and careful, and they will be more likely to consider your application, instead of just reading a sentence or two, getting frustrated and annoyed, and deleting your letter.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Speaking of Words: On Learning New Words

The last post was about unique or “untranslatable” words, some of which I believe ought to be borrowed into other languages, including English. But thinking about words reminds me of one of the biggest challenges for people learning new languages: building their vocabulary.

To become proficient in a language, you can’t just memorize the grammar rules and work on your accent; you also have to learn words. Lots of words. The language teacher’s rule of thumb is that for every 100 new words a learner sees, only 10 will stick in some way, especially if the words are not actively used more or less immediately. That means you have to be exposed to many words, and you have to try to use those words, too.

So how can you find new words to learn each day? Well, obviously you can read books or newspapers in English and pick a word or two each day to look up in the dictionary and attempt to understand. That’s the best way to learn new words in context. I’ve found that you may not remember a dictionary definition, but once you’ve seen a word in use, the next time you see it, you have a sense of what it means. After a few times, you really understand the word.

If you want, you can also get free e-newsletters that teach you a new word each day. Here are some of my favorites for English, and one for Swedish:

A Word A Day is one of the largest such e-newsletters, and it has a theme each week.

Oxford University Press publishes many dictionaries and other books, and they have various e-newsletters with words each day. Note that not all the words they introduce readers to are ones you’d want or need to use on a regular basis, but that doesn’t make them any less interesting. OUP offers: American Slang Word of the Day, New Oxford American Dictionary, Erin’s Weird & Wonderful Word of the Day, and Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day (this does not teach new words exactly, but it does give advice on using English, which sometimes includes distinguishing between two similar or frequently confused words).

Merriam-Webster, another dictionary publishing company, also has an e-newsletter.

Ett Ord om Dagen is a way to learn about Swedish words.

Let me know if you are familiar with other such sources for learning words!

Saturday, November 11, 2006

An Inclusive English Tongue

I noticed this recent BBC article on Hinglish, which hints at what each tongue has to offer other languages and cultures. Since each language has a different way of understanding life, it has unique words and phrases that explore the world from that point of view. English has long been a promiscuous language that has blended with and taken from other tongues. Now, besides Hinglish vocabulary, we should also eagerly accept new words from Swenglish, Spanglish, Chinglish, and so forth.

One of my personal efforts towards the goal of having a more inclusive English language (and by inclusive I mean that there are more words from more languages to describe more concepts), has been to try to see the Swedish word “sambo” transferred to English. “Sambo” comes from “tillsammans” (together) and “bo” (live) and it means partners who live together without being married, as is much more common in Scandinavia than in other parts of the world. Another possible Swedish candidate is “lagom,” which means, more or less, “just right.”

What other words should the English language absorb? Maybe Christopher Moore’s book In Other Words: A Language Lover's Guide to the Most Intriguing Words Around the World has some ideas for us.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

On Translation vs. Interpretation by Guest Blogger Sarah Alys Lindholm

Brave New Words is happy to welcome Sarah Alys Lindholm as our second guest blogger. (Penny Milbouer, a German to English translator, was our first guest blogger.)

Sarah Alys Lindholm is a Japanese to English translator located in Houston, TX. Since graduating from Bryn Mawr College as a linguistics major in 2003, she has been translating anime (Japanese animated TV shows and movies) for a living. Now she’s pairing that vocation with a job as Media Coordinator, coordinating releases and proofing DVDs for the Houston-based company ADV Films.

In this post, Ms. Lindholm discusses the differences between translation and interpretation, and it is a very timely and relevant issue, as interpretation has come up on the blog several times recently.


On Translation vs. Interpretation by Sarah Alys Lindholm:

Many people don’t realize there’s a difference between “translation” and “interpretation.” Even people who work with translators all the time will sometimes ask us “Can you translate at a meeting I’m holding?” And I’m sure interpreters frequently get handed documents and asked to translate them. Perhaps it’s easier to go from interpretation to translation; I wouldn’t know and wouldn’t like to assume. However, as a professional translator I can definitely say that interpretation is so unlike translation as to be an entirely different proposition and much more difficult for me.

So what is the difference between “translation” and “interpretation”? “Translation” refers to the translation from one language to another of something which is frozen in time: a book, a TV show, a letter, a play, a speech someone has already delivered which is recorded and then given to the translator in its entirety. “Interpretation” is a real-time exercise – when you interpret, conversation, speech, etc. is actually taking place, and as it happens you are taking what is said in Language A and communicating it in Language B. It may be that you are interpreting at the same time as others are speaking, or it may be that you wait until the end of a chunk of speech and then interpret it into another language while the speaker pauses to wait for you.

Although many people seem to regard “translation” and “interpretation” as the same or at least activities that the same person would do, and although there are people who do both translate and interpret, the two are radically different both experientially and practically.

Just recently I had my first interpretation gig. I had the honor of interpreting at two Question & Answer panels and two autograph sessions for Mr. Yoshitaka Amano at Oni-con 2006 in Houston, Texas. I think a large part of the reason why I was approached about the job (about 48 hours before the convention began) was that assumption so many people have that translators interpret and vice versa. However, I took the job and am glad I did so; it was fascinating. Here are a few of the things I learned or confirmed my suspicious about:

Translation is you in a room; interpretation is you in the world.
Most translation takes place alone at a desk. The translator interacts with something which is fixed in time, complete, a separate unit. The translator only talks to people as a side activity. The translator is free to wander the chambers of her mind, to ruminate and to solve problems in consultation with and according to the dictates of her own body and soul. There is silence in which to think; there is the freedom to, if she suddenly finds herself needing to know an obscure fact about whale migration, make a long-distance call to Dad and ask him about the migratory patterns of whales. Interpretation, on the other hand, generally takes place in a group of people, because what you are interpreting is generally the speech of or between people. You must interact with people. You are not free to intensely probe your own soul until you find the answer to a sticky problem, no matter how much introspection it may take. You are not free to take a bathroom break in the middle of the climactic point in the dialogue. You are not free to stop and call Dad to have him clarify a technical point.

The advantages and disadvantages there are obvious. However, there is another side to this interaction with the world in interpretation. In translation, it is often not possible to ask the original creator what s/he intended. If something is open to multiple interpretations, leaving you in a jam about which to opt for, there is usually no recourse. There is often no opportunity for dialogue between the translator and the original writer/speaker. It’s an inorganic process, in a way. Interpretation, however, is an organic process. There is often (though not always) an open avenue of dialogue between you and the person you are interpreting. Often you can ask a question, clarify a point, ask for a rephrase, or confirm that your understanding is correct. It’s possible to look much worse in interpretation – to crash and burn – because the result is real-world and not inorganically polished before publication. But it is also possible to fly much higher, in some ways.

Translation is out of time; interpretation is in time.
Because interpretation is in the world, it occurs in real time. The translator must make her deadline, but she does not have to translate in real time, or even in real order. She can take breaks; she can work slowly on a section of text if it is dense or difficult; she can even translate the end before the beginning if she wishes. The translation will be delivered as a whole product, and no one will ever know or care how it was done. In interpretation, there is no “whole product,” and there is immense time pressure. You cannot skip to the end of the conversation and do that first, because the end has not happened yet. You cannot go think for an hour. You do not have the time to lovingly craft and polish each line like a fine precious stone. Interpretation is down and dirty. You are not blowing glass. You are in the sandbox.

This is one of the key differences between someone who identifies as a “translator” and someone who identifies as an “interpreter,” I believe. The translator works in nuance, sometimes spending days revisiting and fine-tuning a single sentence or even a single word. The interpreter pays attention to nuance but deals in the meat of the issue. Often there must be instant turnaround of the type a translator is not used to providing and may be quite bad at (“Usually I would go back to my desk, think about this, and email you!”). The interpreter must grasp the meat of the issue right away and deal with that first. When you deal in real time this way, sometimes tiny pieces are lost. This would eat away at my soul and mind as a translator but is something I have to resign myself to in interpretation or I will go crazy. Likewise, I have had occasion to supervise the translation work of someone who primarily identifies as an interpreter, and found that his translations did not capture nuances that a translation (as opposed to real-time interpretation) is able to capture and should capture. (I should note that I do not believe he is necessarily representative of interpreters as a whole; I think it spoke more to his individual, personal attitude being the type of attitude which did not go well with translation.)

The interpreter, too, must have a much larger vocabulary than is strictly necessary in a translator. The translator is free to look up any and every word she doesn’t know or doesn’t feel 100% comfortable with and that’s fine, but the interpreter must not be constantly looking up things in a dictionary. Perhaps the translator can in this way extract things which are more precise, but the interpreter will have more core knowledge.

I found while interpreting for Mr. Amano that this time pressure was both a curse and an unexpected spur to creativity. The time pressure made it more difficult to bend my intellect to the issues in a disciplined, thorough way – but the terror and necessity of it caused the kind of sudden solutions, the organic creativity, that can only happen in a situation with time pressure. Under the gun you come up with ideas that otherwise might never occur to you.

For translation you have to be able to write; for interpretation you have to be able to talk.
There are a couple of ways in which this is true. An excellent translator must be excellent at writing; depending on the type of translator, proficiency may be required in many types of writing: technical, literary, expository, and/or dialogue writing. But a translator is seldom required to be a good public speaker. On the flip side, an interpreter may not need those writing skills, but an interpreter must have the ability to speak to people, and to speak to crowds. Obviously not every interpretation gig will involve crowds, but it will come up (it certainly came up in my gig – not only did I have to speak in front of a crowd, but I had to speak in front of a crowd of fervent Amano fans!). Interpreting for Mr. Amano was much different than translation, because my output was spoken words from my own mouth, rather than text that someone would later read. This allowed me to say things in a way that I would not translate because it wouldn’t be appropriate to written form, but writing also has advantages over speech in some ways, so the mental approach has to be different depending on what your output is.

It’s also true that interpretation may often involve speaking in multiple languages – in other words, within one conversation a Japanese-English interpreter may have to switch between interpreting Japanese-to-English to Person A and English-to-Japanese to Person B. Suddenly not only must the interpreter be comfortable speaking, but she must be comfortable speaking in both languages. Some translators also go in both directions, but not always. I have occasion to write business emails in Japanese sometimes, but for practical purposes I’m strictly a Japanese-to-English translator at this point in my life, and don’t usually go the other way around. Interpreters generally don’t get to specialize in that way. Since I’m a translator and seldom get the opportunity to really hold long conversations in Japanese and although I speak Japanese, I feel much less comfortable holding sustained time-pressured conversations in it in front of strangers than I would feel doing the same thing in my native language of English. I don’t have to constantly speak smooth Japanese to translate well. But interpretation is different.

In the case of Mr. Amano’s Q&A panels, I was very fortunate to be paired up with a coworker who is a native speaker of Japanese. He, like me, is a translator by profession. But he had done some interpreting before and suggested that we handle things this way: when an audience member asked a question in English, he would interpret that question for Mr. Amano in Japanese. Then when Mr. Amano answered the question in Japanese, I would interpret it for the audience in English. This turned out to be a fabulous way to do things because each of us got to do the brunt of our speaking in our native language, making things faster, more comfortable for the listeners in both languages, smoother in general, and much easier and more comfortable for the two of us. (Plus, because there were two of us, we could help each other out with our respective tasks when necessary.)

Translation and interpretation subject you to different kinds of strain. The physical and mental endurance/exhaustion factors are a bit different across the two activities. I had a horrible time in my second Q&A panel because for the last forty-five minutes of it, I had to go to the bathroom. A translator isn’t subjected to this stress unless she’s in the thick of some brilliant idea she doesn’t want to lose – if my concentration suffers because of physical needs as I translate (and those physical needs can be very different from those encountered in interpretation), I can usually get up, take care of them, and come back. Not so with interpretation. Physical conditions in interpretation have to be endured until the opportunity arises to cope with them, and when you’re unprepared for how to deal with them they can cause added stress that makes it difficult to think calmly and rationally.

In the area of mental strain, which is highly individualistic and so will probably be different for other people, I found differences as well. There is a lot of mental fatigue in translation, because you’re performing the same highly-mentally-tasking activity for hours at a time. For me this is fatigue is a slow drain, like walking around all day. But when I’m interpreting, it’s a large fast drain, like sprinting. There’s more on-your-feet thinking. Your memory gets more of a workout: you have to stretch yourself to remember all the linguistic stuff, yes, but also to remember all the research you’ve done on the relevant people/topics, and more importantly everything that’s been said and is being said. Statements can be long and sometimes meander many places before there’s a break for you to begin repeating them in the other language. Holding all that stuff in your head until you can regurgitate it while at the same time figuring out how to regurgitate it in the target language stretches memory and intellect both at once. One of those two things may give. After the first panel with Mr. Amano I quickly learned to bring more paper and take more notes, jotting down key words as soon as the sentence began to jog my memory in case the sentence’s end was a long way off.

But translation and interpretation are BOTH about research.
Yep. I’ve said many times that translation is all about research, and I think interpretation is the same way. Before I went to meet and interpret for Mr. Amano, I visited his website, printed out Japanese Wikipedia’s entire article about him, and went through and listed the names of the main characters in all the Final Fantasy games in both English and Japanese. All of it was useful. Familiarizing yourself with the person and the relevant topics to the extent possible is key. Since this was a last-minute gig I didn’t get a chance to do much more than Wikipedia, but every little bit helps. In particular, I remember Mr. Amano talked about a work of his called “New York Salad” which I never would have understood or been able to cope with if I hadn’t already known the work existed. Plus, both the client and his agent were immediately set at ease when we met because I had done this basic research, and that’s important as well. Apparently Mr. Amano once got stuck with an interpreter who didn’t know anything about his work, didn’t know who Picasso was, and had never heard of Final Fantasy!

Sunday, November 05, 2006

“Interpreting” Seven Languages At Once

Well, I wasn’t going to mention it, but since it’s a hot topic on translation lists, here is a link to Catherine Tate's recent comedy sketch about an interpreter. Yes, it’s supposed to be humorous, but I have to point out that the sketch refers to a translator but is actually about an interpreter, that there is probably no interpreter who can work with so many different languages simultaneously, and that an interpreter needs much more than just a certificate (especially a TOEFL certificate!) in order to be successful at his or her job. And I won’t even mention the characterizations of the different nationalities and languages!

For more on interpretation and translation, see the next post, which will be by a guest blogger.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Translator Cupids

A brief article in today’s Chicago Tribune highlights the translation profession, and it focuses on an interesting, little discussed area: translators who help love along.

It has long been common – and necessary – to have interpreters at business meetings or similar events when people from more than one country attend, but with the increase in intercultural relationships, interpreters are also needed at multi-ethnic weddings and other family gatherings. This article also mentions the translation of letters exchanged after flings, and the possibility of interpreters needed on dates between two people from different cultures.

I personally probably wouldn’t want to be an interpreter on a date (although it could be an unusual experience!), but I have met someone who interpreted at an event that occurred some months after a date: the birth of a child!

It’s great to see people being educated about what translators and interpreters do, and how we can be useful in any stage of life, including romance.

Monday, October 30, 2006

A Visible Translator – Robert Fagles

A major issue in translation in recent years has been the in/visibility of the translator. Previously, the general attitude was that translators should be invisible; in other words, their names and backgrounds weren’t important, since they were just workers there to serve the text. This, of course, is related to the supposed desire for an invisible translation, which means that it shouldn’t be obvious that a text is a translation; a translation should “flow” and should read just as if it were a document that had been written in the target language.

Both of these concepts – the invisible translation and the invisible translator – are debatable, and have been rightfully challenged, in a variety of ways. Some translators today insist on including forewords, afterwords, footnotes, or some other paratext in order to make themselves and their work visible to readers. Other translators insist that their names be printed on the title pages, or even on the covers, of any books they translate, to show that they are equal partners with an important role to play and that they deserve recognition. And still others write letters of complaint or explanation when reviews of their own or other translators’ work are published with only a brief mention of the fact that the book is a translation, or no mention of this at all.

So it seems clear that some progress is being made when the New York Times features an article all about a translator. Robert Fagles is the well known translator of, among other works, “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” and now “The Aeneid,” and both “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” became best-sellers, surprisingly in a country that generally eschews both translations and classics. Despite these facts, one might have expected just a review of his new translation, with perhaps a sentence or two with information about Mr. Fagles, so it is a nice change to see an article that focuses primarily on the translator and that even briefly looks at the challenges of translation (in this case, Mr. Fagles says, the distinct voices, and sustaining them, were the particular difficulties).

I’m hoping for more such articles that make translators and their work more visible.

Friday, October 27, 2006

A Babel Fish That Doesn't Quite Babble Yet

The New Scientist reports that some researchers believe they’ve found an automatic translator. This device recognizes phonemes, and then words, and converts them to the other language. So far, the researchers have gotten the system to recognize about 100 Mandarin words that it then translated to English or Spanish. The program apparently has about 62% accuracy.

While translation technology has certainly developed a lot in recent years and this latest idea is interesting, I think it’s safe to say a real Babel fish has not yet arrived, so simultaneous interpreters (and the rest of us who work with translation in some way) are still needed.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Powdered Eggs and Omelettes

Yesterday I went to a lecture by Alistair Elliot, an English poet and translator. He had an interesting metaphor for translation. Mr. Elliot said that translating was like having powdered egg and trying to reconstitute it with water to make it resemble something like the original egg. Though it sounds poetic, I’m not sure that this is really such an apt metaphor, since it suggests that translations are always inferior to the originals. Powdered eggs, after all, can never be real eggs and they can never quite match the taste, the smell, or the consistency, no matter what you do to them. It’s true that a translation can never be the precise equivalent of the original, but I think most good translations deserve more than to be called powdered eggs. Translators take eggs and crack them open, then add a few ingredients in an attempt to make a good dish out of them. The dish recognizably includes eggs, but isn’t exactly eggs anymore. Maybe we can consider translations omelettes, rather than powdered eggs.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Advice from T.S. Eliot

According to today’s Writer’s Almanac, it was on this day that poet Denise Levertov was born. Apparently, she wrote a poem when she was 12 that she then sent to T.S. Eliot. He “advised her to read poetry in a foreign language, and to keep on writing.” This is good advice for anyone interested in language or writing: learning foreign languages and reading work in them helps us expand our own understanding of life and our creative abilities. Since no two languages have the exact same vocabulary, which means they don’t have the same worldviews or priorities, we can always learn something from other languages.

So any translator who wants to improve his or her skills should take Mr. Eliot’s advice and read deeply in other languages, and keep on translating.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Speaking of Cheapness…

I don’t usually write about interpretation, but this article relates to my last post, about publishers not being willing to spend the money for quality work.

For those who can’t read Swedish, I can summarize the article as follows: Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi gave a speech at the
G├Âteborg book fair last month. She speaks Farsi, so an interpreter was needed to translate her words to Swedish. Time and money were not spent on finding a proper interpreter for her, so someone who speaks Dari and Pashto was hired instead. This interpreter could not manage the Farsi, and apparently made something of a mess of the speech. She was finally replaced by another interpreter. However, this one was Norwegian. So the people in the audience then had to try to understand the Norwegian, when they ought to have had a good Farsi-Swedish interpreter from the beginning.

Clearly, this kind of thing should not happen at all, but the fact that it happened to a Nobel Prize laureate at a major literary event speaks volumes, to use an apt phrase, about how people don’t recognize the importance of interpretation and translation and aren’t educated enough about what is required in order to do the job well. The book fair organizers probably waited until the last minute to even think about finding an interpreter and then didn’t realize that there are a variety of Middle Eastern languages and that an interpreter of Dari may be able to understand Farsi competently but is not qualified enough to interpret between it and Swedish.

So we translators and interpreters need to find more ways of
educating our customers. Any ideas?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

One More Post on Pamuk and Translation

To continue briefly with discussing Orhan Pamuk and translation, I’d like to point you to this article, entitled Found in Translation (thank you, Erika Dreifus, for sending it on!).

The article is interesting on its own since it interviews both translators and authors about the translation of literature, but it is especially relevant as it touches on why the English translations of Pamuk’s work are so important, as discussed in my last post:

While his work has been translated into more than 40 languages, Pamuk pays special attention to the English translations. "Many times, I have learned that a foreign translation did not come from my native language but from the English version. This can be a problem, so it is very important that I have a good relationship with my English translator."

Unfortunately, the article doesn’t delve further into this (and it would have probably been beyond the piece’s scope, anyway), but, as already mentioned, I do think it is disappointing that publishing companies rely on relay translations. This is probably because of the high cost and difficulty of finding experienced translators with the right language combinations, so the solutions seem to me to be to encourage students to learn more languages from an early age (and for schools to not just focus on the ‘big’ languages) and for publishers to realize the importance of a good translation and the need to spend money on it.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Translation and the Nobel Prize

I am not sure how many, if indeed any at all, members of the Swedish Academy can read Turkish. I doubt that all the members know Turkish, which suggests that when the Academy chose Orhan Pamuk as this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, some of the members had read his works in translation, presumably Swedish translation. Clearly, this must influence how they experienced his fiction.

What’s more, I recently heard that the Swedish publishers of Mr. Pamuk’s books offered such a small fee to potential Turkish to Swedish literary translators that they were forced instead to rely on English to Swedish translators. In other words, the Swedish publications are most likely translations of translations (Turkish to English to Swedish).

I am not criticizing the Academy’s choice of Mr. Pamuk, but simply pointing out that the publishing world and their concern for the bottom line is apparently such that the work of major authors has to be translated via relay translation, which naturally distances it even more from the original. We know how much can be lost in translation as it is, so translating over two or more languages seems even more difficult and risky.

I also wonder how these facts – that Mr. Pamuk’s novels were probably not read in the original by all the Academy members, that some of his works were probably translated from English to Swedish rather than directly from Turkish (and this may be true of other languages as well) – affect the Swedish Academy’s annual decision. Surely the esteemed members of the Academy can read languages other than Swedish and English, but they can’t together cover all the world’s languages and literatures, so they have to use translations. That’s understandable, but I think that at the very least, the publishing world, and the Swedish Academy, should try to avoid relay translations. It may be more expensive for the publishers, but the results will surely be worthwhile.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Nobel Prize, I.B. Singer, and Yiddish

Thinking about the Nobel Prize in literature and about the “Last Words” article mentioned recently, I recalled Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Nobel speech of 1978. Singer wrote in what was considered a dying language – that is, Yiddish – and in his speech he referred to what is important and special about his language.

Among other things, he said: “Yiddish has not yet said its last word. It contains treasures that have not been revealed to the eyes of the world. It was the tongue of martyrs and saints, of dreamers and Cabalists – rich in humor and in memories that mankind may never forget. In a figurative way, Yiddish is the wise and humble language of us all, the idiom of frightened and hopeful Humanity.”

Yiddish – along with many other languages – has not yet said its last words. As I said in my post about the “Last Words” article, we simply shouldn’t let that happen.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Nobel Prize in Literature

The Nobel Prize in literature will be announced in the next week, and it will be exciting to see who receives it. In Sweden, the general feeling towards the literature prize seems to be that the winner is usually someone who isn’t so well known and that the Swedish Academy tries to make some sort of statement with their choice each year. For example, for the past couple of years, many people have thought than an Arab author would be chosen, with the Syrian poet Adonis mentioned frequently as a strong candidate. Whether all that’s true or not, I know I personally find the announcements and ceremonies fun to watch, and I enjoy reading and seeing interviews with current and past winners in all the categories.

For translators, the literature prize is especially interesting. The winner of the literature prize naturally gets a lot of publicity and a larger audience, and this almost always requires translations of his or her work. If the author writes in a less common language or has a very distinct style, publishing companies have to scramble to find translators as soon as the announcement is made.

So are there any guesses about who will win this year?

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Against Last Words

In the most recent New York Times magazine, Walter Benn Michaels published an article entitled “Last Words.” In it, he writes that it doesn’t matter if languages die out. One language is as good as another, he thinks, so people can simply switch over to another language. As a translator and someone interested in languages, however, I have to disagree.

As we well know, there exist no two languages with an exact one-to-one equivalence. If there did, translators wouldn’t be needed. People could simply look up each word in a bilingual dictionary and translate it directly. That’s how easy it would be to communicate with people from other languages and cultures. And if all languages had the same view of the world and of life – and this would likely have to be the case if we all had the same ideas and concepts but just used different terms for them – there probably would be one world culture.

But that is not the case. Each language that exists offers a unique way of experiencing life; each culture expresses its outlook and its beliefs through the way it creates and uses its tongue. At some point, most translators have surely come across an “untranslatable” word or concept, which means something so culture-specific that it is hard to find a translation for it. The Swedish word “lagom” is often given as an example. One could argue that “lagom,” which means something like “not too much, not too little, but just right,” reveals something about the Swedish character, and explains, among other things, why Sweden has prided itself on being a neutral country. If Swedish no longer existed, according to Michaels’ view, Swedes and their descendants could just find a new language to use, and that would be just as good a way for them to express themselves. While it is true that Swedish is no better and no worse than any other language, think what would be lost if Swedish was not used any more. Without the word “lagom,” and all other Swedish words, the uniquely Swedish way of seeing the world would disappear.

Obviously, this loss would not just affect Swedes (or the speakers of whichever tongue was no longer used). The diversity of languages that exists in our world is beneficial for us all, because we can learn from other peoples and they way they live and experience the world. Rather than not caring when a language dies, we should work to learn and preserve languages. Let’s not allow any more languages to speak their “last words.”

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Educating the Customer

In the most recent issue of the Translation Journal, I have an article entitled ‘Educating the Customer.’ I’ve posted it below, but there are other interesting articles to read in the Translation Journal, so check it out. And let me know if you have any other ideas on how to educate customers!

Educating the Customer

“$35 to translate that? I heard there are computer programs that can do the same thing,” a potential customer complained to me once. It wasn’t the first time someone had said something along those lines. “My colleague was very pleased with your work,” another person told me, “but I found someone who could do it much cheaper.” While many customers don’t seem to know much about the translation process, a surprising number of them do seem to have pretty firm ideas about who can translate and how much it should cost.

I’ll never forget the Friday night when a customer e-mailed me a bunch of documents at 10 p.m. with instructions to have everything translated by Monday morning. He had not asked me if I was available to translate that weekend, if I was proficient in the field the documents covered, or even how much it would cost. I wrote him back within the hour (yes, I was actually working then anyway!) to tell him that because his assignment was a weekend rush job it would cost more than usual, and he sent me an angry response in the middle of the night. “I suspect that you and I have vastly different ideas about working together,” he wrote. “There is no way I am paying that amount.”

In May, at the annual conference for the Swedish Association of Professional Translators, translator David Rumsey gave a lecture about the United States translation market. Something he mentioned was that one reason why the American market is large but underdeveloped is because there are pervasive myths there about what exactly translation involves. Mr. Rumsey mentioned that many Americans believe that translation is simply “typing in a foreign language,” and others think anyone can do it (say, the secretary whose grandpa came from Puerto Rico, or the Chinese chef at a restaurant), and still others have heard that there’s translation software that’s just as good as, or possibly better than, actual people. Mr. Rumsey may consider these false beliefs American, but the fact is that they are not unique to the United States. Many translators I’ve spoken to, whether from Sweden, England, the United States, or elsewhere, have shared tales about customers who claimed they’d go find “some student” or “ask the foreign neighbor for help” rather than pay a professional translator to do the job correctly.

If so many translators have stories like these, the question then becomes how to educate customers about what translation really is and why it is worthwhile to pay for professional services. To start off, translators can include detailed information about their background, their work methods, and their opinions about translation in any marketing material they use, including their websites. This sounds obvious, but there are people who think that their job title means enough on its own, or that since translation is necessary and important, it can sell itself. While some customers may simply skim over whatever you write and instead just request an estimate, many are curious and will read the text. If you have been to law school and specialize in legal texts, for example, or if you have translated a dozen novels, or if you have attended programs in translation, or if you worked as an engineer for 15 years before becoming a translator of technical manuals, announce those facts and describe what they mean for you as a translator; potential clients will be impressed and will know that you clearly are qualified for the job and will expect to be paid accordingly. You can also write about why translation is important and how your services will help the customers. If you translate grades for students who want to apply to study abroad, point out that you are certified, or if you work primarily for corporate clients, tell them that if they expect to sell products to customers in other countries, it is essential that the language on their website or in their users’ manuals is correct. Give examples of poor mistranslations that they should want to avoid, and remind them that without good translation, their customers won’t trust in the quality of their products or services. By the way, take that advice yourself, too, and make sure your own website is flawless; if necessary, hire a copy editor to review any foreign language pages you have written.

Another step we translators can take is to turn down any assignments that are outside our fields of expertise. It is tempting to want to accept all jobs and to want to convince customers that we are excellent all-around translators, but honestly telling people that you work only on medical documents and never on poems, or that you are comfortable with genealogy but not with contracts, makes them more aware that each translation is a specific text with its own requirements and that special skills and knowledge are needed. Just as a heart surgeon wouldn’t think of treating a patient’s allergies and a professor of Victorian literature wouldn’t dare teach a physics course, neither should translators attempt work on subjects that are far out of their own fields. That doesn’t mean, of course, that translators can’t learn about new areas and add new specializations, but it is not professional to endeavor to do that in just a couple of days and if you don’t do a good job, you will not only have lost a customer, but also anyone he would have recommended you to. If you turn down an assignment, try to recommend an appropriate colleague for it. Both your colleague and your customer will appreciate it; the former may in turn offer you jobs in your field, and the latter will remember the extra service you provided and may return to you with other assignments in the future.

Something I try to do whenever I receive a shocked response to an estimate is to write a polite e-mail in which I explain what is involved in translation and how I arrived at the price. If a lot of research is required in order to find specific technical words or if the assignment requires you to work nights or over a weekend, tell the customer. If you are expected to complete a large job in a short period of time or if you will have to go to a university library to use reference books that are only found there, explain that. Don’t be shy about saying how many hours you anticipate a translation to take you or about describing what the work will demand of you; most people don’t understand what goes into a translation and they may, as Mr. Rumsey said, view it as merely “typing in a foreign language.” I have more than once told customers how long their documents would take me to translate, how much tax I would pay, what amount would be left over, and how much that equaled per hour of work. Some people were definitely surprised at the minimum wage the fee they offered me turned out to be, and they understood that the prices I named weren’t just randomly chosen but that they had been carefully considered. Others were interested to learn that a translator didn’t just sit down at a computer and look up words in a dictionary for a few minutes and then the assignment was finished. It is unfortunately easy to take a job for granted when you don’t know what it really involves.

In his lecture, Mr. Rumsey offered some other ideas. He suggested that translators should provide information about different languages and cultures, which would presumably help those who believe that the world is monolingual, and reduce the risks for customers. By reducing the risks, he meant that translators and translation agencies should be prepared to provide free consulting and editing, have third-party reviewers, and other such things. I personally am not sure that offering cheaper prices or free services is the best method, as people are often reluctant to start paying for something they initially received for free or for a reduced cost, and there is a strange phenomenon in which people don’t always value what they don’t pay for. But I know that some translators like to draw in customers with low prices and then convince them to remain customers, even as the prices are increased, by doing good work.


The more customers know about what translation means and what qualifies a translator to take on a given assignment, the more they understand why they ought to pay for high quality work. It’s true that some people will always want to take the cheap route, regardless of what that means for their documents, but others will realize that doing something right usually means paying for it. So make the choice easy for your customers by giving them as much information as you can about your background and experience, about what translation entails, and about your pricing system. A customer who really cares about his documents and who has been educated about translation is less likely to waste your time by arguing that his friend or a computer program could do the job just as well and for half the cost. An educated customer is more likely to choose you and your services, and to gladly pay for a job well done.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Back Online

Well, I’m now safely ensconced in my new home in southern Wales. I’ve moved here to study in a translation studies program at Swansea University, and I am sure I will read lots of interesting books about translation so I can gain new ideas that I can then share with you.


My new university has a nice collection of translation links that might be of use to you.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Secret Weapon

Here is my essay from the Bryn Mawr College Cookbook. It’s about how food can be used in language education, so it might be some food for thought for those of you learning a new language.

The Secret Weapon

During my years teaching English in Sweden, I’ve frequently come back to food as a topic of conversation in class. I don’t do this just because I happen to be very interested in food. Many students don’t want to talk about politics or religion, because of an understandable desire to avoid conflict, and only some are interested in sports, movies, or books. But everyone has an opinion on food, and no one is afraid to try out their English, no matter how tentative, when the subject is as basic, and as essential, as food.

Beginning students tend to prefer to simply repeat the English words for various foods, tasting the words in their mouths. Intermediate students like to talk about what they ate for breakfast that day or what they usually eat on certain holidays, or they enjoy announcing which foods they like or dislike and why. The most advanced students discuss food memories, and they laugh at mistranslations or other silly mistakes, such as the misspelling of “pea soup” not uncommonly seen on English menus in Sweden, or the student who insisted he liked to drink “bear,” or the woman who advised that crying babies should be fed “glue.” She meant “gruel,” although that’s not necessarily so much better.

But whatever their level, all of my students are very curious to learn about food in the United States, and to compare it to food in Sweden, Poland, Lebanon, Russia, Denmark, France, Japan, or wherever they originally come from. And learning about the eating habits of Americans seems to teach by extension. A student might ask about typical American Easter foods, but then the class wonders whether all Americans celebrate Easter, and what other religions exist in the United States, and how the different races and religions get along, and suddenly we’re talking about issues much bigger than what Americans generally eat for a yearly holiday meal. Starting with that most everyday of subjects – food – helps the students gain a deeper understanding of a country and a culture that seems very far away to them.

A little physical reinforcement of all this new knowledge doesn’t hurt, so I gladly bake for my students, bringing in American treats. For example, they have enjoyed fudge, oatmeal raisin cookies, chocolate chip cookies, muffins, and brownies. I make them guess at the ingredients and tell me the names in English: “Oatmeal in a cookie? Strange, but it’s really good!”

More than once, though, the dinner tables have been turned. Students eagerly tell me about their national dishes or favorite foods, and they teach the class the correct pronunciation, and bring in recipes, pictures, or even samples. I’ve been offered, among other items, ice chocolates, traditional Swedish curd cake, freshly baked scones with jam, spiced wine, gingerbread, and “lussekatter,” the Swedish buns made with saffron.

I’ve almost come to think of food as a secret weapon not only for language education, but also for inter-cultural understanding. It’s long been known that breaking bread together has a symbolic meaning, but I didn’t quite expect that just discussing bread could have such significant benefits as well. Using food as a subject and a starting-off point, my students enthusiastically practice their English while simultaneously attempting to learn more about what people and cultures outside their own country are like.

Seeing how food makes them more curious and more open has made me realize that the time has come for more people to literally talk turkey.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Moving & Bryn Mawr College Cookbook

I won’t be posting for about two weeks, because I will be in the process of moving to another country and will be computer-less. I’m not sure how I’ll manage without my computer – many of us translators and writers use a computer every day. But I’ll look forward to posting again from my new location.

In the meantime, I’d like to announce that the Bryn Mawr College Cookbook has just been published. I organized and edited this cookbook, the proceeds for which will go to my beloved alma mater, Bryn Mawr College.

This book contains nearly 90 recipes for appetizers, salads, soups, side dishes, spices, main courses, desserts, and drinks, ranging from Korean dumplings, blintzes, chicken and yam chowder, fudge cake, and cassoulet to bolognese sauce, cranberry jelly, curry, bourbon balls, and Mayan hot chocolate. There are also 13 essays on food-related topics such as dining at Bryn Mawr, the joys and bonds of teatime, and discovering the perfect berries. Over 60 illustrations and photographs are included as well, most of them of the college. The alumnae featured in this cookbook come from the class of ’28 (with a recipe from actress Katharine Hepburn) through the class of ’06, with stops in almost every decade in between.

If this interests you at all, please check out the book.

The next post will contain a short essay I have in the cookbook, since it relates to the subject of the past few posts – learning a new language. After that post, the next time I write will be from Wales!