Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Finding Sources

Translators are language experts. Ideally, we’d also be experts in all the topics that the documents we translate are about, but that’s not always possible. Of course, we tend to be good researchers and many of us are curious and enjoy learning new things. But sometimes, there is a word or a concept in a text that we just can’t figure out, or there’s a description or a phrase that we just can’t picture, and therefore, we need help from other people. On occasion, we can ask our fellow translators, but there are situations when we might need to talk to, for instance, an accountant, an architect, a chef, or a person who grew up in another country.

Last month when I was in Sweden, I spent a couple of days in lovely Karlskrona with a friend of mine, who translates to Swedish. We discussed the memoir she was currently translating and some of the challenges it posed. For example, the book takes place in Australia, and some of the plants discussed don’t exist in Sweden, much less have Swedish words. So what did the translator do? She called a botanical garden and asked for advice about one plant in particular. Together with a scientist, based on names for similar plants, she helped created a new Swedish word. Another problem was a description the author used; it seemed to reference geology and evolution, but in a slightly unusual way. My friend asked me and some other native English speakers to read the sentence and to give our impressions and to tell her how the description sounded to us. Then she happened to hear a radio program featuring an earth scientist at a university in Göteborg; she took the chance to email him and ask for advice on what this phrase meant and how it could be translated, and he did in fact reply with information.

I was impressed by how she managed to find answers to these questions, how she was willing to request help from others. So often I struggle alone or, once in a great while, ask other translators or Swedish-speakers when I get really stuck. But this is how she regularly solves such problems; she told me that knowing people in different professions and from different cultures is a great way of getting help, and as long as you are polite, there is no reason why you can’t ask for suggestions even from people you don’t know. She said that when translating a South African novel with a lot of slang and cultural and political issues, she called a local university to ask if they had any South African exchange students. They did and she invited them over for tea and they helped her work through some of her queries.

So I thought of her last week when I was working on a cookbook and was stuck on one word that kept appearing in recipes. It referred to a specific kitchen tool that does not exist in English (and, frankly, is one of those tools that don’t need to exist either): a “potatissticka,” or a “potato stick,” which you use to check if the potatoes you are boiling are ready. I always use a fork myself, but I thought I should make sure that there really was no such item.

First, I asked some people I know who like to cook; no one had anything like it. Then, I was in the suburb of Swansea called Mumbles, where I take a ceramics course. I was early for the class and was just strolling around the cute streets when I noticed a store that sold only – you guessed it – kitchen tools and cookbooks. I said to the woman behind the counter, “I’m sure this sounds a little odd, but I’m a translator working on a cookbook and I wonder if you can help me with something.”

She confirmed that there is no “potato stick” in English-speaking countries, but that people use cake testers, skewers, forks, toothpicks, or meat thermometers instead.

So the point is that not only is it interesting in and of itself to know people in different fields and with different backgrounds and interests, but it is also helpful for your translation work (or your writing or editing work, for that matter). And don’t be afraid to talk to people or to ask for their assistance; many are genuinely glad to share their knowledge.


Anonymous said...

Hi Epstein just wanted to say thank you!! for building such an amazing website! it's helped many translation students like me i'm sure.

B.J. Epstein said...

Thank you for your comment! I am very glad that my blog is useful!

Best wishes,

Eric Dickens said...

Re: Finding Sources

I use the internet and search engines (mainly Google) a great deal, nowadays.

When recently translating two postmodernist novels from the Estonian by Mati Unt (1944-2006), I had to look up no end of things: mushrooms, cacti, holography, spontaneous combustion, Estonian history, the poems of Bertolt Brecht and his biographical details, World War Two in Finland, labour camps in Siberia, various uses of electricity, the biography of the late Estonian President, Lennart Meri, and so on.

Twenty years ago, this would have involved endless visits to (university) libraries, poring over encyclopædias and other reference books. Nowadays, information gathering is far less of a hit-and-miss affair, as Google will soon spew forth dozens of websites for the most obscure subject.

I too have e-mailed total strangers if they could help explain something.

And when writing a letter in a foreign language, when I'm not sure of, say, a preposition, I simply Google a suitable phrase in and if there 200,000 entries for one preposition and 47 for the other, then you've found it.

I've never done much cooking-Googling, though I'm thinking of translating works by one detective novel author whose leifmotif is, believe it or not, a recipe in every book.

Finally, once I couldn't understand how certain bunks were folded up and down in a small prison cell during the Nazi German occupation of Estonia (1941-44). The author simply drew a little diagram for me, which save explanations using a thousand words.

B.J. Epstein said...

Yes, the internet is a wonderful thing for us translators! I certainly use the internet to some extent for nearly every project, though of course we have to be careful about which sites we get information from.
One example of how I regularly employ googling: with any projects that include food, plants, or animals, especially more esoteric sorts that aren't listed in dictionaries, I've found that within a matter of moments, I can generally track down the Latin name of the item, which often then helps me figure out the translation.
But sometimes, even the internet lets you down, and that's when having human sources (or knowing how to get such sources) can be very helpful.

Best wishes,