Friday, June 13, 2008

So You Think You Can Translate

The popularity of reality TV shows has sometimes made me wonder what a reality show about translation would involve. Note that I don’t have a television, so I may be a bit off on what the average reality show is all about, but from what I understand, it involves challenges and each week someone is kicked off the show.

So we have a group of eager wannabe-translators. What would they face on So You Think You Can Translate?

Every week, our eager contestants would pick a new style of text out of a box (financial report, poem, academic article, medical records, play, essay, speech, contract, short story, etc.) and they would have to translate that on their own. To make this even more difficult, they could also pick references from a box, so they would be limited to using one or some combination of the following: computer tools, dictionaries, Internet references, encyclopedias, or libraries. Contestants might get a total of two special links for the entire season, and that would mean that if they were really stuck on a translation, they could decide to call a professional translator or some other expert (a professor, language teacher, botanist, lawyer, novelist, editor, architect, etc.) for help.

In addition, there would be group, pair, and individual challenges. Challenges might include learning a new language, performing a sight translation, working on a relay translation, subtitling, interpreting, giving a presentation on some aspect of translation, learning how to use a new computer tool, reviewing a book on language or translation, negotiating with a customer, handling an angry client, advertising their services, and putting together a literary magazine of new translations.

The contestants’ translations would be critiqued by a panel of experienced judges, but the viewers would vote on who the winners of the other challenges should be. Each week, the contestant with the least votes would have to leave the show.

As the season draws to a close, the ultimate winner would be pronounced the nation’s Best Translator and she or he would get help starting her or his own freelance business. This would include an office with the works (computer, big desk, ergonomic chair, coffee machine, full sets of dictionaries and encyclopedias, etc.) plus a year’s worth of advice from an accountant, a mentor, and membership in any appropriate translators’ association.

I know I’d watch this show! Anyone else? What else should be on it?


Patje said...

> What else should be on it?

Me! :)

shoko said...

I think that would be a most intriguing show, though unfortunately, utterly doomed never to make it into production. :P

But, playing into the fantasy...

More challenges:

- speed translating (either how much can you translate in x amount of time or just a race with winners gaining advantages, and of course, accuracy counts)

- extreme target text limitations (so limited, you *have* to lose something in translation, but what do you choose to drop?)

- picking out errors from already translated text

I'm generally not in favor of viewer voting, because it often becomes, at least partially, if not mostly, a popularity contest that has little to do with skill. I think that works for things like singing shows, where popularity is definitely part of success, but I've seem some other frustrating examples of viewers either booting someone fairly competent or saving a relatively unskilled person. And while a show like the one suggested here would serve to educate the public about translating, I'm rather skeptical about how many would really vote based on merit. That's not to say that voting is entirely bad, since there's a lot of good that comes from viewer participation as well. I just don't think any contestant's fate should be entirely in their hands. (And yes, I watch way too many reality shows. :P)

Would the contestants all need to be translating between two set languages to begin with? I'm thinking it would, to level the playing field and make judging easier, but I was wondering what your thoughts were on that.

B.J. Epstein said...

Thank you for your comments!
Your critique of the viewer voting issue makes sense. But if viewers aren't involved in some way, would they watch (not, of course, that this show would ever get made!)? How would the show get viewers (and thus advertisers)?
Yes, though it does seem limiting, I think we'd have to choose one source language and one target language, for the sake of fairness. Or perhaps, as the seasons go by and the show gets more popular and contestants more talented (in my dream world, that is), each contestant would have the same several source languages.

Best wishes,

shoko said...

There are actually a lot of reality shows that knock off contestants solely on the say so of expert judges, generally spiced up with weekly guest judges. So, that suggests to me that viewer participation isn't necessarily a must-have. Other shows have experimented with combining scores from both judges and viewers, with the win awarded to the highest combined scorer. I think it could also be interesting to award advantages to a contestant based on viewer voting, which could contribute to wins and losses, but not directly influence the outcome.

In terms of getting viewers, as with any TV show, I think it would really be up to the content. Viewer participation might help viewers feel more invested in a show, but a show has to interest them to begin with for them to want to invest their time in it anyway. And generally, with reality shows, a lot of it has to do with the contestants, because it's the human drama of competition, of success and failure, and the rivalries that keep things going. And the challenges and contests are only fodder to fuel that fire.

I've actually found this to be a fascinating exercise... Thinking about how something like translating could be made accessible. Meaty challenges that would result in a lot of translating could actually be rather boring. Do you read off translations? Do you have to explain why a translation was good or not? Do you just do excerpts? Do you watch translators do internet searches? And I think the key would be to place the resulting translated works to the test in real world situations. Maybe translate a set of instructions and then hand that off to someone who only understands the target language, and see how well that person executes those instructions. Or for a more creative challenge, translate a children's book and see how well the translation holds the attention of a group of kids. I think that could be fun to watch. ^_-

B.J. Epstein said...

I love your ideas, Shoko. You and I could really put together a good show. If any producers are reading this, you know how to contact us!
Seriously, though there will probably never be a reality show on translation, there must be ways of making our field more visible. If they can do it with dancing or modelling or whatever else, why not with translation?

Best wishes,

monica said...

I wish I could watch such a reality show! :))

Anonymous said...

And the winner has to face an unexptected extra special test. Translate a ten lines lipogram within 75 seconds, or he looses it all...
I've had a good time reading you. Thanks.

B.J. Epstein said...

That's a fun idea, Marie!

Best wishes,