Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Translating Humor

Ethics is an important subject, and one we’ll come back to, but for a total change of pace, here is an article I noticed about translating comedy.

Humor is especially tricky to translate not only because different people and different cultures find different things funny, but also because of the fact that languages work in different ways. As the author of the article points out, English vocabulary and grammar “allow for endlessly amusing confusions of meanings.” For example, it is easy to play around with “tale” and “tail” in English and to make a joke based on how the two words sound the same but have different meanings, but such a joke wouldn’t work in Swedish (or in many other languages), as the Swedish translations for those words are not so similar. Incidentally, this sort of linguistic complexity, or confusion, depending on your point of view, is one reason so many people find it difficult to learn English, especially in terms of spelling and pronunciation.

Word play and humor add so much to a text and sometimes can be truly essential to the story or document, but they are incredibly difficult to translate well. When it comes to translating humor, there are three main choices. A translator can leave a joke or word play out entirely, which then of course may affect the meaning of the work and/or cause other changes to have to be made to the text. Or a translator can retain the joke but translate it literally, so the humor is lost but the words are retained. A footnote could possibly be added here to explain what the joke means in the source language, especially if the humor is important to the text and to the reader’s understanding of it. Finally, a translator can adapt it to the target language, creating a somewhat similar atmosphere or sense. Obviously, a translator has to make such a decision on a case by case basis and there is no simple rule for how to deal with these kinds of situations.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Codes of Ethics

To continue the discussion on ethics, let’s look at translators’ associations’ codes of ethics.

Many translators’ associations do have codes of ethics or recommendations for professional conduct, but often such rules are rather basic. Such codes might say that translators should only translate to their native languages, or that they should be certain that they possess the necessary knowledge (such as specific terminology) before they accept an assignment, or that they should protect the customer by not using the text to be translated, the client’s personal information, or any other details in any way that does not strictly have to do with the job. But these kinds of codes or rules, which deal mainly with practical issues and are thus helpful in that regard, generally leave out two important topics.

First, they give no advice or suggestions on what translators should do if they face ethically risky situations. For example, what should a translator do if asked to translate a text that is specifically supposed to show the client’s language skills? Maybe a client is applying for a job in France and has to be fluent in French but instead writes his application essay in English and asks a translator to translate it to French. Is that ethical? Some translators might argue that such a client is only hurting himself by misrepresenting his language skills and that it is not up to them to point this out to him, whereas others might feel that they have a responsibility to turn down the job. To take a more serious example, what should a translator do with a racist text? Some translators might say they have a duty to make all texts available in other languages while others might refuse to translate a racist document, claiming that it incites people to hatred and possibly violence. Codes of ethics are, unfortunately, basically silent about these very important issues.

The second major topic left out of codes of ethics is the role of the client. If translators are expected to follow rules, why shouldn’t their clients? Too often I hear stories – or experience such things myself – about customers who try to cheat translators by not paying the correct amount, or not paying on time, or who expect translators to do more than is actually the job of a translator. Some codes do have recommendations for employers of translators, but these recommendations are generally rather basic as well, and they're not that common anyway. Many translators’ associations have corporate members and it would make sense to have ethical rules that these agencies and companies need to uphold. Then, if they do not follow the rules, they can be fined, or removed from the association, or translators can be warned about them (there should be similar consequences for translators who do not follow their ethical codes, too). Too often, corporate clients take advantage of translators and this must change. I suspect that some clients simply don’t understand translation and therefore don’t know how to work with translators, so having regulations or advice for them would educate them and help both them and the translators who work for them.

While I think it is great that translators’ associations have some advice on ethics and other information on professional conduct, I also think these codes are too limited and need to be further developed.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Translators and Ethics

I’m going away for a few days again, so I thought I’d leave you with an important issue to think about – ethics.

What is a translator’s ethical role? Should translators simply translate whatever a customer gives us? Is it our job to simply make all texts available in other languages? Or do we have an obligation to speak up if we disagree with something or if we are concerned about the affect the translation might have on the audience?

Every week, in the New York Times Magazine, a man named Randy Cohen answers questions on ethical issue. I enjoy his column, which is called The Ethicist, and was happy to see
a question on interpretation last Sunday.

Someone asked:

“Some time ago I was working as a court interpreter, translating what is said in court for the defendant and what the defendant says for the court. During a recess, the defendant confided that he did commit the crime and intended to take the stand and lie about it. I sought the advice of a colleague, who then informed the judge. As a result, I was chastised and lost my job. Was I wrong to divulge this information? E.N., Seattle”

Mr. Cohen responded:

“You were. Even if you made no explicit pledge of confidentiality, your role as an interpreter invites the defendant to confide in you, a relationship that does not terminate during a recess, out in the hall by the doughnut cart.

“The connection you've cultivated — emotionally, psychologically — endures. Unless you cautioned the defendant that you might disclose what he said, you abused his trust and your position.

“Robin G. Steinberg, executive director of the Bronx Defenders, a public defenders' organization in the Bronx (well, they would be), says of interpreters: "They become the only bridge between the attorney and the client. Those confidential communications can only occur with the interpreter, and those conversations are, indeed, confidential. There would be absolutely no way for a client to know that communications s/he makes just to the interpreter are subject to disclosure."

“Steinberg is right. A defendant naturally sees you as a quasi member of his legal team, someone to whom he can speak freely. Moreover, his requiring an interpreter indicates that he has limited facility with English and so is isolated in the court setting, making him even more apt to be candid with someone who speaks his language.

“What you could have done was speak to the defendant's lawyer. Generally, in the United States, if a client baldly announces an intention to lie on the stand, his lawyer is ethically bound to prevent him. Here in New York State, if a lawyer is unable to do that, he or she may, but is not required to, speak to the judge.

“While you acted badly, your colleague acted worse, imperiling the defendant and betraying your trust. I'm surprised that the judge spared him a sound thrashing, if that remedy is available under Seattle law.”

What do other translators and interpreters think of Mr. Cohen’s opinion? Do you agree with his view?

Have there been translation assignments you have refused to take or are there jobs you can imagine turning down for ethical reasons? I’d be very interested to hear other translators’ opinions on and experiences with ethical issues.

Selling Your Services and Negotiating

At the conference I attended last weekend, Ulla-Lisa Thordén gave an enthusiastic, energetic talk about selling your services.

She started off by mentioning two myths about selling. The first myth is that you have to be a born seller. Ms. Thordén said that you aren’t born anything; you have to become something, and being a good seller is really just being good at speaking and good at listening, both of which are skills that can be learned. The second myth she mentioned is that quality sells itself. Ms. Thordén said that unfortunately, quality has to be sold, and translators need to be able to explain what their particular abilities and skills are and why they are different from those of all the other translators out there.

Based on what she said, the two secrets of marketing and selling are persistence and clarity. You have to be persistent and keep trying to reach people, keep telling your family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and whoever else about what you do and why you are good at it, and keep in touch with the customers you do have and be available for them. You also have to be clear about what you do and you should spend time thinking about exactly what you are good at (as has come up in other posts, specialization can make you stand out from other translators and can add to your credibility). You should also be able to explain to customers what you can do for them and why they should work with you. Remember that people are easily overwhelmed by information, so being succinct and clear about your services is very beneficial.

Selling your services and negotiating prices are two related areas that are often difficult for translators, and Ms. Thordén also gave some advice on negotiation. Few translators, or other freelancers, want to argue with customers about price. We want to be friendly and liked by our customers, so when they complain about the cost, many of us get nervous or scared and try to appease them by hurriedly offering discounts or agreeing to lower the price. Ms. Thordén doesn’t agree with this approach.

Customers always think translators are too expensive (part of this may be because they don’t understand what translation really is or why it is necessary, so they don’t like paying for it, and also, of course, it is natural that companies want to keep their costs down). When faced with this situation, a translator should be clear and simply explain why his services are valuable. If clients complain, take control of the conversation. Either sit there quietly while the customer talks, which admittedly is quite difficult to do, or else say something such as, “I hear that you are hesitant. Why?” Respond calmly and clearly to whatever concerns the customer brings up, again explaining what you can do for him and his company, If the customer still doesn’t want to pay, say, “It’s too bad you can’t afford me.” Don’t lower your price just because others are good at negotiating or complaining; you should only lower the cost if it is strategically important for you to do so. Make sure you have decided in advance how much you are worth and what the absolute lowest price you will take for the project is.

And, finally, though it may sound obvious, when the assignment is finished, thank the customer. Say, “Thank you for choosing me” or “Thank you for working with me.” Being polite never hurts and it usually helps!

In other words, be clear about what you do and why you are good at it, and be able to explain this to others firmly and politely.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Cost and Effectiveness

Two of the lectures at the conference that I enjoyed the most might be considered basic, but they offered advice that I think is useful for both new and more experienced translators.

Björn Olofsson started his seminar with the premise that there are translation jobs available, but the question is how customers can find the translators they need. Mr. Olofsson said that when trying to reach customers, translators should think about cost and effectiveness. For example, having an ad in the yellow pages is expensive and generally doesn’t help that much, while being a member of a translators’ association is one of the best tools available to translators. Membership is relatively expensive, but also quite effective, since most associations have databases where customers can find you and the association also serves as a credential for translators.

Having your own website is generally pretty cheap and is a good way to sell your services. Here, though, it is important that the first page of your site clearly shows what you do, what you offer, and what you are good at. Customers don’t have the time to go searching for this information. Mr. Olofsson also thinks your website should primarily be in the source language and since generally the source language is not a translator’s mother tongue, make sure you get someone to edit and review the text. Language is your job, after all, and if you have any grammar or spelling mistakes on your website, customers will not trust your language skills and will not hire you. Mr. Olofsson’s website is only in Swedish, but it exemplifies a clear site with easy-to-find information.

Mr. Olofsson also mentioned the importance of specialization, an issue that came up several times during the conference. Many people can translate general texts, so specializing, whether in financial reports, contracts, users’ manuals, medical documents, or whatever else, is a way to help you stand out among all the translators. It also helps customers find you and I believe it builds trust as well; someone who claims to be good at everything is not so believable, but someone who says that she works primarily with dental texts and turns down legal documents because she doesn’t think she provide a high enough level of quality and service is someone companies would be more likely to hire. If you specialize and are asked to take on a translation outside your field, provide service to your customers by finding someone else to do the job or recommending a translators’ association and its database.

In other words, Mr. Olofsson's tips are to think about cost versus effectiveness when marketing your services, have a good website, and specialize.

For more on selling your services, which was the subject of the other lecture I mentioned above, see the next post.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Back from the Conference

Well, I’ve returned from the SFÖ conference in Stenungssund now. I enjoyed the lectures and got to meet many people, and since my goals for such an event are making contacts and learning new things, I can say the conference was a success. There were seminars on everything from EU documents to insurance, from searching on the Internet to copyright, and lectures ranging from how to better sell your services to social skills, and from drug slang to workplace ergonomics. In the next posts, I’ll write specifically about some of the lectures, but in the meantime, here are some photographs from Stenungssund.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Off to the Conference

I’m off to the annual conference of the Sveriges Facköversättarförening/Swedish Association of Professional Translators. I’ll be sure to report on the conference when I get back!

Archive by Category

I've organized all my past posts by category now, so it should be easy to find information on whatever translation-related topic you are interested in. The current categories are: translation and translators (these posts are explorations of what translation is and what it means to be a translator), practical advice (how to find jobs, for example), education (how to become a translator and what sort of education is needed), literary, poetry, interviews (currently there's only an interview with me, but more interviews will be coming soon), articles, book reviews and other posts on books, and polls. You can find the organized archive on the left side of the page, below the links.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Links for the Four Steps

In the last post, I detailed four steps to take in order to find more translating jobs. Now I’ll list some links you may find helpful. This is far from a complete list, however, so make sure you do more research on your own.

A very good general resource is
A Translator’s Home Companion. This site has comprehensive listings, including of agencies and other places to find jobs.

Another good resource is
translator Cecilia Falk’s page.

1. Sign up for e-lists.

Jobs for Freelance Translators

Translation and Interpretation Jobs


Literary Translation

2. Join a professional organization, preferably a translators’ society.

American Translators Association

International Federation of Translators

American Literary Translators Association

The Translators and Interpreters Guild

Institute of Translation and Interpreting

Sveriges Facköversättarförening/Swedish Association of Professional Translators

Föreningen Auktoriserade Translatorer/Federation of Authorized Translators

3. Register with translation agencies.

There are too many agencies to list here, but the following link and the two links I mentioned first have their own lists, plus you can do an easy internet search by entering your languages and the words “translation agency.”

Translators Café

4. Talk.

I can’t help you with links here! But I can remind you to tell people that you are a translator and I suggest you add a signature with that information to all your outgoing e-mails.

If you find any other good links,
let me know!

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Four First Steps

Some new translators have contacted me and asked me for advice on finding translation jobs. There are, of course, many ways of going about this, but here are a few simple first steps translators might want to take. All four suggestions focus on making contacts, which is an essential part of any business.

1. Sign up for e-lists.

This is the simplest step to take and is a good way to begin. There are many free mailing lists on translation; some require that you be a member of a translators’ association, but others accept anyone interested in translation. E-lists are good places to meet other translators and find jobs.

On such lists, people ask for and offer advice, talk about career options, mention which agencies don’t pay on time, discuss invoicing, ask specific questions about terminology, and so forth. Also, people sometimes realize they've accepted more work than they can actually finish on time, so they offer sub-contracted assignments, and that is a good way to get some experience. I have found that many people get work from other translators, especially in the beginning, so clearly, getting to know other translators is important for many reasons.

Thus, I suggest you join some list serves related to your languages. If you introduce yourself as being a new translator, I am certain people will offer advice, help, encouragement, and maybe even assignments. Experienced translators also find such lists helpful. Even if you've worked as a translator for many years, you might still have questions or need support.

2. Join a professional organization, preferably a translators’ society.

While there are some translator programs and translator certifications, the majority of freelance translators work without having studied to become translators and without having received an official certification. Partly because of this, customers don’t always know how to find a translator they can really rely on. The major translators’ associations are professional groups with entry requirements and standards that they uphold. Customers, therefore, might prefer to hire translators who are members of such groups, and they also use association databases to find translators who have the background they are looking for. Thus, being a member could very well bring you more work. I have certainly found that being a member of Sveriges Facköversättarförening/Swedish Association of Professional Translators (SFÖ) has helped customers find me and that the credential is viewed positively.

Such associations also provide translators with a large network, just as the e-lists do. Through SFÖ and its e-mail list, I have met other translators who sometimes had too much work and then passed on assignments to me, as well as translators who have been able to answer specific terminology questions I’ve had. Just this week, a translator who has different specialty areas than I do spent some time answering a few questions I had on a translation that was more in her field than in fields I typically work with. I hope that I’ll be able to help her in turn at some point. In general, the people in the group willingly share their experience and knowledge and since freelancers often work alone, having a network of people who can help you when needed is definitely appreciated.

Many associations have interesting magazines, gatherings, and annual conferences as well, all of which help you make contacts and develop professionally. In fact, I’m looking forward to attending SFÖ’s conference in just a few days.

One problem beginning translators have is that professional organizations often expect you to have references when you apply to join. If you’re just starting out, you probably haven’t had enough customers yet to be able to meet the reference requirement. That’s why I suggest joining e-lists first, as I think you’ll be able to find a few assignments that way, especially by sub-contracting from other translators. Another complaint people have about professional organizations is that the membership fees are often high. I know I resisted joining SFÖ for awhile for just this reason, but I have earned back my annual fee many times from the work I’ve gotten through the group. Sometimes you have to spend money in order to earn money!

3. Register with translation agencies.

Finding direct clients can be difficult, so many people start off translating for agencies, and plenty of translators continue to work primarily with agencies even when they are more settled in their career.

A quick search on the internet will help you find agencies that work with your language pairs and then you can fill out the form many of them have on their websites. However, some agencies only want certified translators, or translators who use specific computer translation programs, or translators who work with particular subjects, so make sure you study their websites carefully before filling in the form.

Also, most of the agencies will want you to name your price right away, so you might want to think carefully about how much you'll charge. Remember when mentioning a figure that the bottom line is often the deciding factor when agencies pick which translators to hire and also keep in mind that agencies generally pay less than direct customers.

4. Talk.

Tell anyone and everyone that you work as a translator, and keep active so you meet many people. You never know who might need your services, or who might mention to someone else who happens to need a translator that you work as one. You might be surprised by how many people start sending you job announcements or ads from newspapers or websites or whatever else, or who pass on information about you to potential customers. Among other things, friends have noticed ads looking for translators and sent those ads on to me; I have gotten work thanks to the sharp eyes of these friends.

Besides translation, I also teach English, write articles, and copy edit, so I meet people in other fields. Some of my adult students work at companies where they need to translate their website or invoices to English, and schools where I teach sometimes need to translate evaluations or letters, and I meet people through my work as a freelance journalist and find they want someone to translate their restaurant's menus, and so forth. For me, having several jobs, meeting many people, and telling friends and relatives about my work helps me find a lot of opportunities.

Of course, it’s especially helpful if you live in a country where the language you want to translate from is spoken. Since I live in Sweden and translate from Swedish, I meet people frequently who need help translating from Swedish. But translation is a job that you can do from any location, so you don’t have to move somewhere just to get work! Instead, join lists and professional organizations, sign up with agencies, and let people know that you are a translator. Those are good steps to take no matter what stage you are at in your career.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Urgently Needed

A brief recent New York Times article on translation and the job market says that there is more need for translators now and that it can be a profitable job (the article only talks about non-fiction translations, such as government documents, and not at all about literary translation, which is why the author can even mention the idea of profitability).

It is nice to see translation highlighted in a major newspaper (usually, if it is mentioned at all, it is only given a cursory sentence in a book review), even if the article seems to focus on translating government documents and on interpreting, which, of course, is not the same as translation and requires different skills.

It’s too bad the article doesn’t mention the need for better language programs in schools in the U.S., since the increased demand for translators will become a problem quickly unless more students start studying foreign languages in depth. The U.S. is far behind other countries in terms of emphasizing the importance of learning multiple languages, and the country needs to stop arrogantly thinking that the rest of the world can learn English and that Americans can remain placidly and lethargically monolingual.

In the U.S., the article says, “certain Middle Eastern and Asian languages have surged in priority in the post 9/11 world.” Learning other languages is beneficial in many ways, of course, including the fact that studying another country’s language and the culture behind it leads to increased understanding, and perhaps fewer conflicts.

The article says that translators are “(w)anted, and in many instances urgently needed,” but where can translators find these jobs? More on that in another post – and any translators who want to share job-finding tips, let me know!

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Looking for Clockmakers

It would be great to hear from translators who work frequently, or even exclusively, with poetry. It would also be fascinating to learn more about a poetry translator’s process and even to see it in action. So if you are interested in sharing your process and your experience with us, contact me!

Monday, May 01, 2006

The Clockmaker

The well-known comment by Robert Frost that “(p)oetry is what gets lost in translation” reflects the general idea that if translation as a whole is nearly impossible, then translation of poetry is truly so.

In 2004 at Poesidagarna, an annual poetry festival mentioned in the last post, the Dutch poet Michel Kuijpers, who publishes poetry under the pseudonym K. Michel, compared translation to taking apart a clock. If one wants to understand how a clock works, one takes it apart and studies the pieces before putting it back together. Similarly, if one wants to understand a poem, one takes it apart, studies it, and then puts it back together – in another language. The Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova, who teaches Russian and Lithuanian at Yale, seems to serve as both poet and clockmaker, since he mentioned that when someone is going to translate his work, he writes a detailed explanation of what he meant and what the implications of his word choices are and, if he knows the target language, he also writes a first draft of the potential translation. It’s true that many writers answer their translators’ questions when possible, but what is it about translating poetry that drives a poet to help his translator to such an extent as Mr. Venclova does?

Arguably more so than in prose, both the words and the form matter in poetry. Meter and rhythm are two features of poetry that some translators mention when discussing the difficulty of translating poetry. Prose also has meter and rhythm, of course, although they are often more obvious in poetry. Poetry may also have rhymes, which are quite difficult to translate well. Then there is the language. Poetic language is frequently imaginative and words are used economically, so the preciseness of the translation is especially noticeable and important. There is rarely plot in poetry, at least not in the same way as there is in a novel or a short story, and this makes the emphasis on each word even stronger.

So a translator has many decisions to make. Can the rhymes, the meter, the rhythm be retained? What must be left out or changed if any one of those is retained? And for the words, what images and feelings do they represent in the original language and is it possible to transfer those images and feelings to the target language? Or must replacement images and feelings that work better in the new language be chosen? After all, since languages and cultures don’t work the same way, if a poem is translated too literally, a poet’s whole meaning could be lost in translation.

The elements that make a poem are the same elements that make a poem challenging to translate. But what’s a translator to do? Our job is to find a way to say what seems impossible to say and we serve the writers and the readers by making texts available to a larger audience. We are, as Alexander Pushkin was quoted as saying, “the post-horses of enlightenment.” Although perhaps now we should say that we are the clockmakers of enlightenment.