Saturday, December 30, 2006


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, 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.