Friday, May 29, 2009

Getting a PhD in Translation Studies

I am nearing the end of my time in a doctoral program in translation studies, so I thought I would write a little bit about what it means to get a PhD in the field. A shorter version of this was published as a guest post earlier this month.

In September 2006, I moved from Sweden to Wales in order to study at Swansea University. There are not that many schools yet that offer translation studies; more often, one must study a language or comparative literature. So what does it mean to be in a translation studies program?

Translation programs on the BA or MA level generally focus on training translators. Such programs combine theoretical and practical work. Students improve their language skills, read and discuss translation theory, practice translation, learn about computer programs and terminology, and maybe get information about starting a company or working for agencies, and other such things. In other words, these kinds of programs are aimed at students who are good with languages and want to work in the field of translation.

In a sense, translation studies might as well be totally unrelated. I have met many people who study or work in the field of translation studies and yet have never translated and have no intention of doing so (I tend to find this odd, but that is a different issue). In a PhD program, a student is being prepared to become a researcher, not a translator. As in BA or MA programs, students learn about translation theory, but by the PhD level, they are expected to have (or to quickly obtain) in-depth knowledge about this. Students should already have extensive language skills. One doesn’t really attend courses, although this depends on what country the program is and what individual students require. For example, I chose to sit in on several classes about translation theory and the history of translation, mainly out of interest and a desire to refresh or extend my knowledge. Basically, one spends most of the time researching.

Research what? Well, there are many different possible areas. One can research and analyze the translation of specific kinds of non-fiction or fiction works or specific types of language, the translation of a particular author, what it means to translate between two or more different languages, how translators feel about their jobs, what translators actually do as they work, how translators are or ought to be trained, how translators use (or don’t use) computer tools, how ideas of translation have changed over time, critiquing translation, how translation can be used to control certain populations, how translation can develop a target language, what conditions translators work in, differences in how translators and those studying to be translators work or think about their work, and much, much more. Remember that much of this can apply to interpreting too, which is generally subsumed under the field of translation studies, though interpreting studies as a separate field is growing, and also to subtitling.

As an example, my own research has been focused on children’s literature and I have been particularly interested in how figurative language is used and translated in books for children from English to Swedish. I also know people who research the translation of medical texts between English and Chinese, and the translation of idiomatic phrases in non-fiction from Spanish to English, and the subtitling of talk shows. Some researchers use computer programs to help with their research (particularly if they need a large corpus of texts), while others interview translators or sit with them while they work, and still others focus on close analysis of texts.

Those who are starting out in the field often spend a lot of time learning about translation theory in general and their particular field specifically. For example, in my first term or two in the PhD program, I read everything I could find on the translation of children’s literature, on translation in the colonial and postcolonial contexts (this was related to my need to learn more about translation and power), on functionalist theories and skopos, on translating dialects and wordplay, and related topics. Others might want to read about gender theories or issues of in/visibility or financial translation or interpreting in a legal setting or think-aloud protocols.

The next step is picking one’s texts and starting the research and, of course, trying to find something new and important to contribute to the field. I use primarily textual analysis and statistical analysis, which means I study texts and their translations, and then compute how common certain translatorial strategies are. In the first term, students often begin writing literature reviews and chapters of their dissertation. Here, one’s supervisors should give detailed criticism on one’s writing style and ideas.

In the first year, many students start attending academic conferences and sometimes even presenting at them. Conferences are an excellent way to learn about what research is taking place in the field and also to get feedback on one’s budding research. Next, one ought to try to get articles published. Attending and speaking at conferences and having work published are both essential when one is finished and looking for a job. Research trips may also prove beneficial; I spent two wonderful weeks at the National Library in Stockholm, studying various translations of work by Lewis Carroll and Mark Twain.

Students must be independent and good at working hard and making their own schedule. Many people don’t understand that being a PhD student is very different from studying at the BA or MA level. No one will give you deadlines or tell you what to do (generally, that is; some supervisors might be a bit more hands-on). You have to recognize that everything is up to you and that you have to prepared to be very active.

I have really loved my time being a PhD student in translation studies. I have continued to translate, edit, write, and teach throughout my years in Wales, and that has been really stimulating for me, although many PhD students prefer to focus solely on their research. It’s a lot of fun to research translation and to try to contribute to the field and in the future, I hope to continue combining research with being a practicing translator.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Cipher Journal

I recently learned about Cipher Journal, an online publication that focuses primarily on translation. It is definitely worth reading and submitting to.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

End of the Relay

I was reading the 23 March edition of the New Yorker and noticed the following description of Ismail Kadare in a short book review: “Albania’s most distinguished novelist…” And yet, as the review points out, the book being reviewed was translated first from Albanian to French and then from French to English. In other words, a relay translation.

Wouldn’t “Albania’s most distinguished novelist” deserve better? Let’s face it – nearly any writer deserves a one-to-one translation, versus the multiple languages and changes involved in a relay translation. I’m surprised and disappointed that this is still so common.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Nordic Voices Blog

I was excited to learn that there is a new blog on Nordic languages and literature. One of the people running has been featured on BNW, Eric Dickens. The new blog is one I will return to often.

Monday, May 11, 2009


Most of us aren’t lucky (or unlucky) enough to get a concept named after us. Thomas Bowdler, however, gave his name to the idea of cutting out any pieces of a work of literature that are not appropriate for women and children. Most famously, Bowdler bowdlerized Shakespeare.

My reason for posting about him is twofold: he lived in the same city where I currently live and I am very interested in the ways in which authors, editors, or translators change texts for children (or, as in Bowdler’s case, for women!). Some people might say that Bowdler was a product of his time; that may be true in part, but the fact is that bowdlerizing takes place today too, hence the continued popularity of the eponym.

We translators and editors have to be aware of the target audience, obviously, but we also need to be careful that we don’t abuse our power and underestimate what readers can handle and should have access to.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Some Reading

Here are two guest posts by me, two other articles, and some new language or translation blogs for you to read.

I wrote a guest post on the London Book Fair on the Practicing Writing blog.

My second guest post is on getting a PhD in translation studies. A slightly longer version of this post will appear here later this month. The Translation Times blog is run by the lovely translating twins.

This article is on language in Belgium – I never knew they had a German-speaking minority, so it was educational for me.

The second article is about puns, which can be a lot of fun, but also are difficult to translate.

There is a new blog on vocabulary on the NY Times website.

Here is a translation blog.

Jody Byrne, an academic I met at a conference in Shanghai, also has a new translation blog.

And another translation blog.

Friday, May 01, 2009

A Guide to Working as Freelance Translator

A translation company contacted me earlier this year about a book they have written. It contains a lot of basic information about working as a freelance translator and could be useful to those of you who are now starting your translation careers.