Monday, August 31, 2009

FAQ #2: On Research Topics

I get many questions regarding possible research topics for people who are writing theses or dissertations on translation studies. Since you spend a lot of time and energy on your research, you need to choose something that you actually find interesting and worth looking into, not just something you think sounds good. It’s true that there are quite a few underresearched areas out there (children’s literature, for example, or subtitling, or certain language pairs), but you shouldn’t choose a topic based on that alone.

So I am sorry to say that I can’t offer readers lists of potential subjects for their research. All I can suggest is that you think carefully about what languages you know, what you have studied or excelled at in school thus far, and what your hobbies and interests are, and then try to find a way to combine them. In my case, for example, I learned Swedish by reading children’s books and that led to me falling for children’s literature in Scandinavia and making its translation the subject matter for my research.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Reading Round-Up

Here are a couple of articles, sites, and blogs for you to check out.

This article is on the Cherokee script.

This article is on linguist Tucker Childs and his work in Africa.

The next piece was sent to me by BNW guest blogger Theo Halladay and is on a small translation business.

Here’s a great list of blogs, which will provide plenty of reading pleasure.

Here’s a language news site.

And just for fun, check out this picture.

Friday, August 21, 2009

What’s Cooking

The most recent issue of the Translation Journal has an article by me about translating food.

What's Cooking:
Translating Food
by Brett Jocelyn Epstein

I have translated or edited a number of cookbooks and while such work is a lot of fun (and can make you hungry, especially if there are accompanying pictures), there are certain challenges involved. Here, I want to mention the top four difficulties and possible solutions.

1) Availability of ingredients

Despite the growing popularity of cooking these days and the new trendiness of certain ethnic ingredients, the fact remains that not all items are available in all countries (and in some cases, they are only available at exorbitant costs). For example, a couple of years ago, I was the project manager for the translation to Swedish of two cookbooks that were written in Australia. Naturally, the recipes included many ingredients that were specific to Australia or to Asian countries much closer to Australia than to Sweden. Some of these ingredients were not possible to find in Sweden, so the publisher suggested simply substituting them, without any notice to the target reader. I disagreed with this approach. Substitution can definitely be an appropriate solution in some cases, but if it is used regularly throughout an entire cookbook, it seems to me that the recipes are being changed much more than a translation warrants. Therefore, my suggestion was to include the original ingredients and a list of possible substitutes. As I reminded the publisher, food trends change so rapidly that what once was only available in just one country can suddenly be available all around the world, and if we don't want the translations to date too quickly, we have to be aware of this fact. The final translations of these books included a glossary of terms and suggestions for possible substitutions.

Here, I must also point out that it is not enough for a translator to simply think, "This recipe calls for lobster, but that is too expensive and not so easily available, so I'll write shrimp instead." For recipes, translators ought to stick as closely to the original as possible and if ideas for substitutions are being offered, the translator must explain why. Also, the translator or another person connected to the project should try to cook recipes both in their original form and in the version with substitutions, to make sure that the tastes, appearances, smells, and other salient features are preserved.

2) Cuts of meat

Related somewhat to challenge 1), cuts of meat are not necessarily the same in different countries. Translators who are not "foodies" themselves or those who, like me, do not eat meat, must be aware of this fact. Here, asking experts and using reference materials is a great help. There are cuts of meat charts that are easily found on Google or you can get acquainted with chefs or others interested in food and ask for their advice. Many translators either do not think about asking for help or they get nervous about doing so. In my experience, however, experts are glad to help, and some professional translators build up a "little black book" of experts to call when they need advice on botanical, architectural, culinary, or any other matters. I'll give an example of this below. In any case, do not make assumptions about cuts of meat being the same, even if the terminology is the same or similar. Always check on this or a recipe might not turn out well.

3) Measurements

Cups or grams? Tablespoons or ounces? As is well known, there are different measurement systems around the world and it is not enough to, say, go to, type in the numbers from the source text and write down what the website has offered you. If you did that, 2 cups would be 4.7317 dl, and when have you ever seen a recipe that calls for 4.7317 dl flour? In cases where measurements have to be changed, there are two major possible strategies. The first is that the publisher simply retains the measurements and then offers a conversion table at the back of the book. This can be quite irritating for a reader, however, because then she or he has to keep flipping from the recipe to the table. If the cookbook is more of the coffee table type, however, which is to say one that people read and look at, but don't really plan to cook from, this solution is fine. But for a cookbook that is meant for real use, it is just not practical. In this situation, new measurements based on the target culture's system must be used. This can be done either via complete replacement or replacement and retention. Complete replacement means that either the translator or another expert tests all the recipes and shifts the measurements so that instead of 4.7317 dl flour, the recipe calls for 5 dl flour. The translator must be careful here to ensure that all the new measurements make sense in the context of the recipe and that all have been converted. A recipe may not work if even one measurement is off, especially for baked goods. Replacement and retention is a combination strategy that means both changing the recipe so it reads 5 dl flour and also keeping 2 cups flour in parenthesis. This can, however, confuse readers, so it is a rare book that will use this strategy.

4) Implements, pots, and pans

As with ingredients, some countries have different implements, pots, pans, and other essential cooking items, or they may use drastically different words for a similar tool. For example, I was working on translating a cookbook from Swedish to English 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 in English-speaking nations. First, I asked some other people I know who like to cook; no one had anything like it. Then, I went to a store that sold only 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. In this case, I was able to rewrite the sentence, but for other implements, there may actually be a proper word for it. It is important to find out, so ask an expert when you are not sure.

In summary, I am suggesting 1) that you have sources (whether chefs, other translators, people who enjoy cooking, shop-owners, or anyone else) who can offer ideas, 2) that you not be afraid of recommending substitutions, where appropriate, 3) that you be willing to test and compare original recipes and your translations, and 4) that you include glossaries, translators' notes, substitution lists, or other extratextual material where necessary.

I hope that this advice will offer you a recipe for success when it comes to translating cookbooks!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

How Language Works

My summer reading included David Crystal’s book How Language Works. It’s an easy-to-understand explanation of many aspects of language, including how we physically are able to speak and to understand language, how and when children learn languages, different writing systems, sign language, what dialects are, pidgins and creoles, and teaching languages. In short, this book is a good introduction to what language is and does.

There’s even a brief section on translation and interpretation. This section includes the following paragraph that defines what translators do and are:

“Translators aim to produce a text that is as faithful to the original as circumstances require or permit, and yet that reads as if it were written originally in the target language. They aim to be ‘invisible people’ – transferring content without drawing attention to the considerable artistic and technical skills involved in the process. The complexity of the task is apparent, but its importance is often underestimated, and its practitioners’ social status and legal rights undervalued. Some countries view translation as a menial, clerical task, and pay their translators accordingly. Others (such as the Japanese) regard it as a major intellectual discipline in its own right. The question of status is currently much debated.”

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Thursday, August 06, 2009

FAQ #1: On Hiring

I regularly get questions via email from readers of this blog, so it occurred to me that instead of me constantly writing individual responses to them, I could collate some of the regular questions and answers here. Therefore, I’ll write a series of FAQ posts.

First of all, I’ll start with the easiest answer: no, except in very particular circumstances, I am not hiring. When I do need someone’s help on a project, I have contacts that I work with. So while I appreciate all the cover letters and CVs you send me, I am sorry to say that nothing will come of them.

In general, you should do more research before approaching a potential employer. I get a lot of emails from people who work with Arabic, but if you would carefully study my website, you’d see that I never work with Arabic and thus have no jobs to offer in that area. The same goes for most other languages and for subject matters such as engineering or medicine. You should always review someone’s website and materials before wasting your time contacting someone who doesn’t have work for you.

Stay tuned for more FAQ!

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Call for Papers

The following information is from Swansea University, where I just finished my Ph.D. I hope to see some of you at this conference!

Call for Papers

The Author-Translator in the European Literary Tradition

Swansea University, 28 June – 1 July 2010

Confirmed keynote speakers include:

Susan Bassnett, David Constantine, Lawrence Venuti

The recent ‘creative turn’ in translation studies has challenged notions of translation as a derivative and uncreative activity which is inferior to ‘original’ writing. Commentators have drawn attention to the creative processes involved in the translation of texts, and suggested a rethinking of translation as a form of creative writing. Hence there is growing critical and theoretical interest in translations undertaken by literary authors.

This conference focuses on acts of translation by creative writers. Literary scholarship has tended to overlook this aspect of an author’s output, yet since the time of Cicero, authors across Europe have been engaged not only in composing their own works but in rendering texts from one language into another. Indeed, many of Europe’s greatest writers have devoted time to translation – from Chaucer to Heaney, from Diderot and Goethe to Seferis and Pasternak – and have produced some remarkable texts. Others (Beckett, Joyce, Nabokov) have translated their own work from one language into another. As attentive readers and skilful word­smiths, writers may be particularly well equipped to meet the creative demands of literary translation; many trans­lations of poetry are, after all, undertaken by poets themselves. Moreover, translation can have a major impact on an author’s own writing and on the development of native literary traditions.

The conference seeks to reassess the importance of translation for European writers – both well-known and less familiar – from antiquity to the present day. It will explore why authors translate, what they translate, and how they translate, as well as the links between an author’s translation work and his or her own writing. It will bring together scholars in English studies and modern languages, classics and medieval studies, comparative literature and translation studies. Possible topics include:

· individual author-translators: motivations, career trajectories, comparative thematics and stylistics

· the author-translator in context: literary societies, movements, national traditions

· the problematic creativity of the author-translator

· self-reflective pronouncements and manifestos

· the author-translator as critic of others’ translations

· self-translation: strengths and weaknesses

· authors, adaptations, re-translation and relay translation

· the reception and influence of the work of author-translators

· theoretical interfaces

Proposals are invited for individual papers (max. 20 minutes) or panels (of 3 speakers). The conference language is English. It is anticipated that selected papers from the conference will be published. Please send a 250-word abstract by 30 September 2009 to the organisers, Hilary Brown and Duncan Large (

Author-Translator Conference

Department of Modern Languages

Swansea University

GB-Swansea SA2 8PP