Book Review: On Translator Ethics – Anthony Pym

As many of you will know, for the last year or so I’ve been working on a PhD in translation studies and today I thought I’d use a little of my research material to bring you a book review. Since my research is focused squarely on the ethics of translation, the review rather predictably delves into one of the key texts in this area – On Translator Ethics by Anthony Pym.

Within the context of translation studies, the word ethics conjures up interest and mystery in equal measure. While it is widely recognized as a key area for discussion throughout the discipline, scholars have attempted to grapple with all things ethical in translation for decades and found varying – though generally limited – success.

Originally published in 1997 as Pour une éthique du traducteur, Pym’s work is based on seminars given by the author at the Collège International de Philosophie in Paris. As On Translator Ethics, aside from the obvious changes ensuing from the translation from French to English, we are informed that the text has also been revised by the author and updated to include brief, polemical commentaries at the end of each chapter tackling contemporary ethical issues such as non-professional translation.

Chapter 5 also represents an entirely new addition and yet, beneath this veneer, this is essentially the same text as was published back in 1997. Indeed, as Pym explains in his introduction, while technological developments and the professional translation community’s attitudes towards scholarship engendered certain changes in his focus, the crucial ethical thrust behind the work required no alteration.

For Pym, the ethics of translation is twofold: it contains ‘collective, professional aspects as well as the translator’s individual morality’ (15) and ‘[i]f any decision includes moral aspects, it follows that any act of translation, and any theoretical treatise on it, can be read from the point of view of ethics’ (16). With these statements, Pym equates the act of translation as a whole with an ethics of translation.

However, rather than seeking to address the question of ethics within the act of translation, as Corinne Wecksteen puts it, Pym proposes to replace the ‘fundamental question ‘how should one translate?’ … by the question ‘should one translate?’’ (Wecksteen 2000: 125), considering that ‘if we know why we translate, then we can deduce how we should translate and perhaps even what we should translate in each situation’ (Pym 2012: 12).

He goes on to depict translation as a cooperative act and sets this notion of cooperation at the very centre of his ethical theory. For him, the benefits of cooperation represent the final measure to evaluate the necessity of translation, implicitly moving from a traditionally deontological to a consequentialist ethics, focusing on ends rather than means.

Aside from these notions of cooperation, meanwhile, Pym’s main postulate is that translators are primarily intercultural agents located in the intersections of cultures rather than within one single culture. In order to initiate this switch, his opening chapter is dedicated to a critical re-reading of Friedrich Schleiermacher’s seminal 1813 paper ‘On the different methods of translating’, concluding that his binary opposition presumes that translators take only one side in their interventions, excluding the middle ground within which Pym believes that the future of translation could lie.

Within this ‘third’ space, translators are dominated by the ethics of cooperation and primarily responsible not to the source text writer, the client or their readers but to their fellow translators. This manoeuvre is carried out in order to argue that translators are by definition detached from national interests, benevolent but impartial helpers and, for Kaisa Koskinen, to create an ‘aura of innocence and moral disinterestedness’ (Koskinen 2000:74) in a tactical move aimed to raise the profile of translation. Overall, this is an innovative rethinking of the traditional binary dichotomies dominating the field yet a notion that leaves fundamental concerns.

As well as problems raised by ideas upholding the existence of mutually discrete cultures, Lieven Tack notes that Pym’s research also fails to consider important covert aspects of human communication such as hidden agendas and unconscious biases. Importantly, ‘[i]nformation does not flow freely, not even in intercultures; it is inevitably anchored, situated, appropriated and inscribed in complex ideological contexts. The mutual benefit, as the guiding principle for the question whether or not to translate, is not always clearly in sight.’ (Tack 2001:301).

Furthermore, despite Pym’s insistence that the answer to ‘why translate’ will solve the issue of ‘how to translate’, it is not an entirely natural connection, and one that potentially undermines his research. Ultimately, what Pym actually means by his ethics of intercultural cooperation remains vague – ideas such as translators using the principle of cooperation to produce ‘socially recognized added value’ (Pym 2012:158) may sound extremely promising but Pym never really gets close to helping the translator sitting in front of their source text.

Most worryingly from an ethical perspective, meanwhile, there are points in the discussion of the principle of cooperation where the process actually seems to align itself with commonly held conceptions of the unethical. Paradoxically, Pym says that if we translate with a view to achieving cooperation then we are ethically valid while also asserting that ‘[w]illful ignorance or reductive misrepresentation of the other is the quickest route to non-cooperation [i.e. the unethical for Pym]’ (ibid. 143), returning us to the labyrinth of fidelity (in this case to abstract ideas of representing the other) and leaving us to question what course of action we are to follow if the client asks us to omit or change something to represent a specific ideology. Is the cooperation ensuing from pleasing the client sufficient to overrule the need for representing the other in a specific manner?

Further questions outlined by Koskinen, such as ‘how does one evaluate the benefits of cooperation?’ and, ‘how does one choose between conflicting interests in cases where an obvious middle ground ensuring long-term cooperation simply does not exist?’, (Koskinen 2000:73) add to a growing list of problems but there remains a great deal of promise in the new directions that Pym has uncovered.

Though concerns remain over the solutions provided, Pym has undoubtedly done a lot more for demystifying ethics than most others, successfully tying the subject to a methodology of translation and hinting at a future beyond binary opposition. While the discussion of practical, commercial insights alongside more traditionally intellectual, philosophical themes often forms a somewhat jarring juxtaposition when reading the text – Pym’s attempt to provide practical contextualisation for his abstract theory is highly commendable, seeking to address a long-standing issue in translation studies by bridging the gap that exists between theory and practice.

Ultimately, Pym remains a key voice in the area and the ongoing relevance of his (largely unchanged) ideas – signaled by this essential republication of his work to a new audience after a fifteen-year gap – provides a strong indication of both the value of his contribution and the need for more work in the area. While his solutions are not always adequate, perhaps suffering from ‘casting the net too wide’ as he attempts to come up with a one-size-fits-all solution for the complex, multi-faceted world of translation, Pym’s contribution opens up a number of new directions at the very least.

Book Review: Experiences in Translation – Umberto Eco

Having recently picked up a copy of Umberto Eco’s Experiences in Translation during one of my all-too-frequent book buying sessions, today I thought I’d share a quick review with you lovely people.

For those of you who have never come across Eco before, he is an Italian semiotician, essayist, philosopher, literary critic, novelist and (most importantly for us) translator. While he is perhaps best known for his 1980 work Il nome della rosa (The Name of the Rose), his list of publications includes many academic texts, essays and even children’s books.

Experiences in Translation is a short book in two halves based on a series of lectures on translation given by Eco in 1998. The first half sees Eco reflect on translation by referring to his own personal experiences (including both him doing the translating and others translating his works) while the second looks at the more theoretical side of things, using Roman Jakobson’s three different types of translation to spark a discussion into what constitutes translation proper.

You would expect any text by such a distinguished writer to read well (I must admit that I haven’t read the Italian original) and Alastair McEwen’s translation into English certainly follows along the expected path. The text is a joy to read, it is witty and concise and provides a welcome change of pace for anyone used to trawling through academic papers where style can often fall a distant second to substance or translators in need of a break after repairing one too many error-strewn source texts.

In addition to this sense of style, the text uses a number of fascinating examples: Eco’s exploration of the French and Portuguese translations of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’ was a personal favourite in a second half that is weaker than the first, often meandering along and flitting from subject to subject, including fanciful (albeit interesting) discussions such as the possibility of translating Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony into words.

By towing the line between getting too bogged down in theory and remaining purely anecdotal, the book works as something of a bridge between the lighter discussions found in general works on translation and the serious, often heavy-going business of translation scholarship in a manner reminiscent of David Bellos’ excellent Is That a Fish in Your Ear?

Beyond the fascinating examples from Eco’s own work, however, problems are found deeper within the text. While the structure of the book (1st half practice, 2nd half theory) initially suggests that the text will seek to address the divide that exists between theory and practice in the world of translation (something that I wrote about recently on my blog), this impression quickly subsides as Eco outlines his true intentions.

Despite insisting at the outset that theory and practice must be united, stating that all translation scholars should have translated and been translated at some point in their careers, Eco goes on to explain that his ‘practice’ half was placed ahead of the ‘theory’ half in order to demonstrate how translation still goes on unimpeded in a world where only ‘naive’ views of translation are on offer, forwarding a ‘common sense’ approach to the task of translation.

In reality, however, if this common sense approach were a universal asset, it would contradict not only the need for the second half of the book (it seems a bit pointless to dismiss theory’s worth before going on to spend 60 pages discussing that theory) but potentially the text’s very existence. As Anthony Pym puts it: ‘if common sense were really common, no one would have to read Eco to know about translation.’

Furthermore, this show of intent quickly transforms Eco’s text from a laudable attempt to forge a relationship between theory and practice into a veiled attack on translation studies based on the author’s somewhat skewed version of what theory has to offer.

The fact that Eco’s theoretical discussions are founded on ideas from the 1950s/60s and involve an inconsistent use of various strands of thought calls the author’s methodologies and conclusions into question. While translation theory may still be unable to fully guide us through the translation process, Eco’s exploration of the topic does a slight disservice to the amount of helpful material out there.

Instead of attempting to use theory to inform practice or vice-versa, practice takes place in isolation before Eco occasionally tips his hat to various scholars like Lawrence Venuti by labelling certain passages as ‘domesticated’ or ‘foreignized’, for example, wherever it seems vaguely applicable and without adequately justifying whether or why this is the correct choice.

In truth, the method is irrelevant as Eco’s solution has already been fixed as the correct solution (quite easily too, since most of the discussions are argued with reference to translations of Eco’s novels). Eco frequently refers to ideas such as ‘deep meaning’, ‘the intention of the text’ or ‘the guiding spirit of the text’, unfairly ignoring more recent advances in translation theory questioning such notions and simultaneously making his ideas impossible to disprove.

Ultimately, while Eco’s overview of the development of thought upon translation using his own work brings with it some fascinating examples, his theoretical explorations remain unrefined in places. Experiences in Translation represents a worthwhile addition to any bookshelf but will never bring about any profound advances in thought on translation.

Book Review: 101 Things a Translator Needs to Know

After bringing you a Translation Studies-based post last time out, I wanted to again stick with an exploration of translation literature in today’s entry. The similarities end there, however, as here I give you my thoughts on the recently published (April 2014) 101 Things a Translator Needs to Know – quite a compelling title I’m sure you’ll agree – which provides a light collection of practical tips rather than an in-depth, academic odyssey.

First of all, it is worth mentioning that the book was written by a number of authors (including some fairly big names in the translation community) who are all members of the WLF Think Tank – a virtual body of experienced practicing translators. In a brief introduction the book quickly informs us that the 101 tips contained within come from “a broad spectrum of translation professionals with some 500 years of collective experience” so you instantly know that the advice on offer will be ultra-reliable.

The book’s tips range from practical translation advice (translating numbers or units of measurement in a source text, for example) to thoughts on the professional obligations that occupy a translator (such as the importance of marketing your business or keeping track of your finances).

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of the book is its neat design, with each of the 101 translation tips displayed across two pages (see below for a typical example). On the left-hand page of each tip you find an excellent illustration by  Catherine Anne Hiley while the right-hand page contains a cleverly worded title for each tip as well as a well-articulated, succinct elaboration of around 100-200 words. With a selection of witty representations of the tips they depict and some neat cultural references (be sure to check out #45’s spin on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album cover), the illustrations fit in seamlessly and represented something of a personal highlight.DSC_0658

While I found myself with a few hours going spare and decided to blitz through the entire book in one sitting, the aforementioned style and the easily digested content are perfectly suited to a quick five-minute read when you’re in need of a break.

Less convincing, however, is the assertion that the book is perfectly suited to a wide-ranging readership. The very first page informs us that:

This is a book for beginners. It’s also a book for seasoned professionals, students and teachers. For freelancers and staff translators. For amateurs and experts, generalists and super-specialists – be they certified or sworn, recognised, authorised… or simply tantalised by translation’s potential for a varied and enriching career.

While it is certainly true that the book will appeal to anyone with an interest in translation, it seems to me that the content is primarily geared towards the beginner or student of translation looking to gain a foothold in the profession.

Yet that is not to say that the tips are of no use to a more experienced professional, quite the contrary. While anyone who has been around the translation community for an extended period will have previously read words to the same effect at some point, it is undeniably nice to have these tips gathered together in one place. Furthermore, the fact that the authors touch upon all aspects of life as a translator means that the book provides a handy way for professionals to ensure that they are operating in a well-rounded manner. The tips will either ring true and validate their existing practices or point to areas of their work requiring additional attention.

One minor gripe that I must share was the occasional repetition of certain points made throughout the short volume. Topics like ‘Specialism’ (tips 18 and 27) or ‘Saying No’ (4 and 34) both receive several mentions and, while this was probably a deliberate attempt to drive home specific points for readers who are less familiar with the area (indeed, tip #57 explicitly states the important role of repetition as an emphatic device in translation and this use of repetition is a positive trait for any learning resource), it will nevertheless feel slightly tiring for the more experienced translation professional. DSC_0656

Overall, however, complaints are few and far between. An overarching focus on the human aspect of an often de-personalised profession  provides the crux of an extremely valuable message and makes this book an ideal purchase for the modern translation professional (ideas such as developing effective communication skills, constantly improving and concentrating on the value that you can add as a translator are all prominent). Ultimately, the book summarises the range of challenges facing the modern-day translator and attempts to inspire you to get the most out of your skills.

Written with an understated authority and a sense of humour that makes it a pleasure to read, 101 Things a Translator Needs to Know is a worthy addition to any language professionals’ bookshelf and stacks up favourably alongside other introductions to the profession.

eBook Review: The Translator Diaries by Lloyd Bingham

In a slight shift from my previous book review posts (How about these mini reviews or this review of Balance Your Words), this review is focused on an eBook that is available online for free. Based upon the blog series of the same name, ‘The Translator Diaries’ can be downloaded or read online here on Lloyd Bingham’s website.

The original blog series provides a new interview with a professional translator in each post and this eBook sees both series (containing seven interviews each) condensed into one handy collection. A fellow tweeting translator, I followed Lloyd’s series with great interest as each interview came out and I was eager to find some time to read through the eBook to see how he went about converting the blog to another format.

The first thing that strikes you is that the collection is extremely well presented and well thought out. Rather than simply providing all interviews in succession as I had feared, resulting in a dry, repetitive reading experience that would have been rendered slightly pointless by the interviews’ ready availability online, the eBook breaks the interviews down by subject matter and provides each interviewee’s opinion as a neat, standalone quote – with each bite-sized snippet following a brief introduction to the issue at hand (ranging from finding clients to developing specialisms).

And this format really serves to highlight what I always considered to be the standout feature of Lloyd’s interview series: its ability to ask pertinent questions which lead to valuable insight rather than just gleaning simple biographical information which, while interesting, won’t leave a lasting impression or provide substantial benefits.

In terms of audience, the eBook is primarily geared towards new translators and translation students – as attested by its subtitle of ‘Practical advice on starting out as a professional translator from successful freelancers’ – and it does a great job of providing a range of views on the key issues that you will encounter when entering the profession. The selection of interviewees encompasses an appropriately wide range of backgrounds and, more importantly, results in an even wider range of opinions on the topics covered, reflecting the lack of clear-cut answers to issues in the industry (for example, are translation-specific degrees really necessary when so many professional translators do an excellent job without them?).

Overall, the obvious verdict is that Lloyd’s eBook shouldn’t be missed. As free resources go, this is right up there with the best a new translator can get, with an impressive amount of information packed into just 28 pages from cover to cover. While the content may prove less relevant to established professionals who have encountered all of these issues first-hand, there is enough interesting food for thought to keep you turning pages (or scrolling down) and its inviting length means you can speed through the content over the course of a leisurely lunch break.

Well put together, light and insightful, the eBook provides an infinitely more compact and engaging experience than simply reading through each interview in isolation, so give it a try today.

Book Review: ‘Balance Your Words’ by Sara Colombo

Given that I’m a big fan of Sara’s Balance Your Words blog, it seemed a no-brainer for me to try to get hold of her new book. Subtitled ‘Stepping in the translation industry’ – which gives you an indication of what is to be found within – the book is based on material from her blog (alongside updates, amendments and completely new sections) as it chronicles one translator’s journey into the world of freelancing – and it’s quite a journey.

It is often said that there is no set path to follow into the translation industry, and Sara’s book is just one further illustration of that point; her transformation from a keen university student into a respected professional encompasses ventures into volunteering, nightmare interviews, battling the contrasting challenges of working life in different countries and the endless search for the perfect work-life balance.

Balance

For newcomers to the translation industry, the book provides an excellent glimpse into some of the industry’s plus points, perils and pitfalls from an extremely practical point of view, providing valuable insights into common issues and how to avoid them. Yet beyond that, it also has plenty to offer to established professionals looking for ways to boost their mood, productivity or working results – Sara stresses her belief in the importance of regular exercise and her passion for yoga (while something that does not interest me personally), with all of the perceived benefits that it offers on both a personal and professional level, provides food for thought for freelancers looking to address their own work-life balance.

One stand-out chapter from a personal level was Sara’s perspective on the state of the economy in Italy and the tough conditions (such as the poor client-translator relation) that a freelancer will face when attempting to make a living there. This honest and direct take on the realities of the situation was refreshing yet grim, a sombre account to put my own situation into perspective.

On a slightly negative note, the edition I received (I believe an update is on the way) contained a fair few typos which, as well as proving quite an annoyance at first, came across as slightly careless given the tendency for our profession to place so much importance on linguistic accuracy and with a target audience made up of linguists alert to such errors. However, once I had managed to quieten the pedantic grammarian living in my head, the unique phrasing and the clear development of characteristic writing tics come to represent a welcome part of this journey we are undertaking, ultimately adding a certain sense of charm to the experience.

Overall, Balance Your Words: Stepping in the translation industry proved to be an ideal travel companion – its light, interesting content, its unique journey through the eyes of one translator, and the pertinent topics covered make it well worth a look. Enjoy!