Calling all translators! Tell me about ethics.

Hi everyone, just a quick one today.

As many of you will already know, I’m currently about halfway through writing my PhD thesis on the ethics of translation and I was hoping that you might be able to offer me a little help.

I’ve attempted to retain a sense of practical, professional relevance within my thesis, using real-life translation examples from my own work where possible and always keeping that act of translation in mind, but I’d also greatly appreciate some input from my fellow professionals to get a better sense of what ethics really means to other translators.

Have there been times in your translation practice or your translation career when the question of ethics has come up or when you yourself have had to make ethical choices?

What is your take on a translator’s need to be faithful, accurate or impartial and how do you approach a text with this in mind?

Feel free to discuss anything that you feel is relevant.

I’d love to hear from as many people as possible so don’t be afraid to share this post.

Leave a comment on here, tweet me, email me (joseph@jaltranslation.com), send out a message in a bottle, whatever you want!

Looking forward to hearing from you.

Thanks!

The Case for Non-Native Translators?

While the idea of a translator working out of their native tongue is the stuff of nightmares for many established professionals, I recently took part in a round table discussion that briefly centred around questioning whether or not this method could actually be beneficial to translation.

Though the topic only came up in passing and there was little real support for the notion at the time, the discussion stuck with me and I thought that I would dedicate today’s post to entertaining this idea.

In the real world of translation, professional associations such as the ITI state that:

members shall translate only into a language that is either (i) their mother tongue or language of habitual use, or (ii) one in which they have satisfied the Institute that they have equal competence

[I find this definition of a “native language” as a “language of habitual use” to be a much more balanced distinction than “mother tongue” and, as such, here we’re using “non-native” to designate a language that is not that of habitual use]

However, while these guidelines forbid non-native translation, Antoine Berman’s conception of the aim of translation as receiving the “foreign” as “foreign” – where this encounter with the “foreign” enables the receiving culture to grow and develop – hints at the potential benefits of such a method (after all, who better to transmit this “foreignness” or “otherness” than somebody with extensive experience of that very other?).

So, aside from the obvious situation involving a rare language pair, where the use of a non-native translator is inevitable (though not necessarily preferable), what else can non-native translation offer us?


Understanding

A seemingly obvious benefit is that native speakers should have a comprehensive command of the source language and culture, allowing them to unpick the most convoluted jargon with greater ease than a non-native – undoubtedly a valuable attribute in a translator.

However, simply being a native speaker doesn’t guarantee comprehension. There are plenty of topics in English that are beyond my understanding and, as a result, you won’t be able to get to the heart of a text without hiring a specialist.

Furthermore, unless this command of the source language is mirrored by the translator’s target language ability, that understanding won’t be reflected in the translation. It’s all well and good to perfectly understand a source text but if you can’t transfer that understanding into the target text then it is all for nothing.


Innovation

Taking Berman’s lead once again, it can be argued that the non-standard use of a target language (influenced by an increased proximity to the source language) may result in innovation that can help the receiving language to develop.

One interesting anecdote I came across recently was the story behind the name of famous video game character Donkey Kong (the tie-wearing gorilla at the top of this post). Allegedly, creator Shigeru Miyamoto believed “donkey” could mean “stupid/stubborn” (depending on which sources you read) in English and assumed that the name Donkey Kong would convey the sense of “stupid/stubborn ape” to an American audience.

When he suggested this name to Nintendo in America he was initially ridiculed but the name stuck and, subsequently, some of those intended associations will have surely attached themselves to the English term given the character’s iconic status. While this usage stems from poor target language skills rather than his proximity to the source language, it neatly demonstrates the potential value of non-native language use.

In reality, though, how often will this be the case? The other side of the coin is that this improper usage can simply see us disregarding necessary grammar rules and misrepresenting a language by failing to adequately capture potentially key elements of meaning. For every Donkey Kong there will be a thousand translations like the one below (and much worse, no doubt) that negate any potential positive effects.


Visibility

With concerns remaining over whether or not translators get suitable recognition for their work, perhaps the implementation of non-native translation and these “innovative” usages offers us a way to differentiate translators’ work as an independent form of writing and increase the translator’s visibility. If all translations were produced by non-natives, we’d have a much better idea of when we are reading a text in translation.

However, when confronted with today’s standards of translation, which require perfectly readable, error-free target texts (a standard that professional guidelines – including the stipulation outlined above – are seemingly designed to uphold), these new translations are likely to be rejected outright and, if they did get released into the world, they would perhaps just serve to make translation synonymous with unreadable garbage.

Sure, we’d know when a text has been translated but we’d also be likely to quickly decide to steer clear of any translations in the future… Not quite the positive result we had in mind.


Clearly, concrete benefits of non-native over native translation are fairly hard to find and, while collaboration between native and non-native translators could prove to be a beneficial course of action in some situations, this solution is often impractical.

Ultimately, however, I find this entire discussion to be overly general and prescriptive. The basic label of native or non-native is not enough to assess what really matters: translation competence.

The fact that a translator is stronger in the source language than the target language does not necessarily dictate that their translations will be poor as a range of other, supporting skills also play an important role.

Both the Donkey Kong and the “don’t touch yourself” examples demonstrate a clear lack of linguistic/cultural knowledge and research skills and these are a vital part of any translator’s skill set.

However, while we cannot routinely assume that non-native translations will always be inferior, perhaps the most important element of translation competence in contemporary professional practice is the ability to produce error-free target language texts and, in my experience at least, that ability is much more likely to be found in a qualified “native” speaker.


– If you’re looking for a different take on the discussion, check out these interesting posts: ‘The Importance Of Being A Native‘ & ‘Native or Non-native
 This Is the Question‘. Enjoy!


The 12 Days of Christmas (for language lovers everywhere)

With the holidays almost upon us, I thought I’d get into the festive spirit and have a little fun with today’s post.

Anyone who follows me on Twitter will know that I can’t resist a silly translation/language/grammar-related pun and, in what is fast becoming a JALTranslation tradition, here are 12 of my favourite punny images from the last year to (hopefully) help you bring in the New Year with a smile.

All that remains is for me to thank you all for making 2014 such an enjoyable year, fingers crossed that 2015 brings more of the same. Whatever you’re doing, enjoy the holidays! 😀

(Click any image to open slideshow)

Etymology and a Universal Translation

Hello everyone, after a great guest post last time out, it’s time to get back to some of my own content! While I’ve asked ‘What’s in a word?‘ before on this blog, today I thought I’d strike up the discussion again from a slightly different perspective by looking at what is contained within the most important word in our profession: translation.

Beyond (hopefully) uncovering a few interesting little tidbits about the term by looking at the roots of the word ‘translation’ in several different languages, I also want to explore the various shades of meaning that each one offers us and question whether or not there exists a universal conception of ‘translation’.

An obvious starting point for this discussion is Andrew Chesterman’s 2005 paper ‘Interpreting the Meaning of Translation’, in which he sets out to tackle the very same question and argues that etymological variations signal different approaches to and understandings of translation across the world. As such, I’d like to analyse and expand upon his paper here by looking at several examples from different languages before discussing their overall relevance to one-another.

Starting with the fairly well-known roots of the English term, the word ‘translation’ comes from the Latin translatus, the past participle of the verb transferre. Meaning ‘to carry across’, this term is itself a translation from the Classical Greek metapherein (meta- [over, across] + pherein [to carry, bear]), from which we also get the term ‘metaphor‘.

For Chesterman, a Standard Average European ‘translation’ derived from these roots is therefore ‘etymologically a metaphor, whereby something is, in some sense, something that it literally is not.’

While these Latin/Greek roots are also shared by many modern usages of the term in Romance languages, these languages still display subtle departures from the connotations contained within the English ‘translation’.

The French term traduction, Spanish traducciĂłn, Italian traduzione and others all come from the Latin transducere (trans [across] + ducere [to lead]) and therefore see us making the slight shift from ‘carrying across’ to ‘leading across‘ – something that will be discussed further below.

Elsewhere in Europe, despite the fact that many languages of the Germanic and Slavic branches simply calqued their terms for the concept of translation from the Latin/Greek model mentioned above, this process still allowed for several subtly different nuances to emerge as the word moved into new territories. The German ĂŒbersetzen [literally: to set across] and Swedish översĂ€ttning, for example, contain suggestions of ‘passing over’.

Beyond this pattern of calquing, meanwhile, the Dutch term vertaling is literally a ‘re-language-ing’, combining the prefix ver- [meaning a ‘change’ or ‘move’ or ‘re-‘ in English] and taal [language] while the Finnish kÀÀnnös literally means ‘a turn, a turning’, noticeably deviating from the standard European trends.

For Chesterman, the Finnish term ‘highlights difference, a new direction, entering a new context; what is not highlighted is any sense of preserving an identity, maintaining sameness’.

Curiously, kÀÀnnös also means ‘to steal’ in Finnish slang, adding yet another dimension to the many possible interpretations of what it means to translate.

Even further afield, the Mandarin Chinese word for ‘translate’ is yĂŹ or fānyi with the verb fan having the basic meaning ‘flutter’ – suggesting unstable movement and changes of state.

Finally, in an interesting example from Maurizio Bettini, Igbo – a language spoken in Nigeria – uses the words tapia and kowa to signify ‘translation’. Both words are made up of an element that means ‘narrate‘ or ‘tell‘ and another that means ‘break, decompose‘. For Bettini ‘[i]n native conception, translation thus consists in a practice that “breaks” a certain series of utterances and then “re-tells” them’.

Anyway, enough examples. According to Chesterman, these various etymologies suggest differences in the way that translation is perceived within those cultures and unmasks different approaches to the activity at hand.

Using three separate etymological sources (all included in the examples above – 1. The English term from Latin/Greek roots, 2. The German or Swedish calques and 3. The Romance language ‘leading across’) he explores the way in which the act of transferring the content to be translated (labelled X) is framed differently within each of these usages:

  1. In English: ‘the underlying cognitive schema is of carrying X across; here, the agent is conceived of as moving over together with X, like a messenger.’
  2. In German and Swedish: ‘the agent stands on the source side, putting or setting X across; X is transferred in a direction away from the agent.’
  3. In Romance languages: ‘the agent etymologically leads X across; this suggests that the agent moves in advance of X, and the direction of movement is thus towards the agent.’

Despite conceding that more work is required in the area, Chesterman finishes by hesitantly suggesting that these different paths indicate that perhaps there is no universal conception of translation:

‘At the very least, the present preliminary study illustrates how the notion of translation has been interpreted in different ways in a number of different languages. It shows that not all these interpretations give the same priority to the preservation of sameness which characterizes the words denoting “translation” in many modern Indo-European languages.’

However, while these etymologies and developing meanings are fascinating, any implication that the roots of a word delimit the extent of our understanding of its significance in any way is an obvious oversimplification.

The English notion of translation is not tied to a rudimentary idea of ‘carrying across’ but rather entails everything that translation has come to stand for in the ensuing centuries.

Though the Latin origins of the modern English word perhaps demonstrate how translation was once viewed, our current understanding encompasses nearly all of the various meanings borne out of other languages’ etymologies of translation.

In other words, no matter what path we have taken to reach our current understanding of the term, translation/traduction/ĂŒbersetzen etc. cannot be reduced to historical appraisals of what they once signified. For me, translation is not about ‘carrying across’, ‘leading across’ or whatever else, but rather all of these and so much more. This is the ‘universal translation’ of today.

Indeed, in my opinion, the ‘universal translation’ is best seen when we consider the many metaphors that exist for the activity, something I’ve explored previously on this blog, as these demonstrate the multiple interpretations in action.

In English alone we see translation as transformation, building, turning, conquering, theft, cannibalism and so much more beyond the conception its etymological roots initially provided.

Ultimately, just as etymology suggests that translation is metaphor, metaphors for translation show that it is so much more than mere etymology.

Seven Super Skills: Progressing in Translation

Today’s post sees us move from the power of translation to the process of translation and, more specifically, to a look at the demands of this process.

There are a number of vital skills required to produce high quality translations and here I put forward a selection of what I believe to be the most important of them alongside suggested methods of developing each one. Having previously touched upon a couple of the skills on my blog, I’ve also included links to relevant posts where possible.

My specific focus on the act of translation means that skills relating to freelancing or developing a translation company are not included. For example, while the ability to deal with tight deadlines is an important element of professional translation, it is not a prerequisite for the act of translation in itself.

Finally, my thoughts and suggestions are by no means exhaustive (I’ve had to overlook and merge a lot of ideas for the sake of brevity) so feel free to share your own skills and tips in the comments section.

 

LINGUISTIC MAGIC IN YOUR SOURCE LANGUAGE:

To start off with we have the most obvious – and perhaps most misunderstood – of all the skills.

Yes, being able to understand the meaning of the source text you’re working on is of vital importance and without this necessary level of competence there is no translation. However, linguistic proficiency alone does not automatically equate to good translation despite the widely held misconceptions that a translator is just a walking dictionary or someone who simply picks ready, one-to-one equivalents between languages.

Ultimately, there is much more to translation than simply knowing a language but that’s no excuse to ignore those tricky grammar points.

How to develop:

  • Combine language courses and immersion in the source culture (time in the country, interaction with native speakers…) to develop both linguistic and cultural knowledge on a general level.
  • Pay close attention to reading skills (as opposed to speaking or writing, for example) in the source language as this is where a translator’s primary focus lies. Read books, articles, magazines – anything and everything you can in your source language(s).

 

SUPERHUMAN SUBJECT KNOWLEDGE:

As mentioned above, total command of a language and culture alone isn’t enough to make a good translator and part of the reason is that translators generally work in very specific subject areas that require specialist knowledge.

Reading technical jargon in your mother tongue alone is challenging enough and therefore it is vital that translators are intimately familiar with the inner workings of their specific areas of expertise. Contracts, patents, or medical journal entries all require specific linguistic and cultural knowledge that goes well beyond that given in general language classes.

How to develop:

  • Read anything you can relating to your specialist area to expand your knowledge and stay up to date with new developments.
  • Develop specialisms in areas that you genuinely enjoy to easily integrate research into your daily routine.
  • Sign up for MOOCs or other courses to greatly boost your subject knowledge in a comprehensive, structured fashion.

Getting to the Heart of Medical Texts

SONIC SPEED RESEARCH & PROBLEM SOLVING SKILLS:

No matter how much work you put in, there are always going to be words, phrases, or concepts with which you are unfamiliar popping up in source texts and this where another key translation ability lies. I’ve said it before but it’s definitely a point worth repeating: one of the most important attributes in a translator is not what they know, but how quickly and efficiently they are able to fill the gaps in what they don’t know.

Using the vast array of resources out there, it is amazing how quickly you can become well-versed in a previously unknown area and, while the widespread advice that you shouldn’t bite off more than you can chew in terms of tackling alien projects is very valid, I say that you shouldn’t be afraid expand your horizons – know your limits but remain ambitious and embrace new projects.

How to develop:

  • Get to know which resources lead to the most effective results. (The links below cover a few different ways of tracking down that elusive word or phrase)
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment with new tools to further enhance your research process.

Where to go when lost for words?

Using Corpora in Your Translation Work

 

X-RAY SPECS – CLOSE READING & ANALYTICAL SKILLS:

As well as understanding the explicit meaning of a word or phrase, a translator must be able to appreciate its many possible functions in a specific context. Beyond surface-level meanings, the use of allusions, cultural references, linguistic or rhetorical devices such as repetition or alliteration, or elements such as register and sentence length all combine to make the text the powerful entity that it is and part of the translator’s job is to recreate their effects in another language and culture. The connotations of one innocuous-looking word can be central to the meaning of an entire text (as the first link below suggests).

How to develop:

  • Think beyond what is on the page.
  • Explore texts and analyses of texts in order to encounter the various ways in which language influences us and the ways in which we can employ language to harness those techniques.

The Power of Translation: The Fox and the Grapes

Selling Cars with Sex and Lies

 

FORMATTING SKILLS & COMPUTER WIZARDRY:

This little pairing accounts for so much of the translation process as it involves the manipulation of the very platform that holds our work.

It is essential that a translator becomes an expert in using whatever programs clients demand of them and, in a manner similar to terminology mining (see above), this requires the ability to efficiently develop the knowledge you lack.

The only thing more annoying than an elusive indent sneaking into your document and blighting an otherwise immaculate page is having to spend an eternity finding a solution to the problem.

How to develop:

  • Don’t be afraid to experiment, be inquisitive in your usage of a program to learn all of its various shortcuts and quirks.
  • Read online tips or take a course in a program’s usage.

 

SUPERPOWERED PENMANSHIP / WRITING SKILLS:

So often overlooked when people are developing their translation prowess, the ability to write effectively is perhaps the most important skill there is. With the end product of the translation process taking the form of a text written in your native tongue, the overall success or failure of your work is often heavily based on your writing ability.

The key factor in producing a translation is for it to be fit-for-purpose and resemble an original target language document whether you like it or not (the translator’s power of invisibility). While equivalence between the source and target texts should be of utmost importance to the translator, clients or end users are not going to be able to compare the two texts and emphasis is therefore placed on producing a translation that stands on its own.

How to develop:

  • Learn target language conventions for producing specific texts.
  • Take the time to read style guides from various sources.
  • Practice writing! Write for sites focusing on your specialist areas or write a blog and employ different writing styles of your own choosing.
  • Get feedback on your writing.

One year down: What blogging has to offer

 

ENHANCED VISION:

The reason that the vast majority of translators offer editing or proofreading services on top of their translation work is that the move is such a natural one. Editing and proofreading your own work is a vital cog in the translation process and learning how to do it as effectively as possible is of utmost importance.

The difficulty when going through your own work is that your proximity to the text makes it more difficult to spot errors – you unconsciously read what you intended to write and your intimate knowledge of the source text’s subtleties offers you a privileged reading position that won’t be shared by your target audience. As such, the key concept to work on is distancing yourself from the text to the point of reaching an objective, uninformed position from which to assess its suitability (or as close to that as possible).

There are many different suggestions on how to best achieve this distance and to efficiently correct your own writing (examples include changing the font and size of the text you’re working on, printing the text out and working from a hard copy or reading the text back-to-front) but ultimately the best method is different for everybody. Personally I like reading out loud, taking breaks between readings, and using different levels of zoom when spotting errors and consider three consecutive error-free readings to be the benchmark for a completed text.

How to develop:

  • Experiment with a range of methods to find what works for you.
  • Get a colleague to correct your work and incorporate their advice into your own corrections.

Love your Language Lovers

As a bit of a change from the usual translation talk that my blog entails, I thought I would dedicate today’s post to sharing the love. It’s that time of the year when the Top 100 Language Lovers competition starts to elicit a degree of fevered excitement among the online language community and this provides the perfect opportunity for us all to focus on what great, language-based riches we have at our disposal. It’s brilliant to see so many hard-working language lovers rewarded for their efforts.

Hosted by bab.la language portal and the Lexiophiles language blog, the competition is in its seventh edition and always receives a great response. The nominations have been completed and we’re now at the all-important voting stage, which runs until 9th June before the final results are announced on 12th June.

For those of you unfamiliar with the competition process this year, the voting stage is split up into five different categories that cover all of the major resources available to language lovers worldwide – language learning blogs, language professionals blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and YouTube channels – and the top-rated picks from each category go on to form the Top 100 Language Lovers (more detailed explanation of the processes involved can be found here).

Vote the Top 100 Language Professional Blogs 2014 

I’m delighted to announce that JALTranslation has been included in the language professionals blogs category of the competition among so many other amazing entrants. Given that the voting process allows you to select as many blogs, pages, or channels as you want, if you’ve enjoyed my posts then a vote would be very much appreciated (a handy link to the voting page is available above if you’re feeling generous). However, I’m happy just to be included in the list and there is a more important reason for this blog post.

Quite simply, the list of nominees provides one of the best sources of online goodness that any language lover could ever hope to find! I’ve written about online translation resources in the past and the opportunity to share such a rich database of information was too good to turn down.

Of course, be sure to vote for all of your favourites (I had a fair few to get through!) but, more importantly, use the list to discover new blogs and accounts to follow in your areas of interest. It’s an absolute gold mine that is worth exploring. Go on, click your way through the lists of nominees and see what goodies are on offer.

I’ll be back soon with some more translation-y tidbits but, until then, go and check out what other great blogs are waiting for you. Ciao.

When a third language complicates the translation process: A look at L3 from Tolstoy to trays.

Translation is considered as the transferral of meaning from one language to another, and the entire foundation of translation theory revolves around binary oppositions e.g. free vs literal translation, dynamic vs formal equivalence, source text and target text.

And yet there are many situations (primarily in literary and audiovisual translation) that see the introduction of a third language, which serves to complicate the translation process. Many modern French novels, for example, are rife with English words, and these are not decisions made on a whim but rather conscious decisions taken by the author to produce a specific effect, and therefore the manner in which they are translated must be considered at length.

David Bellos calls this phenomenon L3 (with the other two languages representing L1 and L2) and, while a similar process in linguistics is often called code-switching, I like L3 as code-switching tends to be a more general term which can even refer to changes in register within one language. This is an area I touched upon in a previous post (How to solve a problem like Peter) and an interesting subject that I want to further elaborate with a few examples.

One commonly cited example in the discussion of L3 (including in Bellos’ book Is that a fish in your ear?) is that of Tolstoy’s War and Peace – a literary buff’s favourite – commenting upon the use of French in the Russian original. It is estimated that 2 percent of the entire book is in French, and it is used in order to reflect the character’s personalities, as Russian aristocrats at the time would speak French at social occasions as a class marker.

In order for this act of characterisation to be recognised, however, the author is relying upon the audience’s appreciation of this cultural trait and ideally an understanding of the French language, and the fact that Tolstoy himself toyed with various methods – producing Russian translations of all French in footnotes in some versions while removing the French completely in others – is indicative of the difficulty of including another language in a text without even considering the challenges posed when translating.

The task of the French translator of this work is both impossible and easy in that there is very little they can do: translating the French sections back into Russian, for example, would be completely counter-productive and as such they must resign themselves to the bizarre reality of losing a significant element of meaning while keeping the original perfectly intact.

The English translator, on the other hand, has a little more space to work with as several courses of action are available. The familiarity of high-brow English readers with the French language, and the similar usage of French by the British aristocracy as a class marker, allows the possibility of retaining the French and, while most translators still cut the French from the English version to allow an easier read, Pevear and Volokhonsky did indeed choose to retain the French (with translations in footnotes) and their bold decision results in a stronger translation.

The next example highlighting this phenomenon is in quite stark contrast to the one above, coming from a classic British comedy which has managed to cross European borders and one that exploits the use of L3 as a source of great humour.

The series in question is ‘Fawlty Towers’ (or ‘L’HĂŽtel en folie’ [The Crazy Hotel] to French viewers), and the relationship between it’s owner Basil and Spanish waiter Manuel is the point of interest, with linguistic puns and misunderstandings – all built around traditional stereotypes – presenting an extremely difficult challenge for the translator.

The video above comes from the very first episode of the series and epitomises this type of humour. The confusion caused by combining Basil’s broken Spanish and Manuel’s virtually non-existent English is as funny as it is hard to translate – with the confusion between ‘on those trays’ and ‘uno, dos, tres’ providing the most obvious challenge.

The French subtitles to this scene succeed in retaining some of the misunderstanding between the characters but fail to reproduce the original joke (which would be some feat). Basil states ‘il y a trop de beurre. Ils sont Ă  l’Ă©troit.’ (there is too much butter. They [the trays] are cramped), Manuel then mishears this second sentence and repeats it as ‘ils sont lĂ , les trois.’ (they are there, the three) – with the two sentences sounding similar in French – and proceeds to count them in Spanish. A decent attempt, yet one which misses the mark slightly for me. (Saying that, I can’t think of anything better… Anyone?)

It is also very interesting to note how the character of Manuel was transformed in versions across Europe in order to adhere to national stereotypes. He couldn’t very well still be Spanish in the Spanish version of the show given how poorly he is treated and as such he became the Italian Paolo (or Manuela in Basque regions) while in France and Catalonia – where the national stereotype of Spanish workers does not match the English portrayal given here – he becomes a Mexican Manuel.

So there you have it: it is hard enough to negotiate a transfer of meaning between two languages and, as these two examples show, when there is an L3 (or worse still, an L4, 5, or 6) to contend with, it complicates matters even further. Until next time.