A few thoughts on research in translation

I hope you’re all well out there and enjoying a productive February. Today I thought I’d offer a bit of an insight into what I’ve been up to recently.

As some of you will already know, I started a PhD in Translation Studies in September 2014 and am currently about halfway through my research journey. While I initially continued working for a few translation clients alongside my research, I’ve more or less phased out my freelance translation work for the time being (aside from a few projects here and there) to prioritise working on my thesis.

So what am I actually writing about? As I’ve mentioned in a few previous blog posts, I’m really interested in the ethics of translation and my research represents an attempt to bring together and develop upon the wide range of conceptions of ethics put forward within Translation Studies. I’m doing this by using ethical theory as an underlying framework allowing me to highlight the key areas of focus to date and to uncover blindspots that represent potential future lines of enquiry.

But enough of that, I don’t really want to go into my research itself here. Instead, I want to discuss translation research more generally as a potential path, offering a frank take on my experience so far and a few thoughts off the top of my head on the kind of attributes that are key to PhD research (in my experience at least), some of which are closely linked to the skills required to be a successful freelance translator.

Quite a few of my readers are current or former translation MA students and I know that (in the UK at least) a number of universities are now taking on PhD students in Translation Studies, so maybe I’ll be able to convince some of you that a PhD is (or, perhaps more likely, isn’t) for you..


 

Passion and focus

An absolute must when contemplating a PhD is a passion for your subject and a clear idea of your specific areas of interest within that field. It’s important to identify a void within your particular area of research that not only has enough scope to fill a thesis but is also focused enough to avoid getting out of hand and spilling beyond the word limit before you’ve even scratched the surface.

The ethics of translation, for instance, has been explored at length without reaching any consensus over what it requires of us and this means there are a number of avenues yet to be explored. The downside to these huge voids is that the subject is so massive that a specific issue can easily slip out of focus. It’s extremely important to keep your research goals in mind and make sure you haven’t gone off track completely, something I have to keep reminding myself!

Discipline and perseverance

A PhD thesis is a big old project, there’s no doubt about that.The idea of being left on your own with a blank canvas and three years to create a polished 80-100,000 word document is a daunting prospect to say the least.

Of course, there is support out there in various forms (supervisors, online groups, other PhD students…) but you still need plenty of self-discipline and motivation to keep those creative juices flowing!

For me, this is one area where freelancing has been pretty useful. Working at home surrounded by all the potential distractions that come with the territory was nothing new to me, making the transition to research a fairly smooth one.

However, when you’re translating, it tends to be with a tight deadline in mind and a paying client who wants their end product ASAP! With a PhD thesis, although there are supervisory meetings and reviews with mini “deadlines” of sorts, I find it helpful to set regular personal targets and goals to break the project down into manageable chunks.

Flexibility and open-mindedness

So far in my research journey, I’ve already been in the rather unfortunate position of having to change my primary or secondary supervisor on three occasions due to retirements and lecturers taking on new roles.

While on the one hand this has allowed me to gain several different perspectives on my work – I’ve received valuable input from a range of vastly-experienced experts who all (unsurprisingly) have a different take on my subject area – it has been undeniably disruptive at times.

Yet the main thing I’ve taken from these changes is how important it is to be flexible in developing a PhD project. Working on a thesis, you have to adapt your intellectual focus based on feedback, your developing interests and your ongoing research.

Linked to this is an openness to criticism, which is again something that I’ve experienced working as a translator. As is the case with translated texts, your ideas will not always be met with universal appreciation and it’s important to use advice and criticism as an opportunity to learn and improve, accepting when you’re heading down a blind alley and when you need to explore new ideas.

Ultimately, it is also important to remember that you are the driving force behind your project and are in a position to choose which path you eventually follow.


 

Eighteen months in, I still love my research topic and feel I am making good progress. It can sometimes be overwhelming working in such a huge, complex area and there have certainly been setbacks along the way (supervisor changes, paper rejections, ideas that simply don’t work out etc.).

However, even though I still have lots of ground to cover in the thesis and am fully expecting the next 18 months to be extremely challenging, it’s a challenge that I’m looking forward to.

P.S. If you’ve enjoyed studying translation in the past and think a PhD might be for you, feel free to send me an email for any further advice and I’ll try my best to help out! 🙂

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.

Theory and Practice: Forever Alone?

Wow, how time flies. La rentrée has been and gone, International Translation Day has left us for another year and the tepid English summer has given way to the six months of wind and rain that we call winter (a sudden transition that, for me at least, always coincides with the arrival of Hull Fair, hence the picture above).

One thing that never changes, however, is my ongoing love affair with all things translation and recently that relationship has taken on something of a different shape.

A few weeks ago, I officially started a PhD in Translation Studies here at the University of Hull and, as such, my engagement has shifted from working as a full-time freelance translator to burying myself in research – reading, writing and thinking about the academic side of things.

Even in my busiest of busy times as a translation professional I’ve always been a big reader of translation studies literature but this sudden switch from one side to the other has provided me with some real perspective on the interplay between the theory and practice of translation.

While the vacuum between the two is well-known and has always seemed rather pronounced in our discipline/profession (it is fairly common for translation professionals to completely dismiss the worth of translation theory due to its lack of relevance to the profession – many freelance translators have very little or no knowledge of theory yet still manage to do their job to exceptionally high standards), after a few years of dedicating myself completely to freelance translation work the divide currently feels more prominent than ever.

Even as a fully fledged translation geek who loves reading the most abstract of theoretical meanderings, it is hard to deny that some translation scholarship has allowed itself to get drawn away from what really matters.

No matter how fascinating we may find contemporary explorations in translation studies, are recontextualisations of philosophical theses and reinterpretations of ancient literary works alone really enough to justify yet another publication to add to the pile?

For me, there is a nagging sense that researchers have a responsibility to provide real, valuable and, above all, practical insight into the task at the heart of our professional and academic worlds where possible or what’s the point?

This is not to say that there isn’t plenty of scholarship out there already that does provide practical insight but the question that I occasionally find myself asking after reading a paper is “So what?”. When I sit down in front of a text to be translated, I want to be able to draw upon the theoretical work I read and not simply fall back on professional experience and instinct.

Translation training, meanwhile, plays something of an intermediary role in this divide. I picked up a huge amount of practical insight during my MA, but most of it was aside from – and not a part of – the theoretical focus.

Courses are forced to push you in two different directions as there is not a single route that unites the discipline and the profession. Many MA courses even specify that they teach both ‘The Theory and Practice of Translation’, explicitly attesting to the distinction that exists between two such supposedly intertwined domains.

Unfortunately, theorizing is all too often about showing off your deep understanding of complex ideas and less about making that small, yet meaningful, difference. While discussing abstract principles may shed some light on translation as a whole, it usually offers little value in the vast majority of ‘real world’ contexts. Indeed, even the extent to which translation studies’ apparent obsession with literary translation is actually useful to the few literary translators out there is up for debate.

Quotation-Albert-Einstein-practice-theory-Meetville-Quotes-109864

Whether this is a genuine quote or not, and no matter what context it was originally uttered in, it neatly sums up the situation within translation

Potential solutions to this problem are far from clear-cut but it is not all doom and gloom. The world of academia has attempted to address the dilemma at various points in the last few years alone. In Andrew Chesterman and Emma Wagner’s ‘Can Theory Help Translators?’ in particular we find a specific focus on this profound divide as a scholar and a professional team up in an attempt to uncover potential links between theory and practice and ascertain whether or not one can help the other. While the book ultimately poses more questions than it answers, it is surely a good sign that there is at least some curiosity into the link between the two.

Furthermore, I know of plenty of researchers who share my belief that we have a responsibility to provide insight into the actual task of translation and who realise that simply talking about translation is not enough.

Ultimately, while this discussion is partly a reminder and a challenge to myself to frame my research in practical terms, I hope that it also provides a reassuring word to the theory skeptics out there in suggesting that there does exist a belief within translation scholarship that such practical value is of utmost importance.

Thoughts? Agree, disagree? Let me know.

For now, I’ll leave you with a nice (if slightly unrelated) poem on the act of translation that I came across recently in the course of my reading. It is by the Earl of Roscommon and provides an interesting take on the translator’s role. Enjoy!

‘Tis True, Composing is the nobler Part,
But good Translation is no Easie Art,
For the materials have long since been found,
Yet both your Fancy and your Hands are bound,
And by improving what was writ before,
Invention labours less, but Judgement more.

Each poet with a different talent writes,
One praises, one instructions, another bites.
Horace did ne’er aspire to Epick Bays,
Nor lofty Maro stoop to Lyrick Lays.
Examine how your Humour is inclin’d,
And which the Ruling Passion of your Mind;

Then seek a Poet who your ways does bend,
And choose an Author as you choose a Friend;
United by this sympathetick Bond,
Your grow familiar, intimate and fond.
Your Thoughts, your Words, your Stiles, your Souls agree,
Nor longer his Interpreter, but He.

P.S. Be sure to check out my recent interview on Olga Arakelyan’s ‘Your professional translator’ blog. It’s part of the excellent ‘Meet the Linguist’ series and is perfect if you want to find out a little bit more about the man behind JALTranslation: http://www.yourprofessionaltranslator.com/2014/10/meet-linguist-joseph-lambert.html

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.