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!

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! 🙂

Starting out as a freelance translator

Hello everyone, hope you’re all well out there in translation land and have some exciting plans to round off the year!

Today’s post is something a little different. I recently gave a talk to the Translation Studies MA students at the University of Hull and thought I’d share my presentation with you here.

As the title of this post suggests, the seminar was all about getting started as a freelance translator, with me sharing tips and advice based on my own experiences within the wonderful world of freelancing.

Hopefully there will be plenty of useful information in there for those of you interested in a career in freelance translation and perhaps there will even be one or two handy snippets for more experienced freelancers.

The presentation touches upon everything from finding and completing your first translation job to a few different ways of developing an online presence using social media.

Public speaking and presentation skills aren’t my strongest areas but they are skills that I’m keen to develop, especially with conference papers, teaching and further presentations on the horizon. As such, any feedback or handy links for developing these areas would be greatly appreciated!

Anyway, here’s the recording of the presentation and the accompanying slides. (Click the images to get the full screen, slideshow version)

Enjoy!

 

P.S. If you’re having trouble with the SoundCloud player, here’s a direct link to the recording: https://soundcloud.com/jaltranslation/starting-out-as-a-freelance-translator

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.

Thoughts from the Territories of Understanding Conference

Hello everyone, I trust all is well out there in translation land! As some of you may have spotted, last week marked the occasion of the second international postgraduate conference in translation and interpreting studies at Queen’s University in Belfast.

Entitled Territories of Understanding: Conflict & Encounter, the organisers put on a thoroughly enjoyable event and I wanted to share a few quick thoughts that emerged during my stay in Northern Ireland.

The Present and Future of Translation Studies

Spread out over the course of two days, the conference’s twenty or so papers were slotted around keynote talks from leading translation studies scholars Susan Bassnett, Michael Cronin and Samia Bazzi.

While these big-name talks all provided ample food for thought (as you’d expect), reflecting the breadth of research in contemporary translation studies and showcasing what the (inter)discipline’s well-established scholars have to offer, there was much more to the conference than the chance to hear from a few translation heavyweights.

This was the first time I’d attended a specifically postgraduate conference and I was blown away as translation’s emerging scholars were provided with the leading voice. Talks were consistently excellent throughout, tackling a vast array of topics while centring around the notion of conflict and encounter, and the whole event was characterised by a universal willingness to share and discuss ideas.

Indeed, beyond enjoying two intense days of translation talk (what’s not to like about that, right?!), it was this postgraduate basis that really set the event apart. Having seen first-hand what this new generation has to offer, I left Belfast with no doubt that there is a bright future in store for translation studies.

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Moving beyond translation studies

Back in the present, one of the most pressing general issues facing current and future translation scholars alike (and something that is also a real concern in the translation profession) is the need to move beyond our own borders and demonstrate the complexity and relevance of translation to a wider audience.

As our ongoing preoccupation with expanding understandings of translation continues to take the area beyond traditional notions of a specifically linguistic activity, translation studies’ interdisciplinary appeal is becoming increasingly evident.

While such tightly focused conferences can often represent a case of preaching to the converted, talking up the merits of a subject to an audience of fully fledged enthusiasts, the range of high quality talks on offer from people based outside of translation studies demonstrated that this push beyond our borders is gathering increasing pace and garnering tangible results within the academic world.

Talks centring around discussions of politics, tourism and art seamlessly blended in alongside more traditional discussions of corpus linguistics and rhetoric and the conference gave a strong sense of the progress that has been made over the last few years.

But this expansion must also be accompanied by a note of caution. While these widening understandings of what translation can entail undoubtedly allow us greater scope in engaging with other fields, it seems that an already limited focus on using theory to inform the core practice of translation may be slipping further from our attention.

Aside from a few papers that did explore concrete examples of translation issues, direct concerns from translation and interpreting professionals were only briefly discussed during a round table discussion at the very end of the conference – a clear indication of the way in which such concerns are all too often relegated to the sidelines.

Our core focus (which, for me at least, is that of translation as an interlingual transfer operation going from a source text to a target text) is becoming increasingly diluted and the acceptance of more abstract notions of translation, which are so powerful in extending a welcoming hand to neighboring disciplines, perhaps sees us running the risk of becoming disconnected with an important element of our discipline’s goal. That all-important sense of real-world applicability remains in danger of drifting out of sight – a concern that is not new but is well-worth reiterating.

Ultimately, however, my enduring impression of the conference is undoubtedly that of the considerable quality and the strong sense of direction within the young translation studies community. As the only translation studies PhD student at my university, it was great to get a real sense of what is happening in the wider community. What’s more, my enjoyment of the talks and the discussions that followed really confirmed that, one year into my translation research, I’m definitely working in the right area!

BONUS ODDITY: A poster for ‘Rough on Rats’ poison found during a flying visit to the Ulster museum. Enjoy…

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.

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.

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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