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 (, send out a message in a bottle, whatever you want!

Looking forward to hearing from you.


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)



P.S. If you’re having trouble with the SoundCloud player, here’s a direct link to the recording:

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.

Still Invisible? Visiting and Revisiting Venuti

Hi everyone, after attending a seminar entitled ‘Domestication vs Foreignisation revisited’ a few days ago, I thought I’d share some of the interesting insights that I picked up as well as giving a couple of my own thoughts on the topic.

The seminar was given by Terry Hale of the University of Hull, a man with an astounding array of experience in translation and publishing and, as one of my MA lecturers back in the day, a man who is something of a translation hero of mine.

As the title suggests (for those who are familiar with his work), the seminar was based around developing a deeper understanding of Lawrence Venuti’s seminal 1995 The Translator’s Invisibility – an absolute must-read for all translators as it is the text that put translation studies on the map and shaped our understanding of the subject today.

Terry is in fact a good friend of Larry’s – as he calls him – and was instrumental in Venuti’s reception here in England. He wrote a fantastic review of Invisibility for the Times Literary Supplement at the time of publication (I haven’t been able to find a copy online unfortunately) and was even included on the back cover of Venuti’s excellent 1998 The Scandals of Translation with this quote:

[O]ne of the most provocative and far-reaching books to be published in the field of Translation Studies in recent years. Lawrence Venuti has proved himself a cultural commentator of the very first order. This book should be required reading for all those engaged in the humanities.

So who better to take a retrospective look at what The Translator’s Invisibility has to offer?!

While I don’t want to go over the book’s contents in too much detail here (I did write a brief overview in a previous post), the key contribution to come from The Translator’s Invisibility is Venuti’s new theory of translation, formulated around the basis of hermeneutics, which builds upon largely philosophical ideas from Friedrich Schleiermacher and Antoine Berman to distinguish between ‘foreignising’ and ‘domesticating’ types of translation in order to forward his ideas of deviation from dominant linguistic forms.

Venuti laments the domesticating strategies that prevail throughout Western literary translation and render texts as fluent, readable target language pieces, smoothing over the uniqueness of the foreign language that he seeks to retain. According to Venuti, his foreignising strategy allows the disturbing and stimulating effects of translation to be shown in the domestic setting and follows Berman’s idea that a bad translation negates the foreignness of the text.

While that’s the basic gist of it, however, Terry was able to provide a more nuanced appraisal of Venuti’s work by integrating a highly developed understanding of his background. Interesting snippets include how Venuti’s own personal life provided the basis for his Utopian ethics and how his interest in translation and ideology can be traced back to his PhD thesis Our Halcyon Dayes, which focuses on prerevolutionary English texts without even mentioning translation.

Indeed, it was within the Caroline period that Venuti first discovered these ‘fluent’ tendencies in translation that later formed the basis of Invisibility and led him to argue that every text since roughly 1600 has potentially been corrupted, pandering to the lowest common denominator of a readership wanting texts that simply uphold their own ideological views rather than challenging them.

This effect is achieved by selecting texts that fit within dominant ideologies or even by altering the ideology within the text, and this fact is key to understanding Venuti’s goals. His main aim was to demonstrate how every text we have ever read could have been politically, socially or sexually censored while suggesting a strategy (foreignisation) that leaves this ideology in tact. Ultimately, while Venuti demonstrates on numerous occasions that this process of domestication (and ideological shifting) is taking place in translation, he never quite fully demonstrates that translation is the key to unlocking ideology.

Perhaps even more interesting than these insights, however, is the fact that one of Venuti’s key influences remains largely unheralded. While everyone links Venuti’s thought with that of Schleiermacher due to the obvious equivalence between the two (Schleiermacher’s key contribution to translation is summarised by the quote: “Either the translator leaves the writer in peace as much as possible and moves the reader toward him; or he leaves the reader in peace as much as possible and moves the writer toward him.”), the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser receives little mention despite having a huge influence on Venuti’s writing.

Althusser was Venuti’s intellectual hero and all of his thought on ideology stems from Althusser’s conception of ‘symptomatic reading’ – problematising a text to uncover ideology, something that Venuti is so good at. Furthermore, Althusser’s influence can be clearly felt in the Marxist terminology that Venuti employs. While a basis in Marxism in itself is not a problem, the way in which his use of Marxist language renders the text impenetrable and ambiguous in places certainly is. Indeed, Invisibility is already an extremely heavy text and the addition of Marxist terminology only serves to complicate matters further as well as sacrificing a degree of credibility as interest in these theories has subsequently subsided.

More worrying, however, is Venuti’s intellectualism and exclusion of non-literary translation, which dictate that the technical translator cannot realistically follow Venuti’s ideas at all given the economic concerns and client demands foregrounded in the professional setting.

Venuti is in the fortunate position of being able to translate with a degree of cultural experimentation rather than bending to commercial constraints and publisher demands as would probably be the case with an inexperienced translator desperate to give a good impression.

Indeed, in one of very few cases of negative reception that his work received he is criticised for this very focus on literary translation and supposedly more legitimate, ‘high brow’ texts. As Anthony Pym suggests in his review of Invisibility: “As long as the translations are kept distant from the masses’ cheap understanding, the professors will be employed to read and talk about those translations,” thus stressing the importance of Venuti’s own continued visibility in academia.

While we cannot underestimate the value of Venuti’s contributions, as modern-day freelance translators we are still left questioning what it really offers us. Ultimately, the more you agree with Venuti’s damning verdict on ‘fluent’ translation strategies, the more galling it is to have zero power in changing this state of affairs (this is something that Terry alluded to in saying that the focus on translators is perhaps misplaced in Venuti’s work, as it is the publishers and decision-makers who have a much greater – yet perhaps still inconsequential – degree of control).

Overall, the fact that we are still talking about Venuti’s work 20 years down the line (perhaps less so these days but still a considerable amount, as demonstrated by recent republications of Invisibility) is both a tribute to the enduring power of his writing and a condemnation of the lack of progress that has been made since. The situation hasn’t changed and neither has our outlook on translation and translation theory. Until something major happens, however, Invisibility remains the key text for understanding what really goes on in the world of translation.

Exploring Translation Studies Online: Where to start?

With the debate raging on as to whether or not an academic background is a necessity for today’s translator (you can read my take on the subject here), an increasing number of translators are taking the plunge and working towards those translation-specific qualifications or at least considering getting a grip on the academic side of the our profession.

However, if you’re looking into the area and don’t want to immediately splash out on an extensive reading list, where do you start once you’ve ploughed through the valuable nuggets that Wikipedia has to offer on the subject?

While translation studies as a discipline is gradually increasing its online presence in this digital age, it is still relatively difficult to find useful resources among the masses of websites that skirt around the subject. As such, here are my top five online translation studies resources to map out a few key starting points that will hopefully provide invaluable insights for both experienced translators and those completely new to the wonderful world of translation alike while saving you the hassle of trawling the web.

Anthony Pym’s Youtube channel

What better place to start than with a leading figure in translation studies interviewing other leading figures in the discipline? That’s exactly what you get with Anthony Pym’s Youtube channel. Pym, current president of the European Society for Translation Studies, has clearly put a lot of effort into making the discipline more accessible and the interviews in particular provide an ideal way of exploring a range of key ideas. Also included on the channel are explorations of the different theories within translation and a whole collection of fascinating lectures.

Meanwhile, Pym’s website too is something of a treasure trove of information as he has made much of his previous research available for free online. While reading only one scholar’s take on the subject can result in a biased view of the discipline, the quality of Pym’s work means that it is worth really taking advantage of the resources on offer in conjunction with other research.

Fondazione San Pellegrino’s Youtube channel

Along the same lines as Anthony Pym’s channel, the Fondazione San Pellegrino have uploaded a vast collection of excellent interviews and talks given by leading figures in the discipline (in both Italian and English) that are well worth a watch.

Jeremy Munday’s ‘Introducing Translation Studies’ site

Another leading figure in the discipline, Munday’s companion site to his 2001 book of the same name is perfect for anyone looking to get to grips with the development of thought within translation studies. The site includes video discussions of each chapter from the author himself, suggested further reading, external links and even multiple choice quizzes to test your translation studies knowledge.

Online Journals

Journals provide the most telling representation of current trends within a discipline and therefore remain a key area to explore. A good place to start when looking for online translation journals is on Mona Baker’s website where the author of ‘In Other Words’ (thetextbook of choice for translation courses these days) has included a fairly comprehensive list of translators’ associations, translation journals and publishers in the field.

And, while many of the more famous journals like Translation Studies and The Translator require a subscription to access the texts, there are still many open-access journals out there that provide quality, free content. Two such examples are the New Voices in Translation Studies journal and the University of Helsinki’s English studies electronic journal that both provide great articles. Finally, one newly-formed translation journal that has fully embraced the digital age we live in is Translation: A transdisciplinary journal. Their website is a bit more user-friendly than the rather cluttered standard layout that can accompany journals and, while you do have to pay for the core articles, certain content (such as reviews, introductions and interviews) is available for free. It’s certainly a project worth following.


When producing a list of the best free online resources on offer, it would be extremely careless of me to overlook the power of blogging. There are several excellent blogs out there addressing the topic of translation theory – Aston University’s blog or the About Translation blog to name but two – and I’ve tackled the topic a couple of times in the past myself too. So, if you’re looking for somewhere familiar to start you off, why not check out my brief introduction to translation theory.

Hopefully these few resources will help you get started and hopefully they will equally inspire a few of you to delve further into translation studies literature. If there are any other resources that you feel should be included, please get in touch to let me know!

Finally, although it’s not specifically translation studies material, here’s a bonus link to several free e-books on translation, terminology and linguistics. Who doesn’t love a free e-book?! Enjoy!

Translation as Music

In the past I’ve written about my love for metaphor within translation (on two separate occasions no less) and this post roughly picks up from there. Previously, I’ve taken a look at the metaphors that have been formed over the years in an attempt to shed light upon the (supposedly impossible) task that we, as translators, tackle on a daily basis. This time around, meanwhile, I aim to delve deeper into one particular connection that is frequently made – that of translation and music.

As a keen musician when I’m not translating, this link is something I love to explore (I wrote a post looking at applications of translation within music a while back) and first off here are a few famous examples of the two being drawn together:

“Poetry translation is like playing a piano sonata on a trombone.” – Nataly Kelly

“A translation is no translation, he said, unless it will give you the music of a poem along with the words of it.” – John Millington Synge

“Music, ‘the universal language’, is what poetic writing aims to be.” – Suzanne Jill Levine

“All writers aim to be musicians.” – the narrator in Infante’s Inferno by Cabrera Infante

Yet rather than aiming to merely recount occasions when a link has been made between translation and music, this post intends to take a preliminary look at a new potential means of viewing the relationship between the two. While translation is so often considered a secondary, derivative task, there is an interesting thread to follow within musical metaphor making that may help us to challenge this subordination.

If such a strong link exists between translation and music, then why not see translation as a cover version of a track? Covers share the same status as a translation: they are an interpretation, a reading of anoriginal. Just like translation, the fact that they cannot stake a claim to utter originality is also without doubt, but that doesn’t mean that they cannot equal, or even surpass, this original.

As cover versions often go on to seal their place in a different style and era, translations too can breathe new life into a text and come to represent something beyond their source. This value is subjective of course, but the possibility seems undeniable.

One nice example that demonstrates the potential existence of a superior cover/translation is the 1967 Bob Dylan track All Along the Watchtower. While Dylan’s original recording is a classic in its own right, the song is almost overwhelmingly identified with the version Jimi Hendrix recorded for Electric Ladyland (below) just six months after Dylan’s track was released. Hendrix’s cover went on to become a Top 20 single in 1968 and was ranked 47th in Rolling Stone magazine’s ‘500 Greatest Songs of All Time’, making it by far the more successful of the two.

Indeed, when describing his reaction to hearing Hendrix’s version, Dylan himself said: “It overwhelmed me, really. He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there.”

Furthermore, Dylan subsequently took to basing his own performances of the song on Hendrix’s version, something he openly admits: “[Hendrix] probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.” Now, when listening back to later live performances of the track, it is clear how much Dylan’s own take on the song has been influenced by Hendrix’s cover.

When considered in the context of translation, this example calls to mind the famous quote by Salman Rushdie: “It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling obstinately to the notion that something can also be gained.”

In overturning the dominant view of translation as a secondary task that struggles in vain to live up to an immovable original, this metaphor serves to provide a stronger image of the task at hand and the profession as a whole. While it still reflects the inescapable fact that a translation is not an original production, the image of translation as a cover version demonstrates the power that translation can nevertheless wield and the immense value that it offers. Ultimately, alternative meaning and originality complement each other – neither makes up a whole on its own.

What are your thoughts on the subject? Are there any other musical metaphors you’ve come across? To finish of with, here’s a fitting quote from Paul Blackburn that takes us back to Dylan’s 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home:

In your view, what is a translator?
A man who brings it all back home. In short, a madman.

Translation Ethics: A Different Perspective

This post represents a long-overdue contribution as the question of ethics within translation is both a topic I find fascinating and one to which I have devoted considerable research. In fact, with it being the topic that was at the heart of my MA dissertation, I’d probably go as far as saying that it is my ‘specialist subject’ within translation studies – if such a thing exists.

I must also note that this post is merely an introduction to this vast area and I hope to write further posts on the topic in the future to expand upon the basic ideas set out here.

Although it has been widely acknowledged for some time that ethical considerations are an area of key importance for translation studies research and translation as a whole, relatively few scholars have sought to tackle the issue and even fewer bloggers or professionals writing upon translation have looked into this area.

One notable problem is that the very definition of ethics varies greatly between texts and people can find themselves addressing wildly differing concepts while still contending with the same umbrella subject. Furthermore, traditional concepts of ethics do not apply to translation in an adequate manner; sticking to ideas such as utilitarianism (used in the sense of the most happiness for the greatest number of people) or intellectualism (which dictates that the best action is the one that best fosters and promotes knowledge) can be viewed as a limitation of conceptions of ethics in this context.

Ultimately, ethics remains a challenging subject in any field and its breadth of applications ensures that no discussion of the subject will prove to be clear-cut. Indeed, as Sherry Simon puts it in her 1999 review of Lawrence Venuti’s The Scandals of Translation: ‘[w]hat more difficult notion is there in translation studies than that of the ethics of translation?’

However, whether or not that is the case, many of the posts I have read on the subject are particularly out of line with what I see as the key issues and I believe that some ground can be gained by looking into precisely what it is we are aiming for.

More specifically, the majority of posts I have read addressing the area are concerned with individual convictions and value judgements. One perfect example is this post from Jensen Localization entitled ‘Ethics in Translation’ that questions how differing views on topics such as religion or politics, or texts that may cause offence to the translator can lead to ethical problems. This is undoubtedly an important aspect of the profession and questioning the impact that these issues have on your output is extremely interesting, yet I don’t feel that this is a part of ethics proper.

Similarly, while an issue such as translators’ rights and drawing up a professional code of conduct for translators are both undoubtedly important, they place focus solely on a deontology, or professional ethics, while separating a personal ethics from the discussion.

For me, professional codes of conduct represent a different area of study while considerations such as whether or not a translator is willing to accept a text based on grounds such as religion or politics are individual decisions that lie within the distinct category of morality.

It is important that ethics contends with the question of how to translate; previously mentioned issues are not ethics of translating or translation, but of the translator.

As Anthony Pym puts it (a leading voice on the topic who himself continually refuses this distinction between deontology and ethics and seeks to address the profession and the act together in an attempt to develop one all-encompassing ethical code):

‘If 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.’

In this statement he equates the act of translation as a whole with an ethics of translation and as a result implies that the ethics of translation is inextricably linked to a methodology of translation – the individual choices in the translation process, or that question of ‘How to translate?’

An ethics of translation lies in deciding upon the right course of action within the act itself, deciding what is the right or wrong treatment of the text we are translating and knowing how to implement those decisions. It implies an acute awareness of your own role in the translation process and a keen awareness of the impact of your decisions on the world around you.

One example which serves to demonstrate the distinction I have attempted to make is this provocative post that is currently causing some heated discussion among professional translators. Within the post, the author details and glorifies their method of ‘faking it’ in translation – getting work in the profession despite being wholly unqualified.

In terms of a professional or translator ethics, this is highly questionable as the client is not given an honest reflection of the translator’s capability to complete the work (the line ‘managed to convince some poor fool to pay me to translate Japanese for them’ really drives this home), while in terms of a translation ethics the translator is in no position to fully appreciate the significance of their choices or the subtle shades of meaning that are being erased, mangled or mistreated and is thus acting in an unethical manner.

Overall this is an extremely difficult area to address and I hope that this introduction has served to shed some light on what I believe is the true heart of a translation ethics.

A few thoughts, tips and tidbits on translation

A far cry from my previous post on board games, this entry revolves around several bits and pieces that I have been mulling over in my translation work during recent months. I don’t claim to be offering any concrete answers and comments and feedback would be much appreciated to hear your take on the areas discussed. Ultimately, however, I hope you will find the points interesting and practical.

Is your CAT tool really adding to your work?

First up is something that has come under close scrutiny in my working practice of late. While I readily accept that CAT tools offer so much to the professional translator, in certain contexts this is a particularly pertinent question to ask yourself.

When dealing with fairly short texts that require a substantial amount of restructuring and adaptation to be rendered fit for publication, I realised that my standard working method involving a CAT tool simply wasn’t efficient. With a mode of working based around translating sentence by sentence, I would subsequently have to completely re-work the entire draft – a process I could’ve incorporated into my initial translation process. Factor in the tight deadlines and I simply couldn’t continue using such an inefficient process.

In this case, working directly from Word has proven to be a much better alternative and it is certainly a question worth considering on future projects.

CAT Tool

How can you maximise critical reading?

By critical reading I essentially mean the process of proofreading your own work here and this was something that I really wanted to get to the heart of recently as I looked to further improve my working efficiency.

While most experienced translators will tell you to take a break from your work before going over it with ‘fresh eyes’ or, better still, sleep on it before re-reading your text in the morning, what about projects with a deadline such that a method like this is simply impossible?

One method I find to be quite useful in this situation is to walk away and have a snack before going over a text again while another that I’ve seen mentioned a few times recently is to print off the text and read a physical copy.

These two methods are far from ideal, however – the former is best avoided long-term for health reasons and the latter suffers due to cost/practicality – and therefore my suggested route is to read the text in a digital form that cannot be edited. Personally, I have found that this makes a huge difference as previewing a seemingly final Word document or watching a Powerpoint presentation in full-screen mode where no changes can be made forces you into giving the text a fresh look. Give it a try.

Practice makes perfect

I’ve said it before but it is definitely a point worth repeating: one of the most important attributes in a translator is not what they know, but how quickly 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 prevously 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.

Know how to use theory sparingly

While I am a huge translation theory geek, I’m still among the first to admit that it has very obvious limitations. No matter how well you know your stuff and how much sense the ideas may seem to make, you always have to bear in mind that 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

While Venuti’s ‘foreignising’ strategy may have an undoubted allure, the realities of professional translation dictate that textual experimentation is simply impossible while stylistic choices are based on parallel texts and style guides rather than your sense of duty to a text/culture – preserving foreignness is not the way to impress a client.

Good translation paradoxically damages the profession

As a kind of continuation of the previous thought, this point explores the idea that translation as a profession is still woefully misunderstood. The aim of theories such as those mentioned above is to address that very trend of invisibility in translation that sees texts produced to appear as if they have not been translated.

The point which then stems from this is that good translation actually reinforces this illusion of invisibility and ensures that the translation process continues to go undetected. On the flip-side, this in turn leads to the fact that the only time that translation is noticed is when it is done badly, meaning that the general picture of translation outside of its own community is shaped by things going wrong… A kind of no-win situation for the profession and a pattern that is hard to break.

It’s great to work doing something you love

But enough of that doom and gloom! The heading here says it all and it is something that is always worth remembering. I love being in a situation where I look forward to receiving new projects, interacting with new clients and tackling texts that stretch my abilities. I don’t know about you but the translator’s life’s for me!

Metaphors for Translation from Ferrymen to Omelettes

Throughout history translators have demonstrated an overwhelming desire to label their task with an endless stream of metaphors, each giving a slightly different reflection of the translation process as well as reflecting a particular author’s views or prevailing attitudes at the time.

Indeed, this need for metaphor is perhaps buried in the very etymology of the term ‘translation’ which comes from the Latin translatus, the past participle of the verb transferre – meaning ‘to carry across’ – which is itself a translation from the Greek metapherein (meta- (over,across) + pherein (to carry,bear)) from which we get the term metaphor. This demonstrates the inextricable link between the two and uncovers why both translation and metaphor imply the notion of carrying over or transferring meaning from one word or phrase to another.

Translator as ferryman

Starting from this etymological source, we find the metaphor of the translator as a ferryman, carrying meaning from one language to another, from one culture to another, with the translator representing a mediator or bridge between the two.

Interestingly, the Italian, Spanish and French equivalents (traduzionetraducción and traduction respectively) come from the Latin transducere (to lead across), assigning a more animate role to meaning.

Yet while the idea of transferring meaning is a fairly simple one that can be easily pinned to translation, there are many more complex metaphors to explore.

Translator as Conqueror

One conception of translation developed during Roman times due to their many translations used as appropriations of ideas with no real regard for stylistic and linguistic features of the original is the idea of the translator as a conqueror (and the text as prisoner) in a manifestation of cultural and linguistic imperialism. This conception also sees translation as a contest, with the original text there to be surpassed in order to enrich expression in one’s own language.

Translation as a woman

This next metaphor is closely tied to its archaic roots which saw it emerge in the 17th Century following the coining of the term les belles infidèles to describe aesthetically-pleasing yet unfaithfully rendered texts in suggesting that translation – like a woman – can either be faithful or beautiful, yet not both, while simultaneously relegating translation to a historically secondary position, something which developments in both terms of equality and translation theory have sought to address in more recent history.


Another common metaphor for translation is that of translation as clothing: translating is like changing a text’s clothes, replacing those of the author with those of the translator. In relation to this metaphor, a much-cited quote comes from Henry Rider:

‘Translations of Authors from one language to another, are like old garments turn’d into new fashions; in which though the stuffe be still the same, yet the die and trimming are altered, and in the making, here something added, there something cut away’

This seems to allow permission for the translator to adapt a text to their own style and allows for different interpretations in different time periods – modernising texts into ‘new fashions’ – a process and a liberty which has been debated in translation scholarship.

Fragments of a vessel

This metaphor for translation was first suggested by Walter Benjamin in his 1923 essay ‘The Task of the Translator’ in which he explores challenges the translation act poses while rethinking the nature of meaning. He sees the text as a living entity for which translation provides an afterlife and his ideas are still widely cited today. As he vividly puts it:

‘Fragments of a vessel which are to be glued together must match one another in the smallest details, although they need not be like one another. In the same way a translation, instead of resembling the meaning of the original, must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original’s mode of signification, thus making both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language, just as fragments are part of a vessel.’

In this way, Benjamin emphasises the difficulty and the different ways of capturing meaning between languages,  while highlighting the importance of culture and context in rebuilding this meaning.

A pane of glass

While the idea of translation as a woman is linked with ideas of fidelity, this conception looks at the idea of transparency – which has also been greatly debated – as Lawrence Venuti in particular decries translation methods which see the text appear to a native speaker of the target language to have originally been written in that language as he seeks to preserve the ‘foreignness’ of the text.

The idea of a pane of glass or window is meant to highlight the way in which clarity and transparency are privileged in the assessment of translations while the visibility of supposed imperfections or obscurity – which serve to signal what you are really looking at – are widely criticised and this metaphor works in a similar way to the more humorous idea of translation as contraception – the less it is noticed, the better it seems.

Powdered Egg

Although I had not come across this metaphor before today, it is quite an interesting example from the Brave New Words blog. English poet and translator Alistair Elliot suggests that translating is like having powdered egg and trying to reconstitute it with water to make it resemble something like the original egg. However, as Epstein suggests in his blog (in turning powdered eggs into omelettes), this metaphor conforms to traditional conceptions of translation as an inferior product – an imitation, never equalling the original – something which contemporary scholarship seeks to avoid in assigning equal status and rights to translations with metaphors such as translation as cannibalism or reincarnation which place the translation alongside or even beyond the source text (although not in the same imperialistic way mentioned earlier) building upon Benjamin’s concept of an afterlife.


Overall, despite only dealing with a few of the many metaphors out there, it is clear to see the key role metaphor plays in regulating and updating commonly held notions about translation. It is also interesting to follow how they develop with the passage of time to reflect society around them. If there are any more good ones out there that need to be shared then please leave me a comment below. Until next time.

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’Hôtel 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 à l’étroit.’ (there is too much butter. They [the trays] are cramped), Manuel then mishears this second sentence and repeats it as ‘ils sont là, 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.