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.

Clothing

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.

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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.

Top 100 Language Professional Blogs – Voting

Hello again everybody! Just a quick one. I’m excited to announce that my blog has been selected as one of the Top 100 Language Professional blogs in the ‘Top Language Lovers 2013’ competition and I need your votes to get as high up that list as possible!
Voting runs from 22nd May to 9th June and I’m counting on your help. So if you’ve enjoyed the blog then please take a few seconds to click the link above and vote for Jaltranslation: I will be forever grateful! And don’t be shy about sharing this page too, every vote counts!
Thanks, and ciao for now.

Talking Translation – Reflecting on Reflective Practice

I was going to say that this post will be a little bit different but, as I seem to say that at the start of most of my posts, I guess that this could be entirely expected.

This post is based around the link below (click the Soundcloud image) which heads over to a podcast from ‘Transcast’, a collection of podcasts and recordings relating to different aspects of the field of translation. This particular podcast involves a discussion between Dr. Sarah Maitland, Dr. Fruela Fernandez – Translation Studies professors at the University of Hull – and myself, centring on the importance of reflective practice in translation training and professional work, and I just wanted to quickly run through a few key ideas here before leaving you to listen to the podcast.

Reflective practice, for me, represents one of the best working methods available for the practicing translator as well as providing a rare opportunity to integrate theory and practice, which remains a key issue in the discipline. Reflecting on your own work as you translate forces you to question and to justify your translatorial decisions in relation to an end goal (a translation brief in this case) and this in turn allows a deeper understanding of your own working process and a better grasp of your areas of strength and weakness.

But beyond this added certainty in your choices, the act of questioning and justification also leads to a greater level of replicability in your work: I may be able to unwittingly produce the best translation in the world, but without an understanding of the processes leading to it, chances are that I won’t be able to reach this same high standard on a consistent basis, something of key importance to the practicing translator.

On a different level it also stands as an extremely useful pedagogical tool in the way that it allows assessors to gain a valuable insight into the creative process that a student follows in their work as well as their overall understanding of the discipline.

The reflection does, however, need to be based upon a solid knowledge of the underlying principles involved in translation in order to soundly justify decisions. This knowledge can be drawn from professional experience, translation theory, hermeneutics or many other fields.

Ultimately, if you can amply justify a decision to yourself, then you can be much more certain of the quality of your work and can assuredly justify that same decision to a client. Anyway, listen to the podcast and reflect on considering reflecting in your own work. Ciao for now!

Getting to grips with translation theory: A (very) brief introduction.

Given that my previous post delving into the world of translation theory (5 mini reviews) saw a fair amount of interest, I decided that it would be worthwhile to keep writing on the topic, and what better place to start than from the beginning?!

Translation studies as a discipline, though relatively small, can still appear daunting when first taking the plunge. This is where the introductory literature (much of which was mentioned in my reviews) proves to be useful, but I also wanted to write a brief introduction of my own just to provide a point of orientation for anyone currently lacking the time or inclination to wade into a more thorough exploration of the subject.

While there is an undoubted void between translation theory and practice and an elitism that sees the translation of literature and poetry researched much more than the practical texts which make up the working translator’s staple diet – both of which will no doubt deter many already-established freelancers from making the effort to explore translation theory, arguing that they can work perfectly well without it – I am of the firm conviction that a good understanding of the ground that has been covered throughout the history of translation is extremely beneficial to the practicing translator.

As such, there are a few key progressions that I will briefly detail, followed by suggestions for further reading, and hopefully I will have the opportunity to provide more detailed explanations in the future.

As thought on translation has developed over the centuries, there have always been prevailing ideas of the correct level of translation and correct method of translation and first of all we will cover the level of translation.

The passage from word to culture

From the idea of translating ‘sense-for-sense’ over ‘word-for-word’ put forward by Jerome (the patron saint of translators) which replaces the individual word as the unit of translation with the phrase, dualistic oppositions have often featured prominently in translation theory.

The bipolar ‘free vs. literal’ translation for example, which questions whether a translated text should remain close to the source text or be rendered in flowing prose, is widely known and Eugene Nida’s idea of formal equivalence vs. dynamic equivalence (which roughly equates to retention of original form (FE) against naturalness of expression (DE)) follows along similar lines.

Today, the most widely cited theoretical idea is Lawrence Venuti’s thought based on deviation from domestic norms. This sees him develop a methodology in which he attempts to overturn the standard translation practice of ‘domestication’ – making a text fit in with the dominant norms of the target culture – with a method labelled as ‘foreignisation’ which involves avoiding standard usage and allowing the ‘foreignness of the text to shine through’.

In this way translation theory has moved from the level of the sentence to the level of text or indeed culture as a whole, emphasising context, and this ‘cultural turn’ is the area of preoccupation for many contemporary scholars.

Origins of the discipline and different theoretical stances

The discipline name ‘translation studies’ was first coined by poet and translator James Holmes, who was one of the first scholars to really explore the science of translation. His precocious and comprehensive map of the discipline is still quite widely used in translation literature today due to its wide scope and its accuracy in addressing both practical and theoretical issues. Indeed, his ‘Applied translation’-‘Translation Aids’ designation still provides one of the only links between translation theory and modern translation technology.

SUN1

Moving on from this general map of the discipline as a whole, scholars have tended to focus their attention on specific areas of translation, each pertaining to certain established schools of thought. There are those who focus on linguistic ideas, seeing the way that language works as the key to understanding the process of translation. Meanwhile, there are others who follow Gideon Toury’s descriptive translation studies with its ideas of polysystems (which is praised for taking social contexts into account) and translation norms, claiming that the methodological study of translations over a period of time and within particular contexts will show patterns that can lead to a better understanding of the translation process.

The other major school of thought in translation theory is that of functional translation which takes a more practical view of the translation task and is most applicable to the work of freelance translators. With its key idea of Skopostheorie developed by Hans Vermeer and Katharina Reiss, which assigns a ‘skopos’ or aim to a particular translation (rather like a translation brief), it forces translators to consider the consequences of their decisions and to carefully think about the purpose of their translation in order to make more informed decisions.

Finally, it is worth considering the increasing influence of philosophical ideas on translation theory with Jacques Derrida’s post-structuralist concepts of ‘différance’ and ‘deconstruction’ widely mentioned in contemporary translation theory. These ideas, which emphasise the pivotal role of context in the act of translation and the unstable nature of meaning, prove to be very attractive to the translation scholar but ultimately tell us very little about how to actually translate.

Overall this can be seen as one of the main issues with translation theory as much research tends asks more questions than it answers and, in spite of all that has been written to date, the question remains to what extent do we really know how to translate better due to theoretical knowledge?

Or, as Eliot Weinberger put it: ‘Translation theory, however beautiful, is useless for translating. There are laws of thermodynamics, and there is cooking.’

Suggestions for Further Reading

One great series which cover most ideas in translation theory is St Jerome publishing’s ‘Translation Theories Explored’ (Nord’s Translating as a Purposeful Activity – covering the functional approach – is a personal favourite)

Meanwhile, for a discussion of more practical topics which apply only the relevant amount of theory, their ‘Translation Practices Explained’ series has many great titles.

The best introductory texts are listed in this blog while Venuti’s The Translator’s Invisibility is an excellent next step.

For linguistically-focused theory try Hatim and Mason’s Discourse and the Translator.

Finally, for descriptive translation studies Toury’s Descriptive Translation Studies: and Beyond is a good place to start while Gentzler’s Contemporary Translation Theories adequately covers this area while also starting to examine philosophical contributions.