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.

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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.

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.

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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.

Reading up on translation: 5 mini reviews

There’s something a little different in store for my post today with an attempt to give a little something back: over the course of the last few years, I’ve spent many long hours poring over books of all shapes and sizes to satisfy my need for all things translation and I thought a few mini-reviews of what I consider to be the best introductory texts would be a great way to try to provoke a little bit of interest in the field.

Personally, I find translation theory fascinating and have read much of what translation studies as a discipline has to offer, even to the extent of reading Palumbo’s ‘Key Terms in Translation Studies’ (essentially a glossary of the key terms in the discipline) from cover to cover. If it sounds like a far-fetched claim, it is important to consider that, as a fairly young discipline, the amount of literature on the subject isn’t actually that big and can be covered in a few months of intensive study.

Of course, the list is not comprehensive by any means; despite my constant scouring of the market for new literature, there remain texts that I maybe should have come across and if you can recommend anything I may have overlooked, or anything that you think will be of interest, then please leave a comment or drop me a line on Twitter.

The reviews only scratch the surface of what each of these great books has to offer, but hopefully it is enough to whet the appetite:

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Found in Translation – Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche

I thought I would start with one of the more recent additions to my bookshelf, and a book that is currently making waves in translation circles following its release last year and many positive reviews. ‘Found in Translation’ is a collection of anecdotes on the subject which are both accessible and hugely entertaining. Anyone with even a passing interest in languages or translation will find it fascinating and it is the perfect place to start if you want to indulge a potential interest in the area. While the bold claim in the blurb describing it as ‘by far the most meaningful book on the subject of translation that I have ever seen’ may be going a bit far, this book takes steps to put translation on the map and that is exactly what the profession and the discipline need.

Is that a fish in your ear – David Bellos

This book pre-dates ‘Found in Translation’ by a year or two and is written to largely the same end goal: another collection of anecdotes which aim to inspire interest in the field, and it is one that really delivers. Written with a sense of humour that makes it a joy to read, Bellos provides an insight into how translation has shaped the world we live in and how it affects our daily lives. Criticised as being slightly inaccessible for the uninitiated while also lacking adequate substance for more academic tastes, it may not be as suited to testing a tentative curiosity as the previous book, but the author’s style and the content actually make this my (marginal) pick of the two.

In Other Words – Mona Baker

Rather than a collection of anecdotes on the subject, this book is more scholarly in nature and stands as an invaluable companion to the budding translator getting to grips with the subject. There are other introductions to the discipline out there (Susan Bassnett’s ‘Translation Studies’ is the go-to book for many people looking to get into the field and has an excellent, detailed history of the discipline) and other introductory textbooks (Peter Newmark’s ‘Textbook of Translation’ and Jeremy Munday’s ‘Introduction to Translation Studies’ among the best known) out there, but Baker’s coursebook is an amalgamation of the best aspects of each of these and provides a substantial guide to the challenges that translation offers, all coupled with practical examples which serve to help the new student orientate themselves in an alien discipline full of terms and ideas that can otherwise seem overwhelming.

The Scandals of Translation – Lawrence Venuti

The name of Lawrence Venuti has become one that goes hand in hand with translation studies as a discipline, and it is his work that forms the core of the canon. While Baker’s book ventures into more scholarly territory, Venuti’s goes far beyond the outskirts and represents the heart of scholarship. This can make it heavy-going for readers looking for something more accessible but with that said, there are very few authors who have managed to show the extents of translation’s power in the globalised world, and this book is absolutely fascinating for anyone interested in the humanities. ‘The Translator’s Invisibility’ is a similarly absorbing read which further develops his theoretical ideas, but I feel that ‘Scandals’ provides just a little more accessibility to merit its inclusion here.

Can Theory Help Translators? – Chesterman and Wagner

The last of the books on the list is a bit of a departure from the others as it doesn’t represent an introduction to the area at all. However, it addresses a question that causes ongoing debate in the field, and a question which I personally have tried to find answers to. There is a clear vacuum between translation theory and practice; many (maybe even most) freelance translators have very little or no knowledge of theory and still manage to do their job to exceptionally high standards, calling into question the necessity of theory. As such, this book throws a theorist and a professional together in an attempt to ascertain whether or not one can help the other and, while ultimately posing more questions than it answers, it is a must read for anyone curious of the link between the two and the benefits of theoretical knowledge.

As mentioned before, please get in touch with suggestions for books that I may have overlooked or books you have enjoyed, I’m always looking for new reads in the area!