The Translation Profession
http://home.earthlink.net/~rbchriss/Articles/Article1.html (8 of 8) [2002.09.28. 21:15:37]
If you are new to the profession, or if you are exploring translation as a possible profession, please take the time to read this article so that you are acquainted with certain basics about translators and what they do.
What is a Translator?
A translator converts written material, such as newspaper and magazine articles, books, manuals, or documents from one language into another. This is not to be confused with an interpreter, who converts spoken material, such as speeches, presentations, depositions, and the like, from one language to another. Although there is some vague connection between the abilities involved in translation and interpretation, translators cannot necessarily interpret, nor can interpreters necessarily translate. Moreover, the best translators are not good interpreters and likewise, truly great interpreters are not much for translation. And while many professional training programs require interpreters to develop some skill in translation, professionally trained translators often have no exposure to the skills of interpretation.
To be clear about the languages used by translators, I’ll refer to the translator’s native language as the A language and the non-native languages as the B or C languages. A B language is one which the translator can speak, read, and write virtually as a native speaker does. A C language is one which the translator can read and understand like a native, but does not necessarily speak or write so well. Obviously we all have an A language, and equally evident, all translators have a B language. Many translators have more than one B language, and some also have C languages. What very few people have is two A languages, and even if you are one of those who do, take care in making the claim, as many people will be skeptical.
I’ll also use the following terms. Source text or language will refer to the language which the material first appears in, usually the translator’s B language. Target text and language refer to the language that the material is translated into, usually the translator’s A language. In general, translators work from their B or C languages into their A languages, though an individual’s skills and the market’s needs may alter this principle.
A good translator is by definition bilingual. The opposite is not necessarily true, however. A born and bred bilingual will still need two things to become a translator: first, the skills and experience necessary for translation; second, knowledge of the field in which he or she will translate. The skills and experience for translation include the ability to write well in the target language, the ability to read and understand the source language material thoroughly, and the ability to work with the latest word-processing and communications hardware and software.
This brings up an important question: Does a born and bred bilingual makes a better translator than someone who learned the B language later in life? There is no definite answer, but the following issues are important. First, a born and bred bilingual often suffers from not truly knowing any language well enough to translate, with some even suffering from what is known as alingualism, a state in which a person does lacks a full, fluent command of any language. Second, born and bred bilinguals often don’t know the culture of the target language well enough to provide top-quality translations, or cannot recognize what aspects of the source language and its culture need to be treated with particular care, as they are in a sense too close to the language. And last, they often lack the analytical linguistic skills to work through a sticky text.
On the other hand, the acquired bilingual may not have the same in-depth knowledge of colloquialisms, slang, and dialect that the born bilingual has. As well, the acquired bilingual will not be able to translate as readily in both directions (from B to A language and A to B language). Finally, born bilinguals often have a greater appreciation of the subtleties and nuances of both their languages than someone who learns their B language later in life can ever hope to have.
The Education of a Translator
Translators come from all backgrounds. Some have Masters degrees in translation and many have a degree in a general field such as literature or history. While a specialized degree in translation is useful, it is far from necessary. What counts more than anything else is ability. So where does this ability come from?
Most translators are very well-read in their languages, and can write well. Some are writers who use translation as a way to write for a living. Others are fascinated by language and use translation as a way to be close to their favorite subject. Still others are experts in certain fields and use their language skills to work in that field.
Almost all professional translators in the United States have at least a college degree. Some even have advanced degrees either in translation or in the field they specialize in (a few even have both). Most translators have university-level language training in their B and C languages. Some started their languages earlier, others later, but very few translators have no language training at all. Of course, language training might mean specialized courses from a variety of schools.
Translators also generally have lived in the countries where their languages are spoken. I know of translators who have spent seven or even ten years in the countries of their B language. Some translators have spent more time in the country of their B language than in the country of their A language. The notable exception to this is Spanish in the United States and English abroad. Because Spanish is used so widely and is as common as English in many parts of the U.S., some translators learn and then work in the language without ever leaving the U.S. As well, translators in other countries often work from English into their native language with just the language training they received in school.
Above all, translators must have a deep interest and dedication to the languages they work with. The only exception to this rule is people who translate very specialized material. I know an individual with a Ph.D. in mathematics who translated a book on topology from French to English. His French skills are dubious, but since few people in the world understand the material, he was suitable. In almost all cases, however, translators have to be committed to honing and polishing their language skills throughout their professional life.
The knowledge of the field the translator is working in is often overlooked by translators and those that hire them. Translators are by definition language professionals, but they also have to cultivate a knowledge of the areas they work in. Few translators claim to be able to translate anything written in their languages, just as few people can claim to be experts in everything. Most translators have to specialize, working with one or a few related categories of material: legal, financial, medical, computers, or electrical engineering, to name a few. Each field has its own vocabulary, syntax, and style; the translator has to work hard to develop the knowledge necessary to deal with such material. The knowledge also includes two other important factors. First, the translator should have the background knowledge to work in the field. This does not mean that a medical translator should have an M.D. or that a translator of software manuals should be a programmer. But some background, experience, or education (or all three) is essential. This can be obtained through coursework, on-the-job experience, or self-study. No one seems too concerned with exactly how translators develop their subject knowledge, as long as they truly have. And though translators do have degrees in their specialization, most do not.
Second, the translator should have the necessary resources to deal with the material. This means dictionaries, glossaries, and any other resources. Such resources can include web sites devoted to translation or terminology, Usenet discussion groups concerning translation, friends or colleagues who work in the profession, and magazines and journals. And translators have to work tirelessly to maintain if not improve their knowledge of the fields they work in by reading related material. They also have to invest the time and money in maintaining their reference library.
In other words, professional translators are always learning. You don’t just put your hand on a rock and say: "I am a translator." Nor do you simply acquire a language in a few months by living somewhere and then begin translating. Heinrich Schliemann may have learned to read each of his languages in six weeks, but he couldn’t write or speak them (nor did he need to). Moreover, at that time, languages had considerably more limited vocabularies than now. And of course, reading and translating are two separate things.
So at what point are you ready to begin translating? Simple. When you feel that your abilities of expression and comprehension in your A and B languages are strong enough that you can do the job properly by the client’s deadline. The length of time to cultivate these abilities depends on the person and the language. Native speakers of English have an easier time with the Romance and Germanic languages because their grammars, syntax, and vocabulary are relatively familiar. A language like Chinese or Japanese takes a long time simply because you have to learn to read and understand thousands of characters, as well as deal with grammar, syntax, and structure wholly unrelated to that seen in English.
Finally, you have to be able to prove that you have the skills you claim to have. Experience living, working, and studying in the country of your B language is one form of proof. A degree in your language or in translation is another. Taking a test such as the ones given by the ATA, the State Department, or the United Nations is another. But I’ll leave the discussion of accreditation for a separate article.
What is a Translation?
Translators must strike a balance between fidelity to the source text and readability in the target language. We have all seen material that is so obviously translated as to sound awkward in our native languages, and in some cases as to bear enough hallmarks of the source language as to be readily identifiable as coming from it. The best translation is the one that no one recognizes as a translation. In other words, the document should read as though it were written in the target language originally. This implies, by extension, that the translator's time and effort are transparent, and the translator ends up being invisible. In other words, you do your best work when no one realizes you have done anything.
Achieving this level of translation is challenging, to say the least. But if you enjoy a challenge and know how to deal with your languages, it’s not too bad after you’ve been at if for a while.
The trick is to let your clients decide what they want. Since they have to live with the results of your work, let them choose. Patiently explain to them the options they have, how long each might take, and how much each possible version will cost. They’ll decide if they want a literal, if unreadable, translation or if they want a Pulitzer Prize-winning text.
If your client can’t decide, doesn’t know, or won’t tell you, then follow the advice of Buddha and take the middle path. This is easier with some languages and some subject areas than others. Although most people think that technical material is easiest for stylistic considerations, consider this. Academic style varies from nation to nation. In English, we generally present our thesis, then give the evidence, develop the argument, and then reach the conclusion. However, in Japanese, we usually present a vague thesis, give the evidence slowly with lots of discussion, and then reach some tentative statement about the thesis in the form of a conclusion. Other differences exist among other language pairs. Somehow you have to deal with these differences.
Another potential pitfall with technical translation is that often the client cannot let you see or touch the object in question. If you are translating a computer system manual, it’s very helpful to see and even work a little with the system. The same holds for a video game, home audio component, or for that matter a scanning electron microscope, which I realize is hardly something you want in your home, but I have translated manuals and technical specifications for such technology. Sometimes seeing the product in question is not possible, the system or software may still be in development, so you are effectively flying blind, trying to land yourself at a destination you’ve never seen. You might have to create terminology for the system, only to find that the client wants something else. You then have to go back and change everything you did.
The most difficult problem is when you encounter something in one language that doesn’t exist in the other. Financial instruments, legal procedures, government and business structures, and so on vary from nation to nation and culture to culture. Although standard glossaries exist for the most commonplace of these, in other words those that you might hear about on Headline News, translators are usually dealing with new or specialized material and information, so you might be stuck having to christen something on your own, or leave it in the A language and put in a translator’s note explaining what the term means.
There is a Golden Triangle in any form of business. It is an equilateral triangle (meaning that all three sides are the same size), with the first side being Quality, the second, Time, and the last, Price. If you consider an ideal project to be a balance of all three, and therefore rest in the center of the triangle, you can see what happens when you want to lower costs (imagine your job moving toward the Price side). Quality goes down and Time remains the same. If you want a cheap job done quickly, then Quality really drops. Conversely, if you want a job whose Quality is excellent, then Price and Time both rise. Keep this in mind when you consider your translation speed and what you charge; you will want to be flexible in both areas to give your clients what they want.
What is a Translated?
Most of the material people want translated is not high culture. I have translated materials ranging from articles in medical journals on deep vein thrombosis to bearer’s bonds. The longest translation project I ever did was a 65,000-word book; the shortest, a two-word phrase.
Outsiders to the profession generally see translation as a slow and expensive process which most businesses and organizations would rather avoid. They prefer not to go through the hassle of calling some agency, sending them the material, waiting for a bid, bargaining and haggling over price, form and date of delivery, and then waiting to see if they get something they can use. Very little of what businesses do is worth translating. So what they do translate has to be important to someone somewhere. And therefore it has to be important to you to do it right, especially if you want to get more work from that client.
What might seem stupid to you could be worth a lot to someone. I’ve translated lost traveler’s checks surveys, interoffice memos, and advertising copy for car care products. None of this is high culture. But someone wanted it, so I did my absolute best. Remember, the only way to survive as a translator is to do a good job. You will be judged primarily if not solely on your work.
This said, materials to be translated come in all sizes and shapes. Often you have to deal with hand-written material. Someone scrawled out some message to someone else and this twenty-five-word chit of paper is now Exhibit A in an international patent infringement lawsuit. You probably won’t know that, but it could happen. When I was working in-house as a translator for the City of Kawasaki in Japan, my supervisor plopped a short letter on my desk and I translated it. I later found out that Prime Minister Takeshita took this letter to President Reagan during the Summit meeting in 1988. You never know.
When translating, no problem is too small, no term too minor to be ignored. The people who read your translation don’t know the source language. If they did, they wouldn’t have hired you. It’s easy to see why an article describing a surgical procedure must be done very accurately. It might be harder to see why the comments of a Japanese co-ed on an airline survey would be important, but they could affect future policy of that carrier. You have to take it all seriously if you want your clients to take you seriously.d
The Role of the Translator
Translators are language professionals. They are applied linguists, competent writers, diplomats, and educated amateurs. Like linguists, translators have to be capable of discerning subtleties and nuances in their languages, researching terminology and colloquialisms, and handling new developments in their languages. Like writers, translators have to be accustomed to working long hours alone on a subject which interests few people and with a language that few people around them know. Like diplomats, translators have to be sensitive to the cultural and social differences which exist in their languages and be capable of addressing these issues when translating. And like educated amateurs, translators have to know the basics and some of the details about the subjects they deal with.
The above is an idealization of the translator, an image which professional translators aspire to and achieve with varying degrees of success. Not all translators need to overflow with these qualities. They must, however, have them in sufficient measure to be able to translate their material in a manner acceptable to their clients.
Somewhere in the process of translating, the translator will come across all these issues. When I work with technical or medical documents, I have to deal with the intricacies of technical writing in Japanese and English and research new or obscure terms (and sometimes invent my own). I struggle with my English to polish and hone it so that the client sees the material as natural, without the tell-tale signs that it was translated from Japanese. I deal with the differences between Japanese and American culture, especially when I translate computer manuals. We give instructions and explanations in the U.S. very differently from how people give them in Japan.
Like any professional, translators have to stay on top of their areas of expertise. I devote a lot of my time to browsing through magazines like "PC Magazine", "MacWorld", "Scientific American", "The Journal of the American Medical Association", and the "New England Journal of Medicine" as well as reading numerous books on developments in medicine and computer science.
The fundamental rule when you’re not sure of a term or phrase is ask. When you have doubts or questions about a translation, call the client, ask your question, and then get the answer. If you’re still not sure, make a note of it in the final translation. Clients are surprisingly tolerant of such notes and often expect them. I’ve even heard that clients are sometimes suspicious when they don’t see these notes. After all, how much can a translator know about new surgical procedures to clear a pulmonary embolism?d*
In-House versus Freelance
Translators either work for themselves as freelance translators or in-house as employees of, for instance, a translation agency or software localization firm. The former are typically called freelance translators, or freelancers, and the latter in-house translators. If you are just entering the profession, or if you are considering translation as a career, you have to look closely at these two options to decide which is right for you.
As a freelance translator, you are a business owner. You will take care of marketing, invoicing, accounts payable and receivable, taxes, equipment purchases and maintenance, and so forth. Freelance translators may make more per year on average than in-house translators, but their income is far more variable, and they have to cover all their own expenses, including all taxes, retirement funds, medical and other forms of insurance, and business/operating costs.
As an in-house translator, you work for someone else. You go to your office in the morning, sit in your cubicle during the day translating whatever the company needs, attend meetings to discuss large-scale translation projects, terminology, or equipment, go to training sessions to learn to use the new LAN system or MAT software, and then go home in the evening. Like most jobs, you get paid vacation, insurance, half of your Social Security and FICA taxes paid, and a retirement plan of some sort.
Although the remaining articles will discuss the above differences between freelance and in-house translation in detail, and even offer suggestions as to which people might be suited for, I will say here that often questions of personality and work style are irrelevant. The first and most important question is money. Can you afford to be a freelance translator? To start as a freelance translator, you will need a several thousand dollars to get the computer hardware and software you need, to do some marketing, and to wait out the first few months during which time you will likely have little work, and you will be patiently waiting for that first invoice to be paid. So if you are single with few financial responsibilities, some money saved, and don't mind a bit of a risk, the answer to the money question is affirmative: you can have a go at freelance translation. If however you are married with a couple of children, have the usual expenses of a mortgage, medical costs, and so forth, then you should think very carefully before starting up as a freelance translator.
There is also a strong argument for getting your feet wet in the industry by working for someone else. You can think of it as paid on-the-job training. You will learn more about translating by translating than by doing anything else. And you will also acquire not only all that secondary know-how, such as word processing, negotiating, or filing tax forms, but also lots of practical knowledge of the industry, such as rates, which language pairs or subject areas are in demand, or what technologies are likely to affect translation in the near future. You might even develop relationships that can be turned into clients for a freelance business. So consider starting off as an in-house translator, especially if you are uncomfortable with the financial aspects of working for yourself, or are uncertain as to how you will feel about working at home alone.
The very qualities that seem to make a good translator, those of attention to detail, passion for languages and research, care and craft in writing, also seem to be those that make a poor negotiator or marketing person. How does one overcome this paradox? One, force yourself to market, even when you don’t want to. Make a commitment to yourself to send 100 letters to agencies this week; to call your top five clients for a brief chat; to do annual taxes before 1 October, after having filed an extension on 15 April. You are in business, and don’t forget it.
You should also remind your clients that you are a business professional. Translators want to be treated as professionals, and therefore, they have to behave as professionals. Take the time to learn about your industry, about your languages, about your subject specializations, and about the technology you use to do the work you do. In any industry, there are always too many people wanting to do the work to be done, and too few people who can actually do the work properly. As a translator, you want to make clear to everyone that you are in the latter category, and not in the former.
Above all, as a translator, you are standing between two people or organizations, one which created the material and the other which wants to read it. You are their solution to this otherwise intractable problem. Remember, it’s the information age, and there’s lots of information out there in lots of languages. Translators are the ones who bring this precious commodity to the people who want it.
The Language Realm – Article 1: The Translation Profession , Roger Chriss. 2000.
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