Translation: 20 things in 20 years

I recently realised that I’ve been working as a translator for 20 years now: I graduated in 1999. Here’s a selection of (not necessarily profound) things I have learned.

  1. Over the years, I have got very bored of the phrase ‘Lost in Translation’ (part of the ‘shoot the messenger’ series).
  2. It’s interesting to see what other people think is ‘untranslatable’ – but some of us will probably be asked to translate or interpret it anyway! So it’s probably not worth dwelling for too long on the idea that some things can’t be translated.
  3. It’s all about the context. Of course it is; this is a very necessary ‘translator reflex’. Customers usually know the background to their texts, but you often don’t. When I worked in-house, I knew a lot more of the context for my translations, without having to ask; now when an in-house translation unit outsources to me, they can explain the context. Direct customers who are sympathetic, and/or understand the translation process (perhaps because you’ve explained it), will take time to answer questions. But many agencies fail to provide context as standard, and sometimes they don’t know it when asked. A good intermediary will however pass on your questions to the customer or author, and may put you in touch directly, so you can be fully informed.
  4. It’s not just about the words – we translate meaning. The key is to translate what the words convey. If that’s an impressionistic sense of something (like a building or work of art), then the actual words you use to convey the same impression in your translation might be quite different to the words the original author used.
  5. This is especially true when the same words (or cognate words) have quite a different impact on the source and target audiences. For example, ‘franglais’ sees English words adopting new meanings in their new host languages. A related issue is that people who have grown up speaking other languages (e.g. German) can feel more comfortable using English swearwords than Brits. So the words often have to change, even if they were in English in the source text!
  6. It’s not all about you; it’s about how others see you. From a professional point of view, it’s worth making sure customers and colleagues see you when you’re at your best. This is even more vital now that negative images and comments can be shared so widely and easily online (see also ‘marketing’).
  7. It’s about what makes you different, your USP. In my first in-house job, I soon realised that not all translators have the same aptitudes (for example I don’t have a natural affinity for technical translation, but I do care more about writing style than some other translators).
  8. It’s about specialising – and then evolving with your specialisms. Or ditching dead ones and finding new ones. When I started translating commercial documents, mobile phone networks and the associated services were cutting-edge. Telecommunications were big business and I had to learn to spell ‘telecoms’. What use is that knowledge to me now?
  9. It’s also about what makes each customer different – their language preferences, house style, ‘brand’, how much involvement they want to have in the translation process. How they like you to send queries: in an email, a comment bubble…
  10. And since I translate into English: I’ve learned more than I ever wanted to know about variations on ‘correct English’. In many cases, there are several ‘right answers’; in these instances the translator will need to follow the customer’s preference, if they have one. And if not, you will at least need to be consistent and be able to justify your choice if asked. For example, before I started work I hadn’t heard of ‘Oxford English’ (so called because you use the first spelling listed in the OED, including the -ize variants which some see as typically US English). I can now produce it if I’m asked to.
  11. Another familiar choice to be made is: ‘sourcier ou cibliste’? You have to decide whether to focus on staying close to the original, on how the translation comes across in the target language, or how to combine the two. I like translating into UK English that reads well. I take pride in my work and aim to create a translation which also reads like an original.
  12. On the other hand, sometimes new ideas are introduced into the target language from other places. Sometimes the words for these ideas *do* sound strange to target readers’ ears. This may be unavoidable, and it might not be such a bad thing. In general, UK audiences are perhaps keener than most on a text that ‘sounds like English’; perhaps exposure to new and exotic terms might help open up their world view.
  13. On the subject of broadening horizons, I accept that you don’t necessarily need translation theory – but I do think it can help. Imagine you know there’s something wrong with a translation you’re checking, but you can’t quite put your finger on it. You’ll need to find out what’s wrong, and explain it to your colleague in as objective a way as possible. Having a relatively neutral way of discussing translations can be useful when a client suggests that their own wording would be better than yours! (I accept that there’s a lot more to it than that…)
  14. The internet helps too. Translators used to have to do their research using books, which you can’t always search through quickly or reliably, or asking other people directly. Now other translators’ research is often available online and is frequently searchable: sometimes as a downloadable terminology database or translation memory which plugs directly into your translation environment.
  15. Twenty years ago, many searches for terminology relied on dictionaries and indexes in books; you made your own notes or word lists or databases to fill in the blanks. Some in-house departments built their own electronic corpuses and indexes, on which they could use Boolean search terms, but this cost considerable time and money. Now you can often find a corpus or corpus search engine online, or a bilingual website to provide parallel terminology and expressions. The technology is cheaper and more readily available.
  16. And yet the internet also doesn’t help. Internet searches can now return more, relevant results at great speed. But you also need to beware: who has posted them, and do they know what they’re talking about? I recently came across an apparently made-up term on Wikipedia, which mysteriously vanished soon after I mentioned it on Twitter (no, I wasn’t considering using it – just curious). Dictionaries remain a largely reliable source of information, created with the help of paid employees who are knowledgeable in their fields.
  17. On the subject of trust: there are public discussion forums about translation online, but closed discussion forums of trusted colleagues are often still a more reliable shortcut to the right target term, or at least to a closer understanding of the source. These tend to have shifted from platforms like Yahoo groups to groups.io, Google groups, Facebook and other media.
  18. It’s about networking too. People’s instinct is to trust people and things they know. If customers need to feel a connection before they will work with you, then referrals from someone else they already know are a great way of getting new business. Similarly, keeping up communications is a way of ensuring a good working relationship and keeping your existing customers. And meeting colleagues and clients in person is also an excellent way of gaining and maintaining their trust.
  19. It’s about creating your own community, perhaps now more than ever. It’s true that freelance translators can now work from home without needing any trips to libraries or post offices, or even any phone calls. For any translator who’s more inclined to try and work alongside colleagues, there just aren’t many in-house translation jobs: so many back-office functions have been outsourced to reduce organisations’ headcount. But we do seem to seek out a sense of community: there’s a surge in demand from our profession for ways to connect or reconnect with fellow professionals, whether at international conferences or local co-working events.
  20. It’s also about languages more broadly. The future of translation and interpreting depends on having people with language skills who want to do the job, whether come from business and then into translation/interpreting, or go straight into translator/interpreter training and work. The demand won’t go away; let’s hope that the supply of new translators won’t either.

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