This is not a news blog or an advice blog or any sort of company blog. It's more of an opinion blog.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Non-Trivial Translation

Twitter and Facebook are currently full of The Translator Approach in Translation Studies
– reflections based on a study of translators’ weblogs by Helle V. Dam of the Department of Business Communication @ Aarhus University.

Between 2008 and 2013, the author studied more translation blogs than I knew existed, and came up with a number of interesting observations. Those can all be summarized in one thought expressed in the beginning (emphasis added):

In the selection of respondents, every effort was made to ensure a sample of translators
with a strong professional profile, thus presumably at the high end of the translatorstatus
continuum. Notwithstanding, the results of the studies consistently indicate that
even these translators have relatively low occupational status.

Yes, even well-know translators don't necessarily make much. I would be surprised to see a celebrity translator claim the hourly rate of a generic accountant or junior lawyer in American terms. Things are more complex on this side of the pond, but the rates hailed as pure gold are paltry if you've been to the legal world. A lawyer or accountant or medical doctor with a recognizable name might not actually make €200 per hour, but he would almost certainly bill much more unless he ran a lean solo practice.

Income, visibility, prestige and appreciation of our comparatively good education were all low.

Also, supposedly, the bloggers invariably stress that there is a large income disparity and that a translator’s earnings depend entirely on his or her skills, expertise and professionalism. Well, let's have some variety. I totally disagree with that notion. Even though it's obviously meant to be a bit of a metaphor and poetic expression, it's still wishful thinking and ignores the laws of economy, as well as a bunch of subjective factors concerning individual translators, which are not skills or expertise, unless it's skill and expertise in business and marketing, which is not the same as expertise and skill in translation (even business and marketing translation).

Later, the author notes that bloggers seemed to divide translator in two fundamental income categories, invariably putting themselves in the higher category, with comfortable or fair or even explicitly high rates. While I believe that's a simplified view of what they say, still, what are they supposed to say? They'll tell you about the good times but not about the bad times. You can't really tell the public when you're struggling.

I think it was highly perceptive of the author to pick up on the more than cliche (like, no. 1 of translation copywriting), of which I'm no big fan. In asserting that his own translation services are more than translation — and therefore for that reason deserving of a semi-decent rate — a translator effectively asserts that normal translation does not deserve a halfway decent rate. Which doesn't really help raise the profile and value of translation in clients' eyes but rather does the opposite.

The same observation I'd submit with regard to other ways in which translators typically try to assert their value. And I'll be very frank in saying this, so please don't take offence: translator's clumsily cling to added value and beat that horse to death. If you assert a ton of added value within standard rates, you're essentially saying that the core value is poor.

And you become not a valued, respected professional on par with a lawyer or doctor or architect but an added-value provider who is useful because he helps fish out typos in the original, fix the bad maths or even straighten out poor bits of legal or medical advice or otherwise does something which someone else — someone paid and respected better — should have done. And preferably with a deep bow, humbly conceding the spotlight to whomever should have done it the way it is after the translator fixed it. Free of charge and for a patronizing pat on the back (or head even, if I'm going to be really figurative here).

Or document management. Because your translator knows where the files you've misplaced are. Seriously?

However, I wanted to focus a bit more on a translation-related example for a change. It was intended as an illustration of the idea that translation is not mindless substitution of words. It didn't — for once! but only seemingly, I think, as I'll show in a minute — concentrate on added value, which, in my book, is a huge plus.

A quick trip to Google reveals that inspiration came from Naked Translations. The post was in French, but the article used an English translation. Let me quote:

I think I can trace back my love of translation to one particular passage [in a novel] […] during a conversation, one of the characters moved from using ‘vous’ to using ‘tu’ to address a troubled young man in need of comforting […]:
‘Mais êtes-vous certain de vouloir nous quitter?’
‘J’ai bien peur de ne pas avoir le choix.’
‘Tu vas me manquer.’
The switch from ‘vous’ to ‘tu’ indicated a shift in the relationship from formal to something more intimate and personal. This is how the English translator dealt with it:
‘But are you sure you want to leave us?’
‘I’m afraid I have no choice.’
‘I’m going to miss you,’ she said, taking his hand in hers.
The increasing closeness, which was expressed through language in the French text, was thus
translated by a physical gesture in English. I remember thinking that this was just wonderful, and
being quite taken by the cleverness of it all” (5, 5).

For comparison's sake, Google Translate returns (which I confess I think I actually like better):

'But are you sure you want to leave us?'
'I'm afraid I do not have a choice.'
'I'll miss you.'

So, basically, another example which ultimately comes down to added value: the translator's value consists in adding substantive content. In literary translation, that's a bit like throwing in a tip of your own when translating a how-to guide in business translation. It's not wrong (although I'd personally just contented myself with, 'I'll be missing you,' both to mark informality through the use of the continuous form and to make it closer in meaning and form to the original), but it's not quite translation. It goes beyond translation, and it shouldn't really be done without talking it over with the author first, which I don't know but just suspect was probably done (in which case it would make sense to inquire as to the extent of the author's contribution, such as by describing the scene in more detail, which would essentially be a supplementation of the original). Because it's certainly up to the author to make the decision on any novel PDA in a novel. ;)

How about we, instead, come up with some ways of making ourselves look useful other than fixing the original or expanding on it? Our job is rendering, not fixing or expanding.

Sometimes you have to ditch the form to render the content, and sometimes you even have to ditch the content if the form's what's important (for example in certain word plays). Sometimes you translate by addition (for example English into Polish will sound awkward if you don't throw in a bunch of past participles for padding), sometimes you translate by omission (and not only of the padding), in some other instances you need to substitute a functional equivalent that sounds nothing like the original. Well, sure. But the job is normally about finding equivalence and reconciling fidelity and style.

So let's demonstrate our competence in translating, not in providing added value.

Oh, and one more thing: our clients usually don't need to see us in pyjamas, jumpsuits and beach gear and hear about our authority problems and dislike of structure. (Not that all of us fit this image.) A marked lack of professional decorum is one of the reasons our status is often low.

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