Letter to a would-be translator

Letter to a would-be translator

We keep a blog in Portuguese and often receive messages from would-be translators asking us basic questions about the profession. The following article is kind of an answer to their questions.

So, you want to be a translator! Congratulations, it is a wonderful profession. No, we did not say it is easy, we said it is wonderful. We do not think any profession is easy, but believe all of them are wonderful—provided you like them, of course.

You said you love languages. So do we and you cannot be a good translator unless you do. The point is, however, that a love of languages is far from sufficient to make a good and happy translator. A good translator must lovetranslating, which is something quite different from loving languages.

What is translation about?

Simply put, translating is about acquiring information in one language and deploying the same information in another language, and it is a damned difficult and fascinating job.

You read a text in Language A and understand it perfectly well, then when you try to translate it into Language B (presumably your mother tongue), words fail you. Worse, you may notice that you thought you had understood the text but, when you try to deploy the same information using the words of your own language, you may find that lots of things are not as clear as they seemed to be when you read the text for the first time. And when you revise your job, more often than not you will not agree with the choices you made.

Because, you see, choosing is the heart of translating. You open the dictionary, and it gives you ten different translations for a single word (there are over fifteen ways to translate “you” into Portuguese) and you must choose one, presuming one of them fits the bill, which is not always the case. You may also come to the conclusion that what the author told with a verb, and the dictionary translates as a verb, is best said with a noun in the target language. Every word translated, every comma, every period is a choice we have to make.

In addition, you may notice that the author is not nearly as bright as people think he is: translation is the deepest form of analysis and criticism—and good translators often catch faults that passed muster with the best editors. It is up to you to leave the cracks and holes as the author left them or caulk them somehow. In either case, your work will be open to criticism: either because you could have patched it up and make it flow better—or because you did patch it up, and defiled the author’s style.

Of course, to be a good and happy translator you must be a competent writer in the target language, again, presumably, your mother tongue. This leads some people to believe the best authors make the best translators, which is far from true. Both have to be good writers, but the types of competence are different. Authors say what they want, the way they want to say it, while translators have to say what other people said, as close to the way they said it as possible, which is altogether a different endeavor and requires different capabilities. In that sense, translators are more like actors, who may be required to do onstage things they would not dream of doing in real life.

This means that you will have to tweak your language in all sorts of manners, to fit the style of someone who may write in a way which you would never write.

The classic image is wrong!

The classic core of translation is text-to-text work: most people’s idea of a translator is a guy reading from a book and writing down a translation, often on an old-fashioned typewriter. The image is wrong on at least three counts.

Translation is a hi-tech activity

Today’s translator is growingly a techie. It started by the end of the twentieth century when clients began sending electronic originals and demanding electronic files; nowadays many clients send pre-translated ttx files or require us to work remotely on their own systems.

Publishers and their translators, admittedly a very conservative segment of the translation industry, are beginning to discover the advantages of Computer Aided Translation.

Even the subtitling and lip-syncing people have gone electronic. Years ago, a colleague boasted she had a moviola to help her do translations for lip-syncing and subtitling. Go and try to find what a moviola is. People who do audiovisuals now work from and on electronic media and use all sort of software aids.

Not all translation work is text-to-text >

Although text-to-text translation is, so to say, the core of the profession, there is a growing demand for translations that neither start nor end as text.

There is audiovisual translation, for instance, of which lip-syncing, subtitling and voice-over are the three main species. Awfully difficult, subject to severe constraints, and much maligned. Yes, we know that you cannot watch TV for more than half an hour without hearing a blooper or two. But bear in mind that it is a lot easier to spot other people’s translation blunders than not making your own. Incidentally, that goes for all types of translation. The ability to find other people’s translation errors does not a good translator make.

There are also two activities, which some people do not even consider translation proper.

The first is interpretation. Interpreters sometimes are considered super translators, which they are not. They must have a set of capabilities that is different from that of text-to-text translators and very few people are good at both activities. Whereas text-to-text guys look for the perfect solution, interpreters seek the quickest one. The importance of simultaneous interpretation (not all interpretation is simultaneous) cannot be overstated: interpretation is the life of the EU.

The second is sign-language interpretation. Many believe sign languages (those used by deaf persons) are just signed plain language, which is not at all true. Sign languages have their own vocabulary and syntax, which, in turn have very little to do with the languages spoken in the same area. In other words, you can learn, say, American Sign Language without knowing a word of English. Sign-language interpreting involves special problems that should deserve more academic attention.

A woman’s profession

The third misconception about translation is representing translators as males, whereas most professionals are female. In most places where translators meet, the ratio is never lower than four women to each man.

I love translating!

As we said in the beginning, a love of languages is essential, but far from sufficient.

Most translation work is made up of very boring material. Literature, especially high literature, makes up a very small portion of the translation market and is in the hands of a few experienced specialists. The majority of translators have never handled a piece of fiction in their lives and many of them are very happy with the situation, even if they are lovers of literature. There are countries where literary translation is practically nonexistent, but there is a lot of work people ready to cope with “boring” texts. There are excellent films to be translated, but audiovisual specialists also translate a lot of training videos, CEO speeches and things you would never watch of your own free will.

There is the story of the intern in a translation office whose first job was to help a senior translator double check a tricky translation. She complained the text was very boring. It may have been, but that is of no importance to the translator, because what matters is that translating a boring text, a text you would never read in your spare time, may pose interesting translation challenges. So when people ask us if we read the things we translate in our free time, the answer is: do dentists pull teeth for fun? Of course we do not. But we will gladly translate it.

Translation is a business!

Finally, forget that idea that translation is an art. It is a business and you have a family to feed. The business side of translation is probably the most distasteful of its aspects for many of us, including ourselves. Some people evade it by finding a job as a staff translator, but most of us have to face life as free-lances. And free-lances are necessarily jacks of all trades—at all of which they must be reasonably good. For instance, there is nobody who can take better care of a translator’s computers (for most translators have at least two machines) than translators themselves, because our problems are so peculiar. In addition, free-lances have to find clients, negotiate prices, prepare invoices, make collection calls, keep books, and handle a large number of other tasks of the type they do not teach you in the University of Salamanca, as they say in Spanish, including taking good care of their own computers. They also do not teach you how to set some time aside for family and leisure, so a lot of translators find themselves working over weekends and deep into the night.

But, nevertheless, it is a wonderful profession. We know of no better one.

By Danilo Nogueira
danilo tradutor at gmail com
Kelli Semolini
kellitrad at gmail com


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