What you do with what you’ve got

Translator training – and much discussion in professional translation circles – tends to focus on the knowledge base. At its simplest, this is competence in the source and target languages. More widely, it includes such things as technical knowledge of software applications, and knowledge of terminology in specific subject fields or institutional settings. At first sight, this seems a reasonable approach. After all, what else could training and professional discussion focus on?

I wonder whether this focus is really helpful. One of the particular challenges of translation is that the knowledge base is incredibly broad. In fact, I am tempted to say it is limitless.

There are some ways of restricting this: by working in a single language combination, in a few specialist fields or in specific institutional settings. However, as I have argued elsewhere, the real world has a nasty habit of defeating such attempts: institutions such as the EU or the UN often demand multiple language combinations, while true ‘single-subject’ texts are surprisingly rare. (Hybrid texts such as a legal contract about electrical equipment hire, the financial statements of a pharmaceutical company or a marketing text for a surf school are the norm, not the exception.)

Likewise, the focus on the technical aspects of computer-aided translation tools strikes me as missing the point. Anyone can master the basics of CAT (import, export, applying a TM, using terminology etc.) in a day or two. If you have more specific needs (e.g., because of the nature of your client base or your project management role) you can probably get to grips with the more esoteric aspects of the software in a week or two. The real challenge for a translator using CAT tools is – to put it crudely – how to stop it ruining your style. How do you avoid falling into the trap of over-literal translation that cleaves too closely to the source text? How do you deal with supra-segmental and ‘whole text’ issues such as cohesion, the need to split and join sentences, the flow of an argument, repetition and so on? You can’t do this in a day or even a week – these are challenges that will stay with you for the rest of your professional career.

If you think I am overstating the problem, I would ask you to pause and consider the following.

  • In university translation courses, teaching is frequently delivered by staff who have little or no professional translation experience and whose background is in language teaching. In other words, they are ‘qualified’ by their mastery of the knowledge base (in this case, the source and perhaps target languages) not by their skills or experience as translators.
  • The online training offered by two of the most widely used CAT tools – SDL and memoQ – focuses entirely on technical issues. There is simply no mention of the ‘soft’ skills that I refer to above and which I think are the real challenge to successful use of CAT tools.
  • Translator assessment in both academic and professional settings tends to privilege ‘objective’ criteria (accurate transfer of meaning, correct syntax and punctuation) over more ‘subjective’ ones (the importance of clarity, readability and style), with the result that texts can be marked as acceptable if they do not contain any clear errors (knowledge base failings) even if they do not meet the standards of high-quality writing that is fit for its intended purpose (‘soft’ translation skills).

So what is the solution?

  • Well, for a start we need to attribute less importance to the knowledge base (language, terminology, software) and more importance to how we exploit this base (through problem solving and research skills, and reading and writing with reference to sense and context). This should be built into all translator training from the very first day, and should also be put at the centre of training in specialist tools.
  • Translator assessment should be adapted to reflect the realities of the translation process: translation is, among other things, a subjective, aesthetic activity and assessment needs to take this into account.
  • We need to balance our emphasis on specialisation with a recognition both of the limits of such specialisation and of the fact that, whatever the degree of specialisation, this can never negate the need for a more craft or skills-based approach.

*I have borrowed the title of this post from a wonderful song by Si Kahn. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that the song is not about the translation profession. Or at least not directly. The song is about human dignity, making best use of your talents and doing right by others. And that, ultimately, is also what this post is about. Here’s a rough but beautiful version of the song by Ben Grosscup:

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