#4 The Art of Translation

“So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss,” Sun Tzu, The Art of War

A long time ago in a country far, far away… I fell face first into business. The world was my oyster, yet at the same time I felt inextricably limited. With what I perceived as relatively little experience compared to my competitors, it was time to stop worrying about what I didn’t have and start focusing on what I did, and still do, have to offer.

When it comes down to it, as with most things, there are two main types of translator – good ones and bad ones. While this may be fairly obvious, the important question is what places us in either category. After reading a great deal of discussions about this in translator forums, I found myself really quite bemused and frankly nonplussed by the utter rubbish being dumped all over the internet. I had entered with a view to gathering intelligence and gaining an insight into how others conduct their business or manage their work, expecting to find other like-minded professionals. However, a quick read revealed that the ‘trolls’ of YouTube seem to have expanded their borders and infiltrated the translation profession. Posters were insulting foreign participants’ levels of English as a last futile attempt to quash their argument, while others were endeavouring to crown themselves the kings and queens of the industry and even pointing an accusatory finger at those who originally asked a question, declaring them incompetent as translators for doing so. Further reconnaissance left me completely disenchanted with the whole affair – it was a bloody free-for-all with hair-pulling, eye-gouging and no holds barred. It was almost impossible to sieve out the genuine attempts at constructive assistance from the violent orgy of snide remarks attempting to stake a claim as the one true Champion.

As I contemplated the content of these discussions, some main preconceptions as to what makes a good translator did begin to emerge. Some assert that you simply can’t be any good without a Master’s degree or two, others claim you have to be a specialist in one particular field and a few profess that it’s all about how many words you can translate in a day. While it may come as a shock to some, the truth is, there is no single characteristic that makes you better than anyone else. It’s rather about a combination of attributes and how you utilise them. All of the aforementioned qualities are noteworthy in their own right, but not one of them alone confers the right to claim supremacy. Why? Because every translator is different. In a discipline such as translation, there is very rarely just one possible approach, making it virtually impossible to assume any kind of throne. At the end of the day, being considered the best by your peers is not important, what’s important is the respect of your clients, producing high-quality work and finding something that makes you different from the rest.

So, now that I have identified my enemy, let’s take a closer look. Post-graduate education, in-depth knowledge of a particular subject, the ability to translate 3,000 words a day or type several million words per minute, a feat worthy of Mavis Beacon herself, are common sources of celebration and indeed should be commended and advertised. However, alone they do not make one translator better than another who might hold a mere Bachelor’s degree and translate just 1,000 words a day, for example. The status of holding a qualification is entirely insignificant. What you learned when earning your qualification and the skills you obtained are what’s important. I have a BA in Combined Honours Modern Foreign Languages with Distinction, which sounds great. However, does it make me an expert in French? No. It represents a solid grounding, a particular set of skills and the ability to learn and to pass exams, but my proficiency in the languages I work with is down to the amount of effort I’ve put in, a pinch of natural talent and my approach to language acquisition. As we saw in Post #3, originally, I would’ve liked a Master’s in Translation, but at this point in my career I find it hard to justify taking the time and money to do one. Not because I don’t value it, but because what I haven’t learned in a lecture hall, I’ve picked up in the field. I value the respect and repeated custom from my clients, ranging from individuals to billion-euro international corporations, more than removing myself from the scene to earn a qualification that proves I can do what I already do, which would be, in terms of business, suicide. There are so many things to learn and so many ways of learning them that, ultimately, there comes a time when we must find the path that is right for us and us alone, regardless of the closed-minded opinions of our peers.

As for specialisation, this is something that is, again, down to personal preference. If you happen to be an aerospace engineer with a flair for languages and an in-depth understanding of the art of translation, wonderful – specialise in that field and target the more technical jobs. There is nothing, however, in the Translation Commandments to say thou shalt specialise in just one field. I am versed in a number of areas, but have the most experience in the general fields of business and marketing, technology ranging from general IT and telecommunications to nuclear power station systems and medical software, as well as advertising, contracts and tourism, for example. My real speciality lies in accuracy, obsessive attention to detail, in-depth knowledge of linguistics and the web of structural elements comprising a language. When we combine this with the ability to conduct research and glean at least a basic understanding of highly complex concepts, I can get to grips with almost any document.

Translators are often asked how many words they can produce in a day. Obviously, this is a vital factor in terms of setting deadlines, but my view is that producing 1,000 immaculate words is much better than churning out 3,000 average ones. If you can produce 3,000 immaculate words a day, great – use that to your advantage. But don’t make the mistake of thinking our friend plodding along at 1,000 doesn’t deserve a shot at the title. Personally, it depends on the text as to how many words I can translate per hour or per day. My current record is 3,672 in a day, but that’s a very rare occurrence. Sometimes it can be as low as 1,200 due to all sorts of factors – often because the author of the original document was nigh on illiterate or perhaps high on something else. The trick is not to concentrate on translating more words than everyone else can, but to learn to recognise key factors when first glancing at a text in order to confirm whether you can conceivably take on the job for the specified deadline and produce a high level of quality.

Having taken a quick look at myself and my enemy, we’ve established that I don’t have a Master’s, I don’t belong to a widely accepted group of experts and I can’t necessarily type very fast. And yet, I can happily report 100% client satisfaction, glowing references and an impressive portfolio, even if I do say so myself, all by the age of 24, which leads me to believe I must surely be doing something right…

“[…] the clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy, but does not allow the enemy’s will to be imposed on him,” Sun Tzu, The Art of War

The principles of Sun Tzu’s Art of War have been used to illustrate many different concepts over the centuries, from military strategy to business and sport. I thought it would thus be interesting to see if I could relate them to my views on translation. Rather than considering the comparatively trivial qualities that most people tend to focus on, I feel it is more important to show an actual understanding of the processes involved in translation. So, without further ado, let us turn our attention to a slightly more analytical view of the basic tactics involved in rendering a text in another language.

“In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good,” Sun Tzu, The Art of War

In this case, the country is the source text and my enemy is its author. In today’s world of technological progress, we translators now find ourselves practically forced to purchase the industry-standard CAT (computer-aided translation) tools. While they certainly have their uses, I find it fascinating to see how attitudes towards them have evolved in the past two years alone. The nature of such translation memory software may force us to work on a line-by-line / segment-by-segment basis, but we must nonetheless capture the meaning of the whole, intact text. The words and sentences themselves must be sacked, pillaged and replaced, but the original concepts transcend mere language and must be correctly represented in the translation. The utmost care and attention must be taken to ensure we have a comprehensive understanding of grammatical elements such as word order, taking the time to check we’ve correctly identified our direct and indirect objects, for example. It’s all too tempting to assume we’ve got the gist based on the principles of our own mother tongue, but it is vital to listen to the little voice saying, “Yes, OK, we all know you’re good, but have another look just in case…”

“[…] a power of estimating the adversary, of controlling the forces of victory, and of shrewdly calculating difficulties, dangers and distances, constitutes the test of a great general,” Sun Tzu, The Art of War

It is a common misconception as a speaker of a foreign language to view natives as omniscient beings. I can assure you that there are foreign versions of the people we all know and love who can’t spell to save their life or who have such quirky writing styles that a forensic analyst must be called in just to identify the train of thought. This is where my efforts to become One with grammar systems and pedantic details have really paid off – the ability not only to understand another language, but to fathom what on earth the author meant and should actually have written. A very simplified example is the difference between ses and ces in French (‘his/her/its’ [pl] vs. ‘these’, respectively). They both sound exactly the same, causing many Frenchies to get them mixed up when writing, which can obviously lead to all sorts of pandemonium when the unsuspecting translator finds that his, her or indeed these sentences don’t make any sense. The agreement of adjectives, or rather the lack thereof, also represents an absolute nightmare when faced with a French writer who can’t spell, often making it difficult to work out exactly which noun they were referring to in slightly more adventurous sentences. It is thus my opinion that a good translator should have such a thorough command of the source language that not only can they recognise the author’s mistakes, however minute they may be, but actually correct them. If you’re not careful, just one letter could throw you off the scent entirely.

“The general who advances without coveting fame and retreats without fearing disgrace, whose only thought is to protect his country and do good service for his sovereign, is the jewel of the kingdom,” Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Expanding on a point I made in Post #3, it’s important that translators break away from the long-standing image of the self-important specialist who doesn’t get out much because their giant head won’t fit through the front door. In the interest of promoting better communication between cultures, we must not only provide a translated text but be willing to put in the extra effort to provide a top-notch service. This is where research comes in – not only in terms of understanding what you’re writing about, but double-checking that you’re writing about it correctly. It’s not just about trying to understand or picture it, but about looking to see how the experts describe or refer to it in similar contexts.

“In war, the general receives his commands from the sovereign. Having collected an army and concentrated his forces, he must blend and harmonise the different elements thereof before pitching his camp. After that, comes tactical manoeuvring than which there is nothing more difficult,” Sun Tzu, The Art of War

The last theme I will deal with today is style. We tend to focus heavily on our abilities pertaining to foreign languages, and quite rightly so, but we mustn’t overlook our abilities in our own mother tongues. Being able to speak two languages doesn’t necessarily mean you can write well enough in either one to be a translator. Anyone can swap two words using a dictionary, but quite apart from the lost art of using a dictionary properly, if you suffer from poor writing style, it’s a moot point. You can understand as much as you like about nuclear reactors in French, but if the way in which you write about them in English is aesthetically abhorrent, difficult to understand or simply boring, it won’t do you much good. Of course, sometimes your client will ask that you use a certain style or follow an official style guide, but ultimately I feel it is important that we develop our own, sophisticated styles of writing. A trademark, if you will. This style must, of course, follow conventional rules and be adapted for each text – for example, I’m free to write how I want in this blog, within reason, but I wouldn’t dream of implementing the same ‘as-it-sounds-in-my-head’ approach in a professional translation. However, we must not be afraid to play around with language, tactically positioning certain elements or choosing more fitting synonyms to bring harmony to the target text, as long as the meaning remains true to the original.

With the help of Sun Tzu, I have touched upon what I feel are some of the basics of the Art of Translation. With that, I hope to illustrate once more, through my own personal experience, that translation is a multi-faceted discipline with a wide range of potential approaches and paths leading into the industry. My advice is this: if you have true talent but don’t quite tick all the right boxes, don’t be disheartened and, whatever you do, don’t give up. What’s important are the abilities to translate well, grasp the concepts of efficient translation and build structurally sound bridges between languages. How you learn this is all but irrelevant, as long as you can prove that you have what it takes. How you do that is, of course, up to you.

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