When is a translation done? (ITI Day 2018)

[This is the text of a 5-minute talk with a difference that I presented at the ITI One Day in … event on 16 June 2018 at Gray’s Inn in London. The presentation took the form of a “recital” of a pre-recorded text using my smartphone, but the experiment wasn’t a complete success, partly because the quality of the sound system at the venue, despite my sound check beforehand, wasn’t up to it, and apparently most of the audience struggled to hear any of it, annoyingly. The presentation was preceded by a warm and generous introduction by star organiser Anne de Freyman.]


It’s wonderful to be with you all this afternoon – isn’t it Oliver …?

… Indeed it is.

Hello folks.

Don’t be alarmed, but in a packed programme this afternoon, I shall be breaking from protocol in not one but two ways. I think you’ve grasped what the first one is going to be: in a tribute to the fabulous Lost Voice Guy – you know him? The comedian who was once in a disabled Steps tribute band called … Ramps – I shall be experimenting with some technology in what is something of a walk on the wild side for me. And second, I shan’t be speaking about what Anne thinks I’ll be speaking about, as I had a better idea a couple of days ago while waiting in Ciampino departure lounge.

So. I shall be asking the question:

When is it done?

When, that is, do we consider our translations fit to ship?

Naturally, we aim to deliver only work of the highest quality. But we’re operating in the real world, and the law of diminishing returns dictates that we seldom have the opportunity to pursue absolute perfection.

So, is it a question of time? In other words, you make the translation as good as you can in the time available and then deliver. That’s all very well if you have plenty of time, but if you work for bargain-basement agencies at bargain-basement rates (hopefully not), then you probably have to get through quite a lot of words to make ends meet, so you don’t have much time. As I recall a colleague observing on Facebook a few months ago, when you give yourself more time, you can be surprised how much better ideas and solutions you can come up with.

Or is it done when you’ve gone through your process? You’vIs it done yete done your draft, your revision and your review; you’ve done what ISO says you’re supposed to; you’ve done your term consistency check and put PerfectIt, Xbench and the Hemingway app through their paces. And you’ve fixed whatever issues came up, of course. So it’s done, right?

Or maybe it’s done when someone says it is. Perhaps you do it to a standard that you think your client would accept. But what does that mean – just good enough for them not to throw up over your translation or throw it out the window? Or enough to have them turning cartwheels of delight at your anapaestic rhythms and astonishing mastery of assonance? If you work with a reviewer, maybe you consider your translation finished when they are satisfied with it.

Or do you consider it done when there are no more errors in it (that you’re aware of, at least)? No errors of omission or commission, of style or consistency or terminology. No errors at all − or just no big ones, none big enough to need fixing, anyway. Maybe everything is good and correct, but there’s still a slight stylistic blemish somewhere, and you can’t think of a way to fix it without putting something else out of kilter elsewhere. You’ve tried turning the sentence round and inside out, you’ve gone active and passive and back again, and you’ve given thesaurus.com a right royal working over, but still no luck. What else is there to do but put it behind your ear and come back to it later? If you have time.

Sometimes you end up with a good target-language text that’s correct and accurate and natural and on-brand, but you’re still not 100% satisfied with that phrase that you’ve spent far too long over already. Can you say it’s done? Economic realities say maybe you have to. In the sense that you have to deliver by the deadline and move on to your next job without either your effective hourly rate going down the pan (if you’re billing by the word or by the project) or your client’s bill going through the roof (if you’re billing by the hour).

But then the text is the absolute best you could have done while managing the time sensibly and professionally. So yes, I think it probably is done – isn’t it?

But what do you think? I’d be interested to hear your views, as I’d quite like to turn this into a little article with your contributions, maybe even to publish in the august organ of this very Institute, if they’ll have it. So grab me later or email me and tell me when you think your jobs are done.

Or rather, tell him, for I’m just a disembodied voice.

And on that note, folks, it’s goodnight from me …

… And it’s goodnight from him.

Or rather, I’m done.

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