Cut the coy act, translators!

The other day, the UK Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) re-opened the call for papers for its prestigious 2017 conference, because not enough submissions were “on topic”: honing and toning our core translation skills. It seems we’re keener to talk about marketing, technology, pricing, agencies, ergonomics, social media, or whatever – all pressing and worthy matters, of course – than about what we actually do. Hard to believe?

Then glance at a few translation blogs and conference programmes, and you’ll see that coyprecious little of the content (around 10%, I’d say) explores how we translate. Contrast that with, for example, the worlds of marketing and copywriting. Articles, conferences and podcasts abound with tips and ideas on how to do better marketing and write better copy.

Why, then, are we so shy about standing up and discussing our craft?

Are we fearful of criticism from more experienced peers? Scared to set out our stall and inadvertently reveal how little we know? Jealous of our hard-won expertise and competitive advantage? Maybe it’s just easier to talk about side dishes than the main course. Perhaps we assume that everyone knows this stuff already and isn’t interested. Maybe we just have nothing to say about core translation skills.

Surely not

It’s great to be outward looking, as the last ITI conference certainly was, but there is a limit. If we don’t discuss translation issues among our community, then we deny ourselves a vital source of professional-development insight. Which is crazy when many of us work alone without frequent feedback.

I’d love to hear more from colleagues about knotty translation problems, original solutions for unusual linguistic challenges, and intelligent ideas on how to write tighter. Besides being mutually enriching, it couldn’t hurt to do it publicly, to show the rest of the world what translators do and why it’s important. Come to think of it, isn’t that precisely what they call, er, content marketing..?core translation skills

Come on, then, guys and gals, let’s be having yer. There are some virtuous examples out there,
like thisthis or even (ahem) this. But we need more.

So I look forward to savouring your next article on translation technique, punctuation tips, style skills, comparative translation, or whatever interlingual oddity takes your fancy.

It’s time to flex our core.

15 thoughts on “Cut the coy act, translators!

  1. Simon Berrill

    I understand your concerns, Oliver, but I think there are two problems. One is that as soon as you start discussing knotty translation problems you are limiting your audience by becoming language specific. I can understand people wanting to speak at conferences shying away from this. The other difficulty is that a lot of us are reluctant to offer ourselves as examples of excellence in the craft of translation. I can be perfectly happy with a translation of mine, for example, but if I see someone else’s version I will very often realise that there were probably better ways of doing things, so I certainly would be reluctant to give a presentation of this kind. Perhaps the answer to this second point is provided by a workshop arrangement where everyone translates the same piece and discusses their respective solutions, or something of that kind, but even this would be no good for people working in different language combinations.

    1. Oliver Lawrence Post author

      Thanks for commenting, Simon.

      I think the language-specific issue can be worked around without too much difficulty. Let’s say my problem is how to translate a culture-bound term like “cipolla borettana”. If I tried to start a discussion simply by saying “how do I translate that, then, folks?”, then I wouldn’t get very far, as non-Italianists probably wouldn’t know what I was talking about. But if I brought out the actual point, which is that this is a kind of sweet white onion that’s been grown in and around the small town of Boretto in northern Italy for 700 years, then you start to see the possibilities of adding a gloss or a footnote, using a cultural substitute, etc. In any case, plenty of translation issues are largely writing issues, so articles/workshops/presentations about writing and editing skills in the target language would be just as good, too, and would be immediately accessible to a huge range of translators – especially for English, as I assume that most translators work either into or out of that language. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, in other words.

      I feel strongly that there’s no connection between starting or participating a discussion on translation solutions and claiming that one is the bee’s knees, as I’ve stressed in my abstract for the 2017 ITI conference. Translators need to feel empowered to put their own ideas out there in the community for discussion, as a way to stimulate debate and to help us learn from one another. As academics do, for instance. Otherwise, everyone hides their light under a bushel, and only the bravest and best feel confident enough to put their heads over the parapet. I gather that the “Translate In” events (the latest of which was held for FR<>EN translators in Cambridge last week) go out of their way to encourage everyone to contribute. The idea, for example, that someone is right purely because they have 30 years’ more experience than someone else (an argument someone actually used on me a few years ago!) is balderdash. After all, if your solution is better than mine, then hats off to you; I go away with a new idea and no hurt feelings. If a workshop turns out to be the most conducive or popular format, then by all means let’s go for that.

  2. Kari Koonin

    A great post, Oliver, and one which I agree on in many ways. There has certainly been a great deal of focus on the ‘secondary’ aspects of running a translation business recently, both in translators’ blogs and in terms of the CPD on offer. And that has been a Really Good Thing, as a business approach to what we do was sorely lacking before. So you are right that there is now a need to focus more on our craft.

    However, I think your comparison of translators’ blogs and marketing/copywriting is comparing apples and pears. Most marketing blogs are designed as a hook to sell services to customers rather than to pass on tips to other marketing professionals. After all, they are marketers – that’s what they do! (Like my blog? Then buy my book/course/DVD!)

    So it could be that some translator bloggers are avoiding discussing the minutiae of translation because they want to use their blogs to attract potential clients. Just a thought. ‘Like my blog on the subjunctive in conditional clauses? Buy my …’ somehow doesn’t have the same ring to it! 😉

    But I agree the main thing is the lack of conviction and confidence. The answers to your questions are yes, yes, yes – we are so very secretive as a breed, we rarely discuss our work for fear of infringing client confidentiality, and we hardly ever talk about rates. I hope your post encourages translators to open up a bit – it’s something the industry definitely needs.

    1. Oliver Lawrence Post author

      Thanks for your considered comments, Kari.

      As you highlight, in effect, I am calling for two different kinds of discussion: a discussion of core skills among the translation community, and a market-facing effort to articulate what it is that good professional translators do and how translation buyers (and their readers/clients) benefit from it.

      There is certainly plenty of content marketing around (I’m not referring to translators, here) that is a thinly disguised sales pitch – like webinars purporting to be “training” that consist of 10 minutes’ build-up, 15 minutes’ content and a 15-minute sell at the end. But that is a bastardisation; it’s not “proper” content marketing, as the likes of Seth Godin define it. Indeed, there are plenty of writing blogs that provide genuinely useful information while offering a window on the world of that profession. One Italian copywriting blog that I dip into has openly raised the question of their various different types of reader (potential clients, inexperienced copywriters, etc.) and the company’s strategy for targeting/serving them. In some cases, I suspect the two strands can be woven together, with a little care; failing that, a source-language blog for clients and a target-language blog for colleagues would not be impossible.

      And IMHO, client confidentiality is sometimes a convenient excuse. It is often quite possible, with a little imagination, to anonymise a text, to take extracts out of context, to edit out the sensitive bits, to change names and locations, etc.

  3. Valerij Tomarenko

    While being language-specific is the core of any translation, I – like Oliver – also believe it “can be worked around without too much difficulty”.

    My book on translation that I am (still) working on is certainly NOT language-specific as it showcases examples from many languages. Basically, the book focuses on how ANY translation looks like and consequently “works” for the client or rather how our clients, mostly direct clients, tend to view and judge our translations (in contrast to how translators tend to view – if at all – their own translations). But apart from this, a few chapters are less about the form and more about the content of our translations (the line between content and form can be rather elusive).

    The other day, I had an edifying conversation with a personal assistant/secretary to the CEO of a major Russian company who I work for as a translator. It turned out that we have quite a lot in common. In fact, we practically do the same: as the personal secretary told me, his job is mostly about “translating from Russian into Russian”, whereas I do much the same, but “from Russian into German or English”. It is much in line with the spirit of the third (ahem) link: “What they said vs. what they meant” or “Clear writing”. If I would ACCURATELY AND FAITHFULLY translate what was written or said in the source language “in commercial settings under time pressure (time is money) by people who are not trained professional writers”, it would be equal to an act of sabotage.

    This CORE TRANSLATION SKILL is also something beyond the specificity of a particular language combination and – if I may – beyond translation in a conventional sense.

    1. Oliver Lawrence Post author

      I’d say the core skill is hunting for meaning and turning it into words – words that articulate the meaning in all its nuances, without adding, subtracting or obscuring. That goes for translating, editing and writing.

  4. Pedro Panzo

    Well i AM a young student of english language and literature at Agostinho neto university in angola and i find this theme really interesting. This is in fact the topic for My term paper for defense to get My degree and would like to havê help from u all who are available to help me. As telecomunications, technologies and globalization are bringing the World ever closer together , the need for global citezens to be competent in other languages is really urgent and important, thus translation is a key.

  5. Kevin Hendzel

    Yes, exactly — the core skill is being able to mentally capture every single aspect of the idea in the source language, and then masterfully convey every scintilla of that highly complex idea in the target language, all in the proper register, tone and context.

    In extreme circumstances — when non-translators just don’t “get it” — I will sometimes resort to the explanation that translation is the ability to observe and absorb a magnificent portrait, and then write a compelling poem that captures every emotional nuance embedded in the portrait. (I recognize this is an exaggeration, but like I said, it’s for those clueless monolinguals who just have no idea what translation really is.)

    For those who are multilingual, the explanation is simpler: “I develop a mental picture of the reality in the source language and then write my own original version of that reality in the target language, with the intent of capturing every concept, idea and nuance perfectly.”

    So I agree with you, Oliver, that these exercises are sorely needed, and the more practical the emphasis on pure writing skills, the more advantageous it is to attendees.

    Also, working languages are often not even relevant. I’ve always attended Grant Hamilton’s sessions on Fr->Eng, even though French is not one of my working languages, simply for the joy of watching a master solve a Rubik’s cube in about 15 seconds. It’s about the ability to take concepts in one domain of expression and carry them over into a completely different dimension.

    It doesn’t matter which domain or which dimension.

    The reason these hugely valuable hands-on workshops tend to be drowned out by insta-guru foolishness on social media, marketing “tips,” offering services other than translation, etc. is that so few translators are willing to put up on the screen their own translations for inspection by their peers. It’s been this way for well over 25 years.

    The (uncharitable) interpretation is that these translators are not as good as they think they are.

    It’s also a false one, as my view is that they FEAR they may not be as good (which is something completely different), or that the response to their offerings may be blisteringly critical, even if off-base. A lot of this has to do with the fear of uncertainty, the unknown, and basic hostility from people who should know how to play better with each other.

    I am convinced that the proliferation of insta-guru presenters who talk about the weather, celestial mechanics or the contents of their breakfast that morning — ESPECIALLY those with very few years of actual translation experience and who charge their peers for such nonsense — is that they are not earning enough (or working enough) at the core craft of translation to make a comfortable living on that alone.

    This is a huge, screaming neon warning sign. Caveat emptor in the extreme.

    In my view, as you noted, the “Translate in the…” series is the wave of the future. It is truly — and has been for some time — the Platinum Standard for instruction, collaboration, best practices, self-improvement, identifying collaboration partners, and an overflowing spoon of humility.

    I used to run workshops in Russian-into-English in the late 1990s (when much of the financial and legal language, along with the nuclear treaty terminology, were going through an upheaval) that were heavily interactive and collaborative, but Grant, Chris & Co. have taken the art to a whole new level.

    When I ran my workshops, I had the advantage of already knowing the mistakes many of the people in the room were making (I ran the company that was the lead language authority on the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, and most of the translators had worked for us in one way or another, so I was familiar with their work) but the into-English translators were unbearably lazy about doing research or thinking through the underlying concepts to come up with perfect solutions.

    In fact, the English-to-Russian translators were often far superior in their insight because they had — of course — actually seen all the English original specifications for ICBM and SLBM dismantlement and disposition, for example, and knew very well what English terminology was used for them.

    So I’d start the workshop with a 3-column table that listed the Russian source term/phrase in the far left column; the “Incorrect Translation” column in the center — which listed the incorrect English translations many people in the room had been using — and the right column, “Correct Translation” — blank.

    The idea was to have the room collaborate to a) discover why the translations in the center column were lazy, literal or false cognates; b) encourage translators to think first, reflect second, and create, third, and c) collaborate to come up with the best renditions.

    I do remember the long, slightly panicked silences that overcame the room when I would first distribute the handouts.

    It was enormously rewarding to see that uneasiness give way to collaboration, authoritative input from multiple people, and a final listing of translations that were in fact representative of the official signed translations by the respective governments. 🙂

    So the demand is out there for master-class workshop collaborations. We just need to do what you have just done so well in this blog post — lay out the case for upgrading our skills rather than wasting valuable time learning about how if we’re not on Snapchat (scoff!) we are not really professionals. 🙂

    1. Oliver Lawrence Post author

      Thank you, Kevin, for your tour de force of a comment and pardon my tardy reply (I have too much on my plate at the moment).

      I agree that it should be possible to learn plenty from hands-on translation discussions involving other languages. And the exercises you describe sound like just the ticket for the “Translate In…” events that (there is cause to hope) will eventually materialise for languages other than French.

      I am not especially concerned if translators wish to diversify and offer other services, but I certainly agree that evidence of expertise is a must. The more thinly you spread yourself, after all, the more likely you are to be a jack of all trades than a true expert; even translating from more than two source languages seems like a stretch to me. It is hard to tell how good a “lifestyle guru”–type translator is, but if they have passed the usual exams (MITI / DipTrans / etc.) and diligently attend events like “Translate In…”, then I would have no reason to doubt their ability.

      As for social media, it is a useful way to network and to find out about interesting articles and events that you might otherwise have missed. But if you have nothing to say, then say nothing. The risk in the idea that everyone should be blogging and tweeting left, right and centre, even at the very start of your career, is that people may end up knowing who you are, but they will also see how much you don’t know about the ways of the translation world.

      Talent plus hard work plus challenging yourself is, I believe, the route to excellence. Plus experience, of course. But there is a balance to be achieved between placing a value on that and, on the other hand, encouraging people with very few years of actual translation experience to beat the fear and have the confidence to put their work out there. Confidence without hubris. Humility, as you rightly say. I am hoping to be able to do something at a future conference to en-courage (literally) the translation community to put our work on the line more often.

  6. Jason Willis-Lee MITI

    Excellent post Oliver and I thoroughly agree. The fear of criticism is rife. Having recently attended the TIC event I can say that yes, everyone is egged on for contributions. I also had nothing but unreserved admiration for the FR/EN and EN/FR translation slammers who put their work up for public critique. By the way, one of my earliest work reviewers also used the age & experience argument on me and there was a rather tense encounter at an early CPD event, now long resolved. Onwards and upwards! P.S. Looking forward to your ITI2017 talk.

    1. Oliver Lawrence Post author

      Thanks Jason, onwards and upwards indeed :). See you in Tarragona and fingers crossed for ITI2017; hopefully, we should be spoiled for choice, content-wise.

    2. Oliver Lawrence Post author

      By the way, as it turns out, you’ll have a long wait for a talk from me at an ITI conference. 2019, maybe.

  7. Denise Muir

    Marketing courses seem to be selling the idea (perhaps not intentionally, that’s just how it looks to me) that, on completion of the course, business will suddenly drop into our laps. I’m quite sceptical but I also see them as a bit of a income-generator, a bandwagon, easy money offering easy solutions. I’ve never done one but I would hope they also advise that a marketing campaign must go hand-in-hand with similar exercises to continually hone our translation skills. In a digital world, media presence is important, but brands need to be backed up by top-notch texts and proven experience in the field. Otherwise clients might be disappointed when the gloves come off and it’s time to tango. Blurb is great, so are eye-catching brands and snappy slogans, but at the end of the day, if we’re ready to big ourselves up on a business card or blog, we should also be brave enough to open up our craft and translation practice to constant scrutiny and continual improvement. In my book, the only way of doing this is in the kind of task Simon mentions when a group of same language translators take on the same text and discuss their different approaches (we did this on the Italian Network and plan to do it again). I also did this in a multilingual context, where we all started with the same text (Harry Potter) in a different language and offered up our versions of the English to the rest of the group. This provided an amazing opportunity to discuss word choices and interpretation. In another scenario, we presented a piece of translation from our source languages, meaning that the focus was more on our writing skills and ability to recreate the images, settings and emotions of a piece of literature. I learned so much from comparing my word choices to others, to hearing how others assessed the readability of my writing, and suggestions they made on how to tweak it. I also surprised myself in the suggestions I was able to make for other texts. On the whole, it was a unique and enlightening experience that I am very eager to repeat. I’ve tried lots of things over the years, but nothing has been as informative and useful as events like the ones described, along with master classes in translation practice and workshops like the readability and grammar ones I attended at METM16. So yes, I’m definitely all for getting back to the nuts and bolts of translation, the hands-on discussions, the wrangling and wrestling over word choices, and it doesn’t even have to cost anything. Gurus are not always necessary. Just groups of translators getting together and getting their teeth into a piece of writing. And learning from what comes out the other side.

    1. Oliver Lawrence Post author

      Hi Denise, I agree that any educational material that fails to really grapple with the subject or that promises more than it delivers is a waste of time and – worse – a bit of an insult to those who invest in it. I’m sure that many marketing courses offer great value if they are given by people who actually know what they’re talking about and if they are based on sound principles (rather than just chasing the latest fad). Many copywriting blogs have some very sound tips. But yes; no rigour? Not interested.

      I couldn’t agree more that text wrestling of any kind is the way to go, whether that is through slams, group discussions, or deep analysis in the depths of your private translation lair. I think that any translator conference worth its salt should have a slam or similar event on its programme. I’m absolutely all for watching and learning from master wordsmiths at work. It probably grabs the headlines and gets a few oohs and aahs if you bring in the big names, but I also believe that that kind of event should involve the whole translation community. OK, not the whole translation community, just those who are serious about honing their craft and keeping going to as near to the top of the profession as they can reach (while enjoying the ride). Which is still quite a few of us.

      I look forward to contributing to the various interesting and enriching initiatives that I’m sure you’ve got bubbling away for ItalNet :).


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