Heading for Trouble
The subject line exclaimed "H-E-E-E-E-L-P URGENT!!!!" in loud caps and stammering e's. The body of the message began with a desperate (and I translate from the Portuguese) Guys, I got this job and cannot make head or tail of the meaningless legal blah-blah-blah. I have all my dictionaries and glossaries around me and I cannot find the translations. For God's sake, can anyone tell where I can find a good Portuguese-English legal dictionary or a site with a good glossary? I have the following doubts: how do you say... and the usual diatribe against the general uselessness of dictionaries in general and Portuguese dictionaries in particular.
What's wrong with this message posted in a mailing
list for translators? Practically everything,
and the writer is heading for trouble, for the
translation is bound to be a disaster. And this
type of message is far from rare. In fact, it
is so common that, I believe, it deserves a bit
of attention and analysis. Again, what's wrong
An Introduction on Manners, before we get
down to real business:
This is the Translation Journal, I know, not Miss Manners' Guide to the Internet, but I cannot help beginning on a note on netiquette. Never use a subject line like the one above. I know it makes life easier for you, but it makes life difficult for hundreds of your colleagues, mainly for those busy specialists who subscribe to several lists and receive over a hundred messages a day. The old geezers, the people who probably know the right answers to your questions, seldom have the time to see all their mail; therefore, they select what they will read based on subject lines. Many use filters that channel messages with certain subjects directly to the trashcan.
Even if they read and answer your message, their answers may be lost forever, because it is awfully difficult to search discussion list files for information buried under such inane titles.
So, begin in a professional manner, by writing a suitable subject line, indicating area and language pair involved. In this particular case, "Legal: Port > Eng" would do nicely, for most lists. Some lists have their own rules and you should respect them. Practically all Internet discussion lists will send you a message explaining the procedure when you subscribe and you should carefully read the message and comply with it, as a matter of courtesy to your colleagues.
Also, please, don't acquire the irritating habit
of writing in caps. Caps are for yelling and should
only be used when you feel like shouting at people
for what you consider to be their stupidity, not
when you cry for their help. A subject line in
all caps is also a known feature of most "spam"
(junk e-mail) and a cue for certain filters to
send the message directly to the trashcan.
Guys, I got this job...
First job? Probably. Once a college student asked
me whether I thought she was ready to start working
as a professional translator. I replied that she
wasn't and would never be. Nobody ever is. Translation
is too difficult for any of us, including you
and me. We do it because someone must do it and
we are "someone". And we must begin
some day, somehow. If you wait until you are ready,
you will die a translatorial virgin. So one must
take the plunge sometime. Close your eyes, say
a prayer, and jump.
Interlude: Concerning the Need for Tutoring
Unfortunately, there is no way to make the big jump easier to take. More than once a novice has approached me and proposed some kind of arrangement, some kind of way to ease the transition from student to translator. Perhaps I could let them do the easier things, perhaps I could edit their work, perhaps this, perhaps that...
You know, like a renaissance painters' studio, where the beginners painted backgrounds before they were ready for draping cloaks and the master corrected their work and taught them new tricks.
No way. Tutoring neophytes is a commendable undertaking, but decent tutoring takes time, lots of timeand time costs money. No use just giving a translation the once-over, correcting an error here and another there and then sending it back to its maker with a blessing. A professional job (even if done by a novice) would have to be thoroughly edited and the trainee should be told the reason for each edit, told where the mistake was, told where the solution was. And there are no "backgrounds to paint" in professional translation.
In fact a decent discussion of a page's worth of translation will take a lot longer than doing the job againeven if the beginner's job is very good. Commenting takes a lot longer than translating.
Considering our timeframes ("No rush, yesterday
will be OK!") and the fact that either trainees
would have to pay for the tutoring or tutors would
suffer a reduction in their already slender incomes,
you will see that the proposition is next to untenable.
End of Interlude concerning the need for tutoring
So, again, neophytes must close their several
eyes and take the jump into the dark abyss of
translation. "Abyss" is the Greek word
for "bottomless pit" and is quite adequate
here: the deeper you dive, the deeper it gets.
That is what my colleague did. The job came her
way and she caught it by the hair, as if it were
the Greek goddess of fortune. Now, she has to
... and cannot make head or tail...
This is probably the worst problem faced by any translator: not understanding the original. Once you understand the original, the translation begins to take form in your head and all you have to do is to write it down. And the better you understand the original, the better your translation will be. I think Schleiermacher said something to the same purpose, but that was a long time ago, anyway.
If you cannot understand the original, you may be sure readers won't be able to understand your translation. More bad translations result from a faulty understanding of the original than from lack of mastery of the target language.
So, your first job should be to acquire a very
thorough understanding of the original. If you
try to translate something you do not understand,
you will do no better than Babelfishand
Babelfish is not only faster than any translator
I know, but also less expensive. Think about that,
and go back to text, to decipher it. Do it. NOW!
...of the meaningless legal blah-blah-blah.
No, please, don't do that! Don't blame the original. That is the wrong way to deal with the problem. The document you are translating may be very badly written, as many are, but working from sick originals is part of the game and will always be. And you have to learn to enjoy it. Really. One of the pleasures of translation is coming to grips with faulty texts, carving meaning out of an amorphous or malformed text and building a decent translation with whatever you glean. And this is not restricted to technical translation. Even literary translators have to learn to live with it, believe me. You will only see how badly written a text is when you have to translate it. Only the nave believe all literary texts are well written.
Like it or not, however, you should be professionally prepared to handle bad text and any course that trains translators to translate only what is well written is absolutely worthless. Life is simply not like that.
One of the difficulties faced by some translators is that they try to construe texts with grammar and dictionary in hand. Even texts written by "good" authors often violate rules of grammar and use words, even common words, in senses that are not recorded in any dictionary. You will have to apprehend the meaning of the text by carefully balancing what you think the whole signifies against what it seems that individual words mean. And you will often have to revise your construction of whole and of its parts to harmonize them.
One of the most important processes involved
in translation is the making, testing, and revising
of assumptions concerning the meaning of the original.
Takes a lot more than just looking words up in
the dictionaryor a translator would be no
better than Babelfish.
Another interlude: in praise of boilerplate and the translation thereof
Now, my friend may be going through the pains of translating her first legal text. Legalese is not always aesthetically pleasant, but is seldom meaningless. (Not everything you cannot understand is meaninglessthat should be in Lesson 1 of any manual for translators.) On the contrary, it is often very meaningful and precise. Lawyers write mostly by reorganizing chunks of boilerplate the meaning of which is both precise and well known to the cognoscenti. Bits of filler are used here and there to caulk the joints, it is true, and an important portion of our work is telling filler from portions that actually carry meaning. But most of it is meaningful and has to be translated into something equally meaningful.
Certain professionalsthe best example may be auditorsare actually required to write in boilerplate prescribed by their respective professional organizations or governments. That restricts creativity, I agree, and if you are looking for creative writing, don't read audit reports. On the other hand, it adds precision to the text, because technical boilerplate is strictly defined either by tradition or, in the case of auditors, by publications specifying exactly in what cases certain words and phrases may or must be used. When auditors fail to use the appropriate boilerplate to describe a given situation, there is hell to pay, but you probably know that if you have been reading the news recently.
And, finally, legal source-language boilerplate should be translated by target-language boilerplate. For instance, the best possible Brazilian translation for an audit report written by a U.S. auditor is to be found in the rules published by the Brazilian Institute of Auditors. Otherwise the translation will read "funny". Thus soaking up target-language boilerplate is one of the major tasks faced by a technical translator.
All that makes translating technical (here used in a very loose sense to include everything from medical to legal) boilerplate an art in itself. An art that is often despised by translators who wish they were translating literature, as our friend probably wished she were.
Our friend seems to despise the text she was translating. This often happens and is always an error. Unfortunately, many translators are brought to think the greatest translation endeavor of all is translating grand literature and then cannot stoop to translate such down-to-earth stuff as powers of attorney or user manuals. They think it is demeaning.
I don't, but I will not go into that. My point here is that contempt blinds the translator to the intricacies and problems of the original. If you dismiss the text as meaningless blah-blah-blah you won't give it the attention a good translation requires.
Perhaps she should have refused the assignment
on the grounds it humiliated her. Or perhaps she
should revise her prospects as a translator; most
of our work consists of what she would
consider meaningless blah-blah-blah and,
unless she changes her views, she will be a very
I have all my dictionaries and glossaries around me and I cannot find the translations. For God's sake, can anyone tell where I can find a good PortugueseEnglish legal dictionary or a site with a good glossary?
The translator surrounded by dictionaries is one of those illusions that haunt the imagination of the laypersonand of many translators too. A heap of dictionaries does not a good translator makein the same manner a good camera does not make a good photographer, or the ownership of a formula-one car wouldn't make racing-car driver out of me.
I have limited faith in dictionaries. The guy who wrote the stuff I am translating does not always go by the dictionary. Rather, it is the other way 'round: dictionaries follow what people write and only list usage they believe is "correct," whatever that means. And, of course, they only list what they are aware of. And the guys who write dictionaries more often than not have their own prejudices, too.
Also, I don't put much stock in those miraculous glossaries from Internet sites or that are transmitted from one translator to the next as if they were an element of apostolic succession. I've come to the conclusion that there is much rubbish in them. They are not useless, far from that, but their suggestions (as well as the suggestions from friends, experts, and other translators we meet in mailing lists or at Proz) must be very carefully analyzed before use.
But she is asking for the name of a bilingual dictionary, and we mustn't forget that. Dictionaries are powerful weapons and should not be left in inexperienced or untrained hands. Bilingual dictionaries are more dangerous than monolingual ones, because they give translators a false sense of security. And the bigger, the more dangerous: There is this big dictionary published by this great publishing house and written by those experts, and it says that "X" = "Y." So, I can translate "X" as "Y."
That is not the truth, alas. At best, the dictionary says we found at least one instance of "X" which, to the best of our knowledge and belief, should be translated as "Y" and decided it was dictionary-worthy. It does not mean that the instance of X found in our text should be translated as Y. This is a very painful lesson, but must be learned by anyone whose aims in life include becoming a good translator.
Investing in dictionaries is commendable, of course, and I have a few hundred of them. However, as far as the technical translator is concerned, dictionaries are of little use without a few good technical manuals and other works of reference, preferably with good indices, to help us understand what the writer is writing about.
Finally, how could you possibly find the correct
translation for something you don't understand?
I mean, if you found it, how could you tell it
was correct, even assuming you had full mastery
of the target language? We are back to square
one, of course.
I have the following doubts: how do you say...
She posted five or six terms, the rest she could deal with. Or thought she could, at least. When I read some of these messages I say to myself: if they have to ask this, imagine the rest, for the questions are often pretty basic, not to say naïve. Indeed, there is a difference between what translators think they don't know and what they actually don't know. The narrower the difference, the better the translation. I wish I knew how narrow the gap is in my own case and how to narrow it a bit more.
The terms came without contextanother of my pet peeves. How can a professional translator fail to realize that meaning (and thus translation) depends heavily on context? A non-contexted request for help may result in several different suggestions, all of which may be equally right but inappropriate to the case in point. In addition, if the writer used the unknown word in an unorthodox way, only the context will allow us to provide a suitable translation.
And context should be a whole sentence, not just
a few words. Often, misunderstandings (and mistranslations)
arise from slicing a sentence the wrong way.
... and the usual diatribe against the general uselessness of dictionaries in general and Portuguese dictionaries in particular.
This, of course, is in the best tradition of translating. But bad or good as the dictionaries may be, the translator's work always begins where the dictionary ends, anyway. We areor should bea lot more than fishers of translations in a pond of dictionaries and glossaries.
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