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Debunking a few myths about translating and translators

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Roswitha Ehrhardt Wagner photoRoswitha Ehrhardt Wagner has been translating for McElroy Translation Company since 1981. Time after time, year after year, her translations to and from German receive effusive compliments from our most discerning clients. Thus, her arguments for the “generalist” merit close consideration. McElroy Translation agrees with Roswitha in part on the subject of formal certifications. A translator's certifications are just one component in the qualification and selection of new translators, and experience and references are of utmost importance. Finally, we credit our staff of technical editors who work closely with translators to polish and perfect the finished product for our clients. The combined efforts of diligent translators and editors help us serve a quality driven client base.

Myth #1

Shortly after I became a full-time translator, an acquaintance asked me what sort of work I do. I told her that I am a translator. Her reaction was, Aren’t you lucky that just living here and having learned the language, you now can translate and make money from it. I felt insulted because it implied that being a translator was not a real profession, that anyone who spoke more than one language could be a translator. But her reaction was also thought-provoking. I began to wonder what that certain something is that sets successful translators apart from other people who know more than one language. Because even people who are truly bilingual are not necessarily good translators. On the other hand, I know translators who cannot converse in German with me but they can produce a very good translation from German into English.

So what is required to be a translator? For one, I believe that to be a translator, you should have studied the second language systematically, i.e., “consciously.” When you study a second language in a systematic way, you become conscious of things about your own language that you would never have been aware of had it not been for the study of another language. You realize, for example, that your mother tongue has words and concepts that are unknown in the other language and vice versa, that language mirrors the culture and soul, the character and history of a people, that often the simplest words and phrases you use every day cannot be translated because even though each word of the phrase has a counterpart in the other language, the words would make no sense when strung together or, even worse, a literal translation could even convey the opposite of what was meant.

Does this imply then that anyone who has learned another language systematically could be a translator? Again, the answer is no. Most language students do not become translators. They use their language skill in other areas. Some become linguists, language teachers or professors who teach the literature of the language they learned; others enter the field of anthropology, archeology or another profession in which a language skill is essential. And even among those who start out studying to be translators, not all “make” it. And others who do make it are not necessarily good translators. So there must be something else that defines what it takes to be a translator. Before I describe what I think that is, I would like to talk about the second myth that surrounds translating and translators.

Myth #2

It is often said that translation should be left to the expert. Every translation institution will use words to this effect in the description of its curriculum: before you can graduate as a translator, you will have to acquire expertise in a specific field. What does that mean? What do you have to know? The field itself or just the terminology used in the field, both in the source and target language? Was I an expert after I had studied translation at the Institute of Translation and Interpreting of the University of Heidelberg? Certainly not. Was I a good translator? Again, I have to say certainly not. In theory, leaving translation to the expert sounds good. In a world that is made up of specialists, it is comforting to turn a job over to an expert. It is certainly true that someone who has studied another language systematically and who is also a doctor who translates medical texts might be a better translator than someone who knows the source and target language but only little about medicine. And undoubtedly, there are translators who have studied a foreign language systematically and also have an advanced degree in a specific field. But to put it colloquially, let’s get real. The vast majority of translators do not have such a background, yet they produce satisfactory to excellent translations.

So what does it take to be a decent translator? What did I acquire in all the years that finally led me to being an enthusiastic and successful translator? The answer sounds banal but it is nonetheless true. On my journey there, I was exposed to many different things, I learned more about the world and about life. Being a mother made me more inquisitive and curious, and last but not least, I grew older and, I hope, wiser.

The real world

So what is it like to translate in the real world? In the real world, most translators in the United Stated have learned a language systematically but have not undergone training to be come a translator. Many of these self-styled translators learn that they are unable to do the job, or the translation agencies and clients no longer offer them work after a few botched attempts, i.e., market forces kick in and eventually force such people out. I believe that these market forces serve clients more effectively than the attempts of professional associations to impose translator certification requirements, thereby re-creating the overregulated climate of Europe.

Also, in the real world, most translators are not “experts” in a field, i.e., they are not doctors, lawyers, engineers, physicists, or chemists. Unless a translator works as an in-house translator of a company that makes widgets and therefore becomes an expert in widgets because that’s all he (I use “he” in the gender-neutral sense) translates, a translator has to be prepared to translate almost everything that comes his way – because in the real world, the translator has to eat. I say almost because a good translator should have enough sense to know when to say no. But even that statement must be qualified. At one time or another, almost every translator has allowed himself to be cajoled into translating something that he knew he should not.

But apart from having to make a living and therefore having to translate material from many different fields, there is another reason why it does not make much sense in the real world to require a translator to specialize in one specific area. A medical article may include statistical analysis, computer technology, optics, acoustics and material science terminology, etc. And a number of articles on pig farming that I translated some time ago included business and legal terms plus a discussion of the curriculum a German pig farmer has to study, the inspections his business will have to undergo and much more – all that in addition to the terminology of animal husbandry.

What this means is that a translator in the real world has to be a good generalist. I borrow this term from Walter Russell Mead who used it in his book “Power, Terror, Peace and War” where he applies it to American foreign policy. He says that to create and support an international system, it is necessary to integrate economics, politics, military strategy and many other subjects, and for that we need generalists. This is definitely true in the world of translation, where a translator often must integrate many different subjects. But especially pertinent to me seemed to be another sentence in this book, especially when applied to the real world of translation. Mr. Mead says that generalists can be superficially mistaken about a great many subjects, but specialists can be profoundly mistaken about a few. In the world of translation, this can also be true. A translator with a certain specialist background may be inclined to draw certain conclusions because from his limited expert point of view, he may think that the word or term he is looking for must be “this widget.” Had he “listened” to the word he has to translate without the burden of his limited expert knowledge, he may realize that he cannot hear an echo of that word in the word he proposes. In such cases, I think it is safer to provide a literal translation and a footnote rather than the expert’s term – I may be superficially mistaken but the expert may be profoundly mistaken.

To be a translator in the real world, you also have to be a certain kind of person with a certain kind of talent, a knack, as one of my friends and colleagues calls it. You have to enjoy doing research, you have to be willing to spend long hours alone with your computer screen, you have to learn how to use the Internet effectively and find websites and links, including how to outsmart systems exclusively reserved for experts by sneaking in through the backdoor. I am inclined to liken the work I do to that of a detective. I have certain clues, and based on these, I am going to have to arrive at a solution, the solution being the correct terms in the target language. Or to use another comparison: the work a translator does is a little like solving a hard crossword puzzle. As I begin to fill in words or letters here and there, slowly the whole fabric of the puzzle begins to emerge.

A translator also has to be tenacious. By that I mean that in his quest for the correct translation of a word, he has to be doggedly persistent and stubborn, regardless of the fact that this one word might only earn him a few pennies per hour. And if he does not find it, he must be honest and say so. Unfortunately, in the real world, translators sometimes forget this very important ethical issue, especially when they think that the term they leave out is unimportant to the understanding of the subject. This is totally unacceptable.

A translator also has to have a good dose of suspicion. Considering the huge number of dictionaries, reference books, and other support materials on the market, a translator has to learn not to trust them. He has to know which ones are good and reliable and which ones are not. Over the years, I have found that catalogues are often better than dictionaries, many of which are bad — and even the good ones are often wrong.

But above all, a good translator must be a good listener and a good writer. Since we as translators reproduce someone else’s thoughts, we have to listen very carefully to what is being said. And we must be able to write well so that we can express someone else’s thoughts as eloquently as possible in the target language, even when the source text is awkward and poorly written. This runs counter to translation theory which will tell you that a “good” translation is one that reflects the style of the source language as closely as possible, meaning that a wonderful translation of a lousy source text is not a good translation. It is a wonderful theory that definitely applies to translations of literary works. But it does not apply to the real world because it would not serve our clients well.

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