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So what's it all about? Who and what is a translator? How does one become a translator? What is going on in the translation profession? This article and the other thirteen will take a close look at these and related questions. This first article is an overview of what is to come in the rest of the series, though by no means an outline or a summation of the remaining thirteen articles. If you are an experienced translator, you might want to browse this article and then get into the meatier discussions of current and forthcoming technologies, sticky financial and legal issues, or nagging ethical problems. If you are new to the profession, or if you are exploring translation as a possible profession, please take the time to read this article so that you are acquainted with certain basics about translators and what they do.
What is a Translator?
A translator converts written material, such as newspaper and magazine articles, books, manuals, or documents from one language into another. This is not to be confused with an interpreter, who converts spoken material, such as speeches, presentations, depositions, and the like, from one language to another. Although there is some vague connection between the abilities involved in translation and interpretation, translators cannot necessarily interpret, nor can interpreters necessarily translate. Moreover, the best translators are not good interpreters and likewise, truly great interpreters are not much for translation. And while many professional training programs require interpreters to develop some skill in translation, professionally trained translators often have no exposure to the skills of interpretation.
To be clear about the languages used by translators, I will refer to the translator's native language as the A language and the non-native languages as the B or C languages. A B language is one which the translator can speak, read, and write virtually as a native speaker does. A C language is one which the translator can read and understand like a native, but does not necessarily speak or write so well. Obviously we all have an A language, and equally evident, all translators have a B language. Many translators have more than one B language, and some also have C languages. What very few people have is two A languages, and even if you are one of those who do, take care in making the claim, as many people will be skeptical.
I will also use the following terms. Source text or language will refer to the language which the material first appears in, usually the translator's B language. Target text and language refer to the language that the material is translated into, usually the translator's A language. In general, translators work from their B or C languages into their A languages, though an individual's skills and the market's needs may alter this principle.
A good translator is by definition bilingual. The opposite is not necessarily true, however. A born and bred bilingual will still need two things to become a translator: first, the skills and experience necessary for translation; second, knowledge of the field in which he or she will translate. The skills and experience for translation include the ability to write well in the target language, the ability to read and understand the source language material thoroughly, and the ability to work with the latest word-processing and communications hardware and software.
This brings up an important question: Does a born and bred bilingual makes a better translator than someone who learned the B language later in life? There is no definite answer, but the following issues are important. First, a born and bred bilingual often suffers from not truly knowing any language well enough to translate, with some even suffering from what is known as alingualism, a state in which a person does lacks a full, fluent command of any language. Second, born and bred bilinguals often do not know the culture of the target language well enough to provide top-quality translations, or cannot recognize what aspects of the source language and its culture need to be treated with particular care, as they are in a sense too close to the language. And last, they often lack the analytical linguistic skills to work through a sticky text.
On the other hand, the acquired bilingual may not have the same in-depth knowledge of colloquialisms, slang, and dialect that the born bilingual has. As well, the acquired bilingual will not be able to translate as readily in both directions (from B to A language and A to B language). Finally, born bilinguals often have a greater appreciation of the subtleties and nuances of both their languages than someone who learns their B language later in life can ever hope to have.
The Education of a Translator
Translators come from all backgrounds. Some have Masters degrees in translation from the Monterey Institute of International Studies or Kent State University, some have certificates from Georgetown University or other programs in the United States, others have degrees from schools in Europe (such as the ones in London, Paris, or Geneva) or Asia (such as Simul Academy in Tokyo or Winzao in Taiwan) and many have a degree in a general field such as literature or history. While a specialized degree in translation is useful, it is far from necessary. What counts more than anything else is ability. So where does this ability come from?
Perhaps it is nature, but I suspect that nurture helps immensely. Most translators are very well-read in their languages, and can write well. Some are writers who use translation as a way to write for a living. Others are fascinated by language and use translation as a way to be close to their favourite subject. Still others are experts in certain fields and use their language skills to work in that field.
Almost all professional translators in the United States have at least a college degree. Some even have advanced degrees either in translation or in the field they specialize in (a few even have both). Most translators have university-level language training in their B and C languages. Some started their languages earlier, others later, but very few translators have no language training at all. Of course, language training might mean specialized courses from a variety of schools.
Translators also generally have lived in the countries where their languages are spoken. I know of translators who have spent seven or even ten years in the countries of their B language. Some translators have spent more time in the country of their B language than in the country of their A language. The notable exception to this is Spanish in the United States and English abroad. Because Spanish is used so widely and is as common as English in many parts of the U.S., some translators learn and then work in the language without ever leaving the U.S. As well, translators in other countries often work from English into their native language with just the language training they received in school.
Above all, translators must have a deep interest and dedication to the languages they work with. The only exception to this rule is people who translate very specialized material. I know an individual with a Ph.D. in mathematics who translated a book on topology from French to English. His French skills are dubious, but since few people in the world understand the material, he was suitable. In almost all cases, however, translators have to be committed to honing and polishing their language skills throughout their professional life.
The knowledge of the field the translator is working in is often overlooked by translators and those that hire them. Translators are by definition language professionals, but they also have to cultivate a knowledge of the areas they work in. Few translators claim to be able to translate anything written in their languages, just as few people can claim to be experts in everything. Most translators have to specialize, working with one or a few related categories of material: legal, financial, medical, computers, or electrical engineering, to name a few. Each field has its own vocabulary, syntax, and style; the translator has to work hard to develop the knowledge necessary to deal with such material.
The knowledge also includes two other important factors. First, the translator should have the background knowledge to work in the field. This does not mean that a medical translator should have an M.D. or that a translator of software manuals should be a programmer. But some background, experience, or education (or all three) is essential. This can be obtained through coursework, on-the-job experience, or self-study. No one seems too concerned with exactly how translators develop their subject knowledge, as long as they truly have. And though translators do have degrees in their specialization, most do not.
Second, the translator should have the necessary resources to deal with the material. This means dictionaries, glossaries, and any other resources. Such resources can include web sites devoted to translation or terminology, Usenet discussion groups concerning translation, friends or colleagues who work in the profession, and magazines and journals. And translators have to work tirelessly to maintain if not improve their knowledge of the fields they work in by reading related material. They also have to invest the time and money in maintaining their reference library.
In other words, professional translators are always learning. You do not just put your hand on a rock and say: "I am a translator." Nor do you simply acquire a language in a few months by living somewhere and then begin translating. Heinrich Schliemann may have learned to read each of his languages in six weeks, but he could not write or speak them (nor did he need to). Moreover, at that time, languages had considerably more limited vocabularies than now. And of course, reading and translating are two separate things.
So at what point are you ready to begin translating? Simple. When you feel that your abilities of expression and comprehension in your A and B languages are strong enough that you can do the job properly by the clients deadline. The length of time to cultivate these abilities depends on the person and the language. Native speakers of English have an easier time with the Romance and Germanic languages because their grammars, syntax, and vocabulary are relatively familiar. A language like Chinese or Japanese takes a long time simply because you have to learn to read and understand thousands of characters, as well as deal with grammar, syntax, and structure wholly unrelated to that seen in English.
Finally, you have to be able to prove that you have the skills you claim to have. Experience living, working, and studying in the country of your B language is one form of proof. A degree in your language or in translation is another. Taking a test such as the ones given by the ATA, the State Department, or the United Nations is another. But I will leave the discussion of accreditation for a separate article.
What is a Translation
A turn-of-the-century Russian translator said: "Translation is like a woman, if she is beautiful, she is not faithful; if she is faithful, she is not beautiful." I hope you will ignore the blatant sexism in the statement and instead see one of the kernels of truth in translation. Translators must strike a balance between fidelity to the source text and readability in the target language. We have all seen material that is so obviously translated as to sound awkward in our native languages, and in some cases as to bear enough hallmarks of the source language as to be readily identifiable as coming from it. The best translation is the one that no one recognizes as a translation. In other words, the document should read as though it were written in the target language originally. This implies, by extension, that the translator's time and effort are transparent, and the translator ends up being invisible. In other words, you do your best work when no one realizes you have done anything.
Achieving this level of translation is challenging, to say the least. Imagine walking a tightrope blindfolded during a wind storm, with people throwing heavy objects at you and shaking the rope. This represents the balancing act. Now add to it the often unreasonable deadline which agencies require of translators by having someone behind you on the rope poking you in the seat of your pants with a pitchfork. Sound frustrating? It can be. But if you enjoy a challenge and know how to deal with your languages, it is not too bad after you have been at if for a while (I suppose the same can be said for tightrope walking).
The trick is to let your clients decide what they want. Since they have to live with the results of your work, let them choose. Patiently explain to them the options they have, how long each might take, and how much each possible version will cost. They will decide if they want a literal, if unreadable, translation or if they want a Pulitzer Prize-winning text.
If your client can't decide, doesn't know, or won't tell you, then follow the advice of Buddha and take the middle path. This is easier with some languages and some subject areas than others. Although most people think that technical material is easiest for stylistic considerations, consider this. Academic style varies from nation to nation. In English, we generally present our thesis, then give the evidence, develop the argument, and then reach the conclusion. However, in Japanese, we usually present a vague thesis, give the evidence slowly with lots of discussion, and then reach some tentative statement about the thesis in the form of a conclusion. Other differences exist among other language pairs. Somehow you have to deal with these differences.
Another potential pitfall with technical translation is that often the client cannot let you see or touch the object in question. If you are translating a computer system manual, it is very helpful to see and even work a little with the system. The same holds for a video game, home audio component, or for that matter a scanning electron microscope, which I realize is hardly something you want in your home, but I have translated manuals and technical specifications for such technology. Sometimes seeing the product in question is not possible, the system or software may still be in development, so you are effectively flying blind, trying to land yourself at a destination you have never seen. You might have to create terminology for the system, only to find that the client wants something else. You then have to go back and change everything you did.
The most difficult problem is when you encounter something in one language that does not exist in the other. Financial instruments, legal procedures, government and business structures, and so on vary from nation to nation and culture to culture. Although standard glossaries exist for the most commonplace of these, in other words those that you might hear about on Headline News, translators are usually dealing with new or specialized material and information, so you might be stuck having to christen something on your own, or leave it in the A language and put in a translator's note explaining what the term means.
There is a Golden Triangle in any form of business. It is an equilateral triangle (meaning that all three sides are the same size), with the first side being Quality, the second, Time, and the last, Price. If you consider an ideal project to be a balance of all three, and therefore rest in the center of the triangle, you can see what happens when you want to lower costs.