Monday, October 30, 2006

A Visible Translator – Robert Fagles

A major issue in translation in recent years has been the in/visibility of the translator. Previously, the general attitude was that translators should be invisible; in other words, their names and backgrounds weren’t important, since they were just workers there to serve the text. This, of course, is related to the supposed desire for an invisible translation, which means that it shouldn’t be obvious that a text is a translation; a translation should “flow” and should read just as if it were a document that had been written in the target language.

Both of these concepts – the invisible translation and the invisible translator – are debatable, and have been rightfully challenged, in a variety of ways. Some translators today insist on including forewords, afterwords, footnotes, or some other paratext in order to make themselves and their work visible to readers. Other translators insist that their names be printed on the title pages, or even on the covers, of any books they translate, to show that they are equal partners with an important role to play and that they deserve recognition. And still others write letters of complaint or explanation when reviews of their own or other translators’ work are published with only a brief mention of the fact that the book is a translation, or no mention of this at all.

So it seems clear that some progress is being made when the New York Times features an article all about a translator. Robert Fagles is the well known translator of, among other works, “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” and now “The Aeneid,” and both “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” became best-sellers, surprisingly in a country that generally eschews both translations and classics. Despite these facts, one might have expected just a review of his new translation, with perhaps a sentence or two with information about Mr. Fagles, so it is a nice change to see an article that focuses primarily on the translator and that even briefly looks at the challenges of translation (in this case, Mr. Fagles says, the distinct voices, and sustaining them, were the particular difficulties).

I’m hoping for more such articles that make translators and their work more visible.

Friday, October 27, 2006

A Babel Fish That Doesn't Quite Babble Yet

The New Scientist reports that some researchers believe they’ve found an automatic translator. This device recognizes phonemes, and then words, and converts them to the other language. So far, the researchers have gotten the system to recognize about 100 Mandarin words that it then translated to English or Spanish. The program apparently has about 62% accuracy.

While translation technology has certainly developed a lot in recent years and this latest idea is interesting, I think it’s safe to say a real Babel fish has not yet arrived, so simultaneous interpreters (and the rest of us who work with translation in some way) are still needed.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Powdered Eggs and Omelettes

Yesterday I went to a lecture by Alistair Elliot, an English poet and translator. He had an interesting metaphor for translation. Mr. Elliot said that translating was like having powdered egg and trying to reconstitute it with water to make it resemble something like the original egg. Though it sounds poetic, I’m not sure that this is really such an apt metaphor, since it suggests that translations are always inferior to the originals. Powdered eggs, after all, can never be real eggs and they can never quite match the taste, the smell, or the consistency, no matter what you do to them. It’s true that a translation can never be the precise equivalent of the original, but I think most good translations deserve more than to be called powdered eggs. Translators take eggs and crack them open, then add a few ingredients in an attempt to make a good dish out of them. The dish recognizably includes eggs, but isn’t exactly eggs anymore. Maybe we can consider translations omelettes, rather than powdered eggs.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Advice from T.S. Eliot

According to today’s Writer’s Almanac, it was on this day that poet Denise Levertov was born. Apparently, she wrote a poem when she was 12 that she then sent to T.S. Eliot. He “advised her to read poetry in a foreign language, and to keep on writing.” This is good advice for anyone interested in language or writing: learning foreign languages and reading work in them helps us expand our own understanding of life and our creative abilities. Since no two languages have the exact same vocabulary, which means they don’t have the same worldviews or priorities, we can always learn something from other languages.

So any translator who wants to improve his or her skills should take Mr. Eliot’s advice and read deeply in other languages, and keep on translating.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Speaking of Cheapness…

I don’t usually write about interpretation, but this article relates to my last post, about publishers not being willing to spend the money for quality work.

For those who can’t read Swedish, I can summarize the article as follows: Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi gave a speech at the
G├Âteborg book fair last month. She speaks Farsi, so an interpreter was needed to translate her words to Swedish. Time and money were not spent on finding a proper interpreter for her, so someone who speaks Dari and Pashto was hired instead. This interpreter could not manage the Farsi, and apparently made something of a mess of the speech. She was finally replaced by another interpreter. However, this one was Norwegian. So the people in the audience then had to try to understand the Norwegian, when they ought to have had a good Farsi-Swedish interpreter from the beginning.

Clearly, this kind of thing should not happen at all, but the fact that it happened to a Nobel Prize laureate at a major literary event speaks volumes, to use an apt phrase, about how people don’t recognize the importance of interpretation and translation and aren’t educated enough about what is required in order to do the job well. The book fair organizers probably waited until the last minute to even think about finding an interpreter and then didn’t realize that there are a variety of Middle Eastern languages and that an interpreter of Dari may be able to understand Farsi competently but is not qualified enough to interpret between it and Swedish.

So we translators and interpreters need to find more ways of
educating our customers. Any ideas?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

One More Post on Pamuk and Translation

To continue briefly with discussing Orhan Pamuk and translation, I’d like to point you to this article, entitled Found in Translation (thank you, Erika Dreifus, for sending it on!).

The article is interesting on its own since it interviews both translators and authors about the translation of literature, but it is especially relevant as it touches on why the English translations of Pamuk’s work are so important, as discussed in my last post:

While his work has been translated into more than 40 languages, Pamuk pays special attention to the English translations. "Many times, I have learned that a foreign translation did not come from my native language but from the English version. This can be a problem, so it is very important that I have a good relationship with my English translator."

Unfortunately, the article doesn’t delve further into this (and it would have probably been beyond the piece’s scope, anyway), but, as already mentioned, I do think it is disappointing that publishing companies rely on relay translations. This is probably because of the high cost and difficulty of finding experienced translators with the right language combinations, so the solutions seem to me to be to encourage students to learn more languages from an early age (and for schools to not just focus on the ‘big’ languages) and for publishers to realize the importance of a good translation and the need to spend money on it.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Translation and the Nobel Prize

I am not sure how many, if indeed any at all, members of the Swedish Academy can read Turkish. I doubt that all the members know Turkish, which suggests that when the Academy chose Orhan Pamuk as this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, some of the members had read his works in translation, presumably Swedish translation. Clearly, this must influence how they experienced his fiction.

What’s more, I recently heard that the Swedish publishers of Mr. Pamuk’s books offered such a small fee to potential Turkish to Swedish literary translators that they were forced instead to rely on English to Swedish translators. In other words, the Swedish publications are most likely translations of translations (Turkish to English to Swedish).

I am not criticizing the Academy’s choice of Mr. Pamuk, but simply pointing out that the publishing world and their concern for the bottom line is apparently such that the work of major authors has to be translated via relay translation, which naturally distances it even more from the original. We know how much can be lost in translation as it is, so translating over two or more languages seems even more difficult and risky.

I also wonder how these facts – that Mr. Pamuk’s novels were probably not read in the original by all the Academy members, that some of his works were probably translated from English to Swedish rather than directly from Turkish (and this may be true of other languages as well) – affect the Swedish Academy’s annual decision. Surely the esteemed members of the Academy can read languages other than Swedish and English, but they can’t together cover all the world’s languages and literatures, so they have to use translations. That’s understandable, but I think that at the very least, the publishing world, and the Swedish Academy, should try to avoid relay translations. It may be more expensive for the publishers, but the results will surely be worthwhile.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Nobel Prize, I.B. Singer, and Yiddish

Thinking about the Nobel Prize in literature and about the “Last Words” article mentioned recently, I recalled Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Nobel speech of 1978. Singer wrote in what was considered a dying language – that is, Yiddish – and in his speech he referred to what is important and special about his language.

Among other things, he said: “Yiddish has not yet said its last word. It contains treasures that have not been revealed to the eyes of the world. It was the tongue of martyrs and saints, of dreamers and Cabalists – rich in humor and in memories that mankind may never forget. In a figurative way, Yiddish is the wise and humble language of us all, the idiom of frightened and hopeful Humanity.”

Yiddish – along with many other languages – has not yet said its last words. As I said in my post about the “Last Words” article, we simply shouldn’t let that happen.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Nobel Prize in Literature

The Nobel Prize in literature will be announced in the next week, and it will be exciting to see who receives it. In Sweden, the general feeling towards the literature prize seems to be that the winner is usually someone who isn’t so well known and that the Swedish Academy tries to make some sort of statement with their choice each year. For example, for the past couple of years, many people have thought than an Arab author would be chosen, with the Syrian poet Adonis mentioned frequently as a strong candidate. Whether all that’s true or not, I know I personally find the announcements and ceremonies fun to watch, and I enjoy reading and seeing interviews with current and past winners in all the categories.

For translators, the literature prize is especially interesting. The winner of the literature prize naturally gets a lot of publicity and a larger audience, and this almost always requires translations of his or her work. If the author writes in a less common language or has a very distinct style, publishing companies have to scramble to find translators as soon as the announcement is made.

So are there any guesses about who will win this year?

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Against Last Words

In the most recent New York Times magazine, Walter Benn Michaels published an article entitled “Last Words.” In it, he writes that it doesn’t matter if languages die out. One language is as good as another, he thinks, so people can simply switch over to another language. As a translator and someone interested in languages, however, I have to disagree.

As we well know, there exist no two languages with an exact one-to-one equivalence. If there did, translators wouldn’t be needed. People could simply look up each word in a bilingual dictionary and translate it directly. That’s how easy it would be to communicate with people from other languages and cultures. And if all languages had the same view of the world and of life – and this would likely have to be the case if we all had the same ideas and concepts but just used different terms for them – there probably would be one world culture.

But that is not the case. Each language that exists offers a unique way of experiencing life; each culture expresses its outlook and its beliefs through the way it creates and uses its tongue. At some point, most translators have surely come across an “untranslatable” word or concept, which means something so culture-specific that it is hard to find a translation for it. The Swedish word “lagom” is often given as an example. One could argue that “lagom,” which means something like “not too much, not too little, but just right,” reveals something about the Swedish character, and explains, among other things, why Sweden has prided itself on being a neutral country. If Swedish no longer existed, according to Michaels’ view, Swedes and their descendants could just find a new language to use, and that would be just as good a way for them to express themselves. While it is true that Swedish is no better and no worse than any other language, think what would be lost if Swedish was not used any more. Without the word “lagom,” and all other Swedish words, the uniquely Swedish way of seeing the world would disappear.

Obviously, this loss would not just affect Swedes (or the speakers of whichever tongue was no longer used). The diversity of languages that exists in our world is beneficial for us all, because we can learn from other peoples and they way they live and experience the world. Rather than not caring when a language dies, we should work to learn and preserve languages. Let’s not allow any more languages to speak their “last words.”

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Educating the Customer

In the most recent issue of the Translation Journal, I have an article entitled ‘Educating the Customer.’ I’ve posted it below, but there are other interesting articles to read in the Translation Journal, so check it out. And let me know if you have any other ideas on how to educate customers!

Educating the Customer

“$35 to translate that? I heard there are computer programs that can do the same thing,” a potential customer complained to me once. It wasn’t the first time someone had said something along those lines. “My colleague was very pleased with your work,” another person told me, “but I found someone who could do it much cheaper.” While many customers don’t seem to know much about the translation process, a surprising number of them do seem to have pretty firm ideas about who can translate and how much it should cost.

I’ll never forget the Friday night when a customer e-mailed me a bunch of documents at 10 p.m. with instructions to have everything translated by Monday morning. He had not asked me if I was available to translate that weekend, if I was proficient in the field the documents covered, or even how much it would cost. I wrote him back within the hour (yes, I was actually working then anyway!) to tell him that because his assignment was a weekend rush job it would cost more than usual, and he sent me an angry response in the middle of the night. “I suspect that you and I have vastly different ideas about working together,” he wrote. “There is no way I am paying that amount.”

In May, at the annual conference for the Swedish Association of Professional Translators, translator David Rumsey gave a lecture about the United States translation market. Something he mentioned was that one reason why the American market is large but underdeveloped is because there are pervasive myths there about what exactly translation involves. Mr. Rumsey mentioned that many Americans believe that translation is simply “typing in a foreign language,” and others think anyone can do it (say, the secretary whose grandpa came from Puerto Rico, or the Chinese chef at a restaurant), and still others have heard that there’s translation software that’s just as good as, or possibly better than, actual people. Mr. Rumsey may consider these false beliefs American, but the fact is that they are not unique to the United States. Many translators I’ve spoken to, whether from Sweden, England, the United States, or elsewhere, have shared tales about customers who claimed they’d go find “some student” or “ask the foreign neighbor for help” rather than pay a professional translator to do the job correctly.

If so many translators have stories like these, the question then becomes how to educate customers about what translation really is and why it is worthwhile to pay for professional services. To start off, translators can include detailed information about their background, their work methods, and their opinions about translation in any marketing material they use, including their websites. This sounds obvious, but there are people who think that their job title means enough on its own, or that since translation is necessary and important, it can sell itself. While some customers may simply skim over whatever you write and instead just request an estimate, many are curious and will read the text. If you have been to law school and specialize in legal texts, for example, or if you have translated a dozen novels, or if you have attended programs in translation, or if you worked as an engineer for 15 years before becoming a translator of technical manuals, announce those facts and describe what they mean for you as a translator; potential clients will be impressed and will know that you clearly are qualified for the job and will expect to be paid accordingly. You can also write about why translation is important and how your services will help the customers. If you translate grades for students who want to apply to study abroad, point out that you are certified, or if you work primarily for corporate clients, tell them that if they expect to sell products to customers in other countries, it is essential that the language on their website or in their users’ manuals is correct. Give examples of poor mistranslations that they should want to avoid, and remind them that without good translation, their customers won’t trust in the quality of their products or services. By the way, take that advice yourself, too, and make sure your own website is flawless; if necessary, hire a copy editor to review any foreign language pages you have written.

Another step we translators can take is to turn down any assignments that are outside our fields of expertise. It is tempting to want to accept all jobs and to want to convince customers that we are excellent all-around translators, but honestly telling people that you work only on medical documents and never on poems, or that you are comfortable with genealogy but not with contracts, makes them more aware that each translation is a specific text with its own requirements and that special skills and knowledge are needed. Just as a heart surgeon wouldn’t think of treating a patient’s allergies and a professor of Victorian literature wouldn’t dare teach a physics course, neither should translators attempt work on subjects that are far out of their own fields. That doesn’t mean, of course, that translators can’t learn about new areas and add new specializations, but it is not professional to endeavor to do that in just a couple of days and if you don’t do a good job, you will not only have lost a customer, but also anyone he would have recommended you to. If you turn down an assignment, try to recommend an appropriate colleague for it. Both your colleague and your customer will appreciate it; the former may in turn offer you jobs in your field, and the latter will remember the extra service you provided and may return to you with other assignments in the future.

Something I try to do whenever I receive a shocked response to an estimate is to write a polite e-mail in which I explain what is involved in translation and how I arrived at the price. If a lot of research is required in order to find specific technical words or if the assignment requires you to work nights or over a weekend, tell the customer. If you are expected to complete a large job in a short period of time or if you will have to go to a university library to use reference books that are only found there, explain that. Don’t be shy about saying how many hours you anticipate a translation to take you or about describing what the work will demand of you; most people don’t understand what goes into a translation and they may, as Mr. Rumsey said, view it as merely “typing in a foreign language.” I have more than once told customers how long their documents would take me to translate, how much tax I would pay, what amount would be left over, and how much that equaled per hour of work. Some people were definitely surprised at the minimum wage the fee they offered me turned out to be, and they understood that the prices I named weren’t just randomly chosen but that they had been carefully considered. Others were interested to learn that a translator didn’t just sit down at a computer and look up words in a dictionary for a few minutes and then the assignment was finished. It is unfortunately easy to take a job for granted when you don’t know what it really involves.

In his lecture, Mr. Rumsey offered some other ideas. He suggested that translators should provide information about different languages and cultures, which would presumably help those who believe that the world is monolingual, and reduce the risks for customers. By reducing the risks, he meant that translators and translation agencies should be prepared to provide free consulting and editing, have third-party reviewers, and other such things. I personally am not sure that offering cheaper prices or free services is the best method, as people are often reluctant to start paying for something they initially received for free or for a reduced cost, and there is a strange phenomenon in which people don’t always value what they don’t pay for. But I know that some translators like to draw in customers with low prices and then convince them to remain customers, even as the prices are increased, by doing good work.


The more customers know about what translation means and what qualifies a translator to take on a given assignment, the more they understand why they ought to pay for high quality work. It’s true that some people will always want to take the cheap route, regardless of what that means for their documents, but others will realize that doing something right usually means paying for it. So make the choice easy for your customers by giving them as much information as you can about your background and experience, about what translation entails, and about your pricing system. A customer who really cares about his documents and who has been educated about translation is less likely to waste your time by arguing that his friend or a computer program could do the job just as well and for half the cost. An educated customer is more likely to choose you and your services, and to gladly pay for a job well done.