Sunday, October 30, 2011

Getting a PhD

The past two posts were about good and bad reasons for thinking you might want to get a PhD in translation studies. Here I want to write a bit more about what kind of person you should be in order to succeed in a PhD program.

I won’t lie to you. It is difficult to get a PhD and it takes a lot of effort, motivation, and perseverance, but if you are passionate and hard-working, you can probably manage it. You have to be willing to spend three or more years really focused on your topic and that means you have to choose a topic that you truly care about. It is easy to let yourself get swayed by what a supervisor suggests or wants or by a grant opportunity you spot (there are sometimes grants for people who agree to research a particular subject or agree to take on a certain job in exchange for having their PhD paid for), but I would personally recommend that you pick a topic you are fascinated by, or you will find your motivation dropping partway through the program.

You also have be able to work independently and to push yourself. You spend a lot of the time in a PhD program researching by yourself, reading and taking notes by yourself, writing up drafts by yourself, editing by yourself, and struggling by yourself. If you’re very sociable and can’t handle spending time on your own and/or if you find it hard to motivate yourself, then a PhD is not for you. If you can set goals and hunker down to make them happen, then you’d probably do well in a PhD program. A PhD is not like a BA, in that teachers won’t chase you to find out why you’re not attending seminars or turning in your work (or, okay, your supervisors will chase you a bit, but not as much as if you were an undergrad or a high school student). It’s all up to you to make sure things happen.

You also have to be the kind of person who can handle criticism. Your supervisors want to ensure that your work is as good as possible and that it will pass muster when it comes time for your defense/viva and for any possible publications. In most cases, they aren’t trying to be mean, but they may sound harsh (especially if you keep making the same mistakes and don’t seem to listen to what they are telling you). I’ve seen students cry over the criticism they get or go into a panicked spiral of self-doubt. That doesn’t help anything, although of course it’s okay to pity yourself a bit now and then. You have to learn how to hear what is useful in the feedback you get and to be able to brush yourself off, make changes, and carry on.

On the other hand, you have to believe in yourself and know how and when to defend your ideas or your way of writing. Your supervisors aren’t always right, even if they want you to think they are, and sometimes you have to tell them, “Thanks for the suggestion, but I think I’ll actually continue on in this way because…” or “I’m not so sure about that because…” You’re not always in the wrong and you have to know when to give in and when not to. You also have to learn how to defend your ideas and methods, as this is an important part of academia.

You also have to be fairly academic and interested in the theoretical side of things. You can’t just write a PhD thesis/dissertation on why you translate in a particular way or on suggestions for translators. While the practical aspect is essential and while there should be less of a practical-theoretical divide than there currently is, a PhD is pretty theoretical. I’ve talked to MA students who say they’re interested in doing a PhD, but “only if there’s no theory”. It doesn’t work like that, I’m afraid.

Mentioning the obvious, you have to know at least two languages. I’ve actually been contacted by people who’ve proposed that they study the translations of a particular author or book but without knowing the source language. Of course looking at target texts is essential, but that can’t be all you do. It’s not called “studying translations” but “translation studies” and there is a big difference there.

Ideally, you’d also be a translator yourself or at least have some experience translating. I’m sometimes surprised and dismayed by the number of people in translation studies who profess to be able to comment on what translators do but wouldn’t know how to translate themselves. An art critic has to know something about color and perspective and an expert in translation studies should know something – on a practical level – about words and context.

So, if you have many of the skills and qualities mentioned here and if you are interested in academia (whether for just a few years or for your entire career), why not apply to PhD programs? You sound like you could be a good candidate!

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post about what you actually do in a PhD program in translation studies, so you might want to check that out for more information.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Why Not to Get a PhD

This is a companion post to the last one. Here I’d like to mention bad reasons for thinking you might want to get a PhD in translation and/or signs that you are not suited to a PhD. These include, but are not limited to:

--You simply want “Dr.” before your name and “PhD” after it. Sorry, but a desire for titles is not a good reason to spend 3-10 years working on another degree. I’ve met people like this and I think they’re just wasting their time, because they don’t have the right sort of motivation.

--You aren’t interested in one particular topic. I know some people who are quite smart and engaged, but like to constantly change the subject they are engaged with. That doesn’t work in a PhD. Here you must be willing to work intensely on one subject.

--You don’t know what to do with your life, so getting another degree seems like a sensible option. Getting a PhD is a huge investment in terms of time, money, and effort, so actually, in many ways it’s not a sensible thing to do. I know people who’ve started graduate degrees because they didn’t know what else to do and partway through lost their enthusiasm. They ended up realizing that they wasted their time and money when they could have been finding a job they really enjoyed.

--You don’t enjoy translation theory or any sort of theory. If you’re purely a practice-based person – and there’s nothing wrong with you if you are! – then you probably don’t want to spend a number of years thinking on a theoretical level.

--You know you want to work solely as a translator and you already have a number of customers and/or a niche in the market. In this case, a PhD probably won’t help you too much, as you don’t seem to need much in the way of marketing your skills and services.

--You are the type of person who doesn’t like working independently. In this case, it’s hard to imagine that you will do too well as a translator, and you definitely won’t survive a PhD program, where you have to work on your own and be very motivated.

Again, as with the reasons for getting a PhD, these reasons can apply to many fields, not just translation.

See the next post for more on getting a PhD.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Why Get a PhD

I get quite a few emails from people who are considering getting a PhD in translation but want some sort of confirmation that it’s a good idea. While I obviously can’t offer that, because decisions about what to do with one’s life are extremely personal and context-dependent, I can say some of the reasons why you might want to get a PhD in translation. These include, but are not limited to:

--You want to go into academia. In most cases, you will need a PhD to get an academic job.

--You have a passion for a particular subject and want to explore it in depth. This is what a PhD is about.

--You want a qualification that will help you stand out from other translators. I know a number of translators with PhDs and they certainly say that in a glutted market, any extra qualifications or skills can help you get work instead of someone else.

--You want a qualification that will help you stand out from other writers. Some people get a PhD because they then want to write “the” book on a particular subject. Many PhDs do lead on to books based on the thesis/dissertation and having another qualification will help ensure a publisher that you are the right expert for the book.

--You love learning and would thrive in an academic environment for a number of years. Some people really enjoy attending classes, seminars, and workshops, spending time in the library, debating and discussing ideas with others, and so on. If that’s you, then getting another degree might very well suit you.

Obviously, many of these ideas are applicable to areas other than translation!

In the next two posts, I’ll write some more about getting a PhD in translation.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Diacritics Blog

I was recently sent the link to Diacritics, a new blog run by former linguistics students who are now in law school. They have posted a number of long, interesting pieces. Through their blog, I also read an interesting article about the speed of languages, and that led me to another article on how knowing more than one language can help delay the onset of Alzheimer’s. Lots of stuff to read here!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Why Translation Matters

I read Edith Grossman’s book Why Translation Matters and quite enjoyed it.

For those of us in translation already, Ms. Grossman is preaching to the choir, but she preaches so beautifully, so I recommend her book. She argues for the significance of translated work: for example, there are thousands of languages out there, though not all of them are written. Who would ever be able to read books in even a small percentage of those languages? Translation makes works available to us.

She also refers to the usual question of whether translation is possible. She writes, “It would never occur to anyone to ask whether it is feasible for an actor to perform a dramatic role or a musician to interpret a piece of music. Of course it is feasible, just as it is possible for a translator to rewrite a work of literature in another language.” (12) The question we should focus on, perhaps, is how well it can be or has been done.

Ms. Grossman also discusses xenophobia in the US and how this affects translation and, a related issue, how this is the case in the UK too. She points out that UK publishers “Anglicize” translations so they seem more British.

Other topics discussed here are how she translated Cervantes (she did not compared previous translations and she did decide to use footnotes), her work translating other authors, translating poetry in particular, her list of what she considers to be the most important translations, and her idea of how translations are never final (finality is bestowed by publishers’ due dates), among other things.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

And The Winner Is...

It's time for yet another Nobel Prize in literature. This year's winner is Tomas Transtr├Âmer. See the Nobel Prize website for more details.

What do you think?

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Not So Delicious

I love to read food magazines to get inspiration for my own cooking. One night a few months ago, I was having trouble sleeping, so I was reading an English food magazine called delicious.

I was quite shocked to suddenly see my own words on the page. delicious was doing a feature on a cookbook that I had translated, but there was no reference to the fact that this book had been translated, and there was certainly no mention of my name.

I often think that food is a way of bringing different cultures together; it’s a low-risk way of getting to know people. But we wouldn’t be able to do that without translators; translators are the ones who make recipes available to people outside a particular culture. My own translation practice has included many menus, recipes, and cookbooks over the years, and I’ve even written an article about the challenges involved in translating food.

After seeing that article in delicious, I wrote to the editor. I received a response that said that the publisher didn’t tell them it was a translation, so it wasn’t their fault. Personally, I wouldn’t accept an answer like that from my students (at the very minimum, you might look inside a cover and note who was involved in the production of a book), but I thought delicious could use the experience to learn something new, so I suggested they do an article about the translation of cookbooks. Many cookbooks in the UK are translations, but no one ever comments on that. delicious didn’t bother responding, but perhaps another food magazine will pick up the topic at some point soon.

So that was really disappointing – so disappointing, in fact, that I won’t be renewing my subscription to delicious – and it shows how much work we translators still have to do to promote our own visibility.