Monday, February 10, 2014

Translators as Researchers

I'd forsworn writing a post this week when along came the latest issue of Babel. Babel is one of the two longest-running journals about translation, the other being the University of Montreal's Meta. They both started publication in 1955. Babel was founded by Pierre-François Caillé, who also founded the International Federation of Translators (FIT, from its French initials). So it's not surprising that its target readership is composed largely of practising Professional Translators. I have to change hats to read it. However, like most of the other translation journals I receive, it's been invaded by academics.

One of its characteristics is its breadth of scope: it's non-specialist and unprejudiced and gathers articles from all over the world. I read it especially for the articles about Arabic, and there is one or more about Chinese in every issue. But it rarely has articles on anything to do with Natural or other non-Professional Translation, which is the fault of its contributors and not of its editor.

So when I saw the title of the lead article in the current issue, Research competences in translation studies, I would have skipped it as too academic were it not that it reminded me by remote association of something we found out at the University of Ottawa in the 1980s about the minds of Professional Translators.

The University Counselling Service of the university had an educational psychologist named Louise Campagna. It happened that her brother was a Professional Translator for the government, so she had some awareness of what translation students must learn. Yet that wasn't the main reason for her interest in our students. What struck her was the relatively large number of students from our relatively small teaching unit who were coming to her with problems in their courses and doubts as to whether they should persist in the programme. So she wondered whether they had been well selected and counselled at the start. We did have admission tests, but they were all for language proficiency. (There was a prejudice against giving translating tests, on the grounds that we should not test for what students were as yet supposed to learn. A misunderstanding.)

For other professional training programmes she was used to applying 'standardised' aptitude tests, typically American, that were widely available.
Aptitude tests are structured systematic ways of evaluating how people perform on tasks or react to different situations. They have standardised methods of administration and scoring with the results quantified and compared with how others have done at the same tests.
Many of the tests are profiled for specific subjects or careers. So she searched for such a test that would be specific to translators. She couldn't find one. (I doubt whether she would find one even today.) Then she took a different tack. She looked for a test (or tests) on which students who had almost finished the programme successfully did well, and conversely with students who failed. Finally she hit on a test – I forget which one – where the nearest matching profile wasn't linguist but: researcher.

That was an eye-opener, but it's not surprising. Bear in mind that the programme was intended to train Expert Translators. Faced with translation doubts, Natural Translators can give whatever translation comes into their heads or even no translation at all. Whereas Expert Translators can't give up until they find a translation that satisfies the norms of 'good' translation, and they must devote a reasonable amount of time to the search. (Note that all this refers to written translation. Interpreting also requires research, but it has to be done differently.)

Let's take an example.

The other day my friend Brenda came to me with an official letter she'd received in Spanish. When she does that, I translate it for her immediately. I've done that ever since the time she came brandishing a letter and saying, "Look, they've given me my hospital appointment at last," but it turned out to be a summons for a hearing at the local courthouse. Like many, perhaps most, of the million Brits who live in Spain, she doesn't know any Spanish. But I'm not acting professionally for her.

The heading on the letter was Registro de Parejas de Hecho, literally Register of De Facto Couples. The term Parejas de Hecho is fairly new; but the relationship is so widespread that few Spaniards would have any difficulty understanding it and therefore attempting a natural translation of it if they speak English. I translate it for her intuitively by an English term that I'm sure she will understand. It's rather old-fashioned, but then Brenda is my age. I tell her, "The heading says, Register of Common Law Spouses." Brenda, who is in fact the widow of such a relationship, gets the message.

So far so good for a Natural Translation. But it won't do for a Professional Expert Translation. That's not what the relationship and the registers are called officially these days. I would have to – do some research. The initial finding is somewhat dazzling. Wikipedia tells me that the relationship is called a registered partnership, civil union or civil partnership, according to jurisdiction. All right, so the letter is headed Register/Registry of Registered Partnerships/Civil Unions/Civil Partnerships?
Because the norms of Professional Translation require the translator to give only one translation and not throw the choices (of which there would be many) back on the reader. How to choose? I know that Brenda is Canadian from Toronto, and that a professional English translation of her letter would probably end up with a court or a lawyer in that city. It would be best (though not essential) to use the term that those recipients are familiar with. But now there's another wrinkle: Canadian civil law varies according to province, and so does its terminology. Toronto is situated in the Province of Ontario. What do they call it in Ontario? And so on.

In all, 20 minutes of research for a single term. If Brenda were young enough to own and operate a computer, she could seek to cut the Gordian knot by submitting her letter to, say, Google Translate. GT would give her registration of domestic partners. Not much help, because it simply provides yet another alternative. And through it all I have to beware, because registered partnership is also a term in commercial law.

Do I exaggerate? Perhaps. I treasure a caricature by one of my students showing me trying desperately to explain to a class the difference between a guarantee and a warranty, both of them garantía in Spanish.

Louise wrote a paper about her research, but I don't have it in Valencia so I've had to cite from memory.

Civil union. Wikipedia. 2014.

Aptitude tests. WikiJob. 2014. Click here.


  1. Nice post for translation .I am really impressed and happy to read it .I have found Similar help from Home Care Diary blog .Their post also very helpful and great for translation.

    1. Thank you Rakib. I'll take a look at Home Care Diary.

  2. I also found much important insights in this post. Translators tasks are often much more difficult than it looks and usually there is no clear solution for the problem.

  3. Interesting. It’ll be useful for repetitive descriptions of the main characters in recurring series. That’ll be a time saver
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