There and Back Again: Changes in the world of translation

There are as many definitions of translation as there are people in the world. Or, at least, as there are people who want you to hear their definition of such a pedestrian profession. Age gives you a new set of goggles to see the world every few years if you are gracious enough to let Time give you advice, that is.

Let’s assume translation has one main role, that of allowing one culture to be understood by another, and vice versa. In that sense, translation’s goal never ends as long as human cultures endure towards that end horizon we never seem to reach. That one culture needing to be understood in a different one possesses attributes, nuances and colors foreign to the receiving culture is a given. That cultural differences may be different, even shockingly surprising, is a fact that does not change. So, what does change in translating them? Processes, procedures, workflows, sales tactics, terminologies —What exactly?

The school of translation I attended in my youth was formerly called a school of languages, which reveals the fountainhead of ideas guiding the teaching of translation, imposing the models that are to be copied and passed down to professors and students, and offering up lists of authoritative books on linguistics, dictionaries, theories, etc. A closed world, you might say, almost like a serpent pursuing its own tail. Why? Even though translation was being (and continues to be) taught for several language pairs (Spanish>Italian, Spanish>German, Spanish>French, Spanish to English being the most popular), this academic bubble keeps on churning out translation graduates to an ever-encroaching global world. During my stay in Córdoba (Argentina) in 2005-2007, translation students graduating with little or no knowledge of how to present themselves to the world or understanding on the use of CAT tools was the common complaint I’ve heard. The emphasis in translation teaching was squarely set on language, grammar and texts.

My alma mater, the Facultad de Lenguas de la UNC

My alma mater, the Facultad de Lenguas de la UNC

From that school of translation of the 1980s to the Aughts of the 21st century, I saw a significant change: a university offering hundreds of Spanish, French, German or Italian translators to a nonexistent local market to the same institution offering an increasing number of Spanish translators to a globalized local market. And that brings us to a second change, that of the local or urban market, quite well defined in its physical, commercial and intellectual boundaries, converting, voluntarily or not, to one more affiliate of the global machinery of commerce. As a company, big or small, you no longer have to send representatives to foreign countries… you send your translated literature to those lands!

Moving on to an aspect with a different scope: translation itself has changed. The forces of globalized commerce, rather than bringing together different cultures, languages and cities, have brought them into closer proximity via two distinct vehicles: the English language and consumeristic technologies. In the 70s and 80s, the translated literature accompanying a product was something of a luxury or an option, but it was certainly not a commodity. In fact, if memory serves me well, reading the Spanish translation of some consumer pamphlet or manual was a singular experience that enhanced the purchase, or “purchase experience” as the marketers of today are wont to say.

This purchase or acquisition was enhanced because the translation itself revealed a level of writing, of composition, an arrangement of texts that we no longer see in assembly-lined texts produced within companies where simultaneous release or production is prime priority. The excellence in writing a piece announcing the new car model, computer or coffeemaker, for example, has been replaced with so-called quality statistics, colorful infographics and PowerPoint slides. Translations have lost their soul.

I still remember the care I needed to place on writing a single-page introductory letter to prospective buyers of the milk products my company was making for local markets, which were no longer sufficient for expansion. My boss, the sales manager, had to approve my drafts before I could commit a single word to paper via our IBM Selectric typewriter. Now companies rely more on robomail, Word templates and slick stock photography on websites to introduce themselves. Where’s the writing skill? The individualized text has become the commoditized content.

In the face of such challenges, companies intent on penetrating new and foreign markets —or that want to reintroduce themselves ­­— ­­­­would do well in securing the services of translators who are very good writers first and language experts second. People and individuals, all consumers in one way or another, still want to feel personally welcome, distinctly touched by your writing, even in the Age of Emojis.

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Filed under Commodification, Quality in translation, The business of translation, Translation as value added, Writing skills

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