Doing research as a translator

Research is a basic human skill, no Ph.D. needed to perform research. As toddlers, we researched our surroundings by using all of our senses, stumbling along the way, burning our fingertips when grasping a hot ladle or stinging our eyes while getting scrubbed and having our abundant hair washed with shampoo. We acquired knowledge through experience, or experiential learning.

Our nascent research skills get a bit stumped along the way, particularly if we’re subjected to rote learning and a sanitized, tradition-protecting educational infrastructure: we memorize and recite facts, factoids and fictions to later regurgitate them in a different format: oral lessons, multipage theses, business reports. If we’re part of a religious tradition with emphasis on certitude, all seeds of doubt be damned, we become survivalists, absorbing and internalizing received wisdom and passing it along later in life as professionals and instructors of every kind. What a critical thinker and thoughtful mind would consider outlandish ideas or impractical courses of action become mainstream thinking and knowledge, such as believing that there are two kinds of translators: those who work with agencies and those who work with premium clients.

So, what is research and how can it help us translators? During my two doctoral semesters in Portugal, I learned a thing or two about academic research and writing polished and purposeful papers. All this activity made me reflect on skills that I had exercised in other periods of my life, from my tweenage years to adulthood.

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Proper research spans our whole lifetime, not just a job’s timeline.

First, research is born of intellectual curiosity. It is intellectual as opposed—at first— to pragmatic or practical curiosity because we want to acquire new knowledge for its own sake, for the satisfaction it brings to solve a mental puzzle, even if it doesn’t have immediate real-life application. That comes later as we continue our research.

Second, research requires observation, examination and analysis. We observe a phenomenon, an event or an incongruous situation, we examine it to understand the general idea of it, then we analyze it to break it down into more digestible parts. For instance, my idea of an engine’s torque became clearer after my brother explained it as a function of a motor’s shaft, along with concepts such as idling, engine power and resistance. All these steps require a higher level of abstraction absent in glancing an article or fast-reading a white paper.

Third, research focuses on facts and conclusions, regardless of how we personally feel about the nature of our eventual discovery. While it may be acceptable to have hopes for our research on how many Emperor penguins are born in January, we have to put aside our emotions in the face of the number of dead penguins because letting our feelings influence how we view and interpret facts and design our conclusions is just unacceptable. And unprofessional.

For instance, if I say I distrust the Bureau of Labor’s percentage about the annual growth of our profession, I have to be willing to argue for and against that number, investigate how the Bureau of Labor arrived at it, what criteria were used in interpreting facts and shaping conclusions…in particular the conclusion that the profession is growing without taking into account micro and macroeconomic factors such as regional economies, universities’ rate of graduates in translation, and price dynamics at local, national and international scale. True research abhors soundbites and requires careful reading and consideration, both in very short supply among the masses of speed-loving geeks that translators tend to become in ever increasing numbers.

Fourth, research not only accepts but welcomes third-party testing of its preliminary and final assumptions. It is not enough for just one astronomer to declare the appearance of a brand-new star or exoplanet as his findings have to be independently verified by his peers in other observatories and countries. Sadly, we translators seem to depend on a popularity index: we listen more attentively to those who blog the most, who have more published books, who are more charismatic, who attend the greatest number of conferences or write more journal-published articles. Authority by SEO and search hits, not by research.

Leaving aside our global situation as translators, I’ve been considering how to explain my research methods to nontranslators. A nontranslator, such as a client, a boss, a project manager or a coworker (who, by the way, aren’t necessarily monolingual or ignorant about what translators really do) requires careful explanation of translation research that is not condescending nor uppity, one that is not too complex but not simplistic and Manichean. It is a real struggle for me because the way we translators individually do research is as intricate and mysterious as the way we process our translations in our heads before we write them down.

Those of us who drive on a daily basis may describe the series of decisions taken as simply driving, without dividing it into all its component parts like getting into a car, putting the stick in drive, checking our mirrors, buckling up before pushing the gas pedal, not to mention the myriad decisions we make aided by our eyes and ears, scanning in front of the vehicle and sideways, reading the intention of the other drivers surrounding us, feeling the wheel in the palms of our hands and knowing, almost instinctively, how much to turn it every which way and with what force or gentleness. All this is part of what we can call the topology of driving. We do something similar with translation. And research.

If a nontranslator asks us how we came up with a term or a turn of phrase in our translation, we simply say we found some clues in our specialized dictionaries or by reading industry articles or catalogs. But research is much more than that. You and I conduct this research in different ways depending on topic, deadline and availability of reliable resources. To many clients and translation buyers, the key mot juste is terminology or industry terms. They demand we know their jargon, buzzwords and language, how they call this thingamajik or that process. A company’s product is supported by a variety of different texts, from user guides to instructions to sales materials, but to a client, a business owner, coworker or project manager, all these texts share the same terms and the same brand. They’re right…and wrong.

For instance, Huawei makes routers for “innovative enterprise applications from small to super huge scale.” Words such as innovative and super huge scale are marketingspeak, but they’re part of the branding strategy for this company. If the translation of this text does not have words with the same oomph or impact as the English, a client might consider it a translation failure, despite all of our careful research. It’s the same with clunky English imports such as big data and [movie] streaming. They’re often left in English because, well, the translator couldn’t find an equally impressive Spanish or French or German equivalent, as if languages’ sole virtue for making global understanding possible resided on import words and false cognates.

Confronted with the task of explaining how I do research for my translations or how I come about with a sentence where a certain brand- or marketing-language word does not appear, I have to learn to go down into the thinking strata of my mind and emerge with the tools and methods I use to inquire about new concepts and express them in writing. However, even if I have a cogent narrative to offer, I have to run it through several filters to avoid coming across as a know-it-all spewing condescending prattle.

An uphill, ongoing challenge, this is. But a particular aptitude common to all translators is at my disposal, regardless of my personality or whether I am popular or not. The ability to translate, in its broadest sense, a complicated concept into an understandable one. Since I translate for a given reader or audience and tune my writing to their level of understanding, so should I proceed with filtering my innermost mental mechanics on research to provide not just a clear explanation but a persuasive one.

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Filed under Branding, Buzzword, Research in translation, Research methods, The craft of translation, Translation as writing

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