Category Archives: Misinformation on translator role

Taking the pulse of translation theories

If you are a translator or interpreter going to the upcoming ATA Conference in San Francisco, USA, consider performing this unscientific but social experiment: ask any of the veteran translators at the hotel lobby if they have a preferred translation theory.

If you get a hesitant reply, a stare or a shrug, don’t be discouraged. Or surprised. The more veteran the translator is, or the more steeped he/she is in the latest technologies or sales pitches for translation services, the less interested our colleague will be in (insert a derisive pause here) any translation theory.

Why is that? Glad you asked, because one of my current objectives as a PhD student at the Universidade de AveiroUniversidade de Nova joint doctoral program in Translation and Terminology is to listen to, learn about and discuss relevant translation theories. By relevant theories I mean concepts that ordinary translators can apply in their workflows. For example, Eugene Nida’s literal-and-dynamic (or functional, as Nida claimed in later years) equivalence theory is rooted on biblical translations, a subject hardly relevant to commercial or technical translators today. That doesn’t make it irrelevant, however. But that’s a discussion for another day.

The writing of a translation is where the translation theories (i.e. our writing choices) are often applied.

The writing of a translation is where the translation theories (i.e. our writing choices) are often applied.

And why, you may ask, translation theories should be relevant to the most important people in our profession —namely, our customers? They are, I would say, indirectly relevant to them. They don’t need to know them, but we do in order to base our translation decisions and provide adequate explanations for them.

One reason why exposing a customer to even a basic discussion of translation theories is unadvisable is that it can be dangerously confusing. For example, some customers already (and inadvertently) conflate two concepts: word-for-word (or literal) translation with a translation that is faithful to the original. While a customer may ask you to do a faithful translation (faithful to the meaning or spirit or intent of the original text —which, in Nida’s view, would be called a functional translation or, in Christiane Nord’s words, an instrumental translation— the selfsame client may bristle at not finding the same words (sometimes they’re false friends or false cognates) in your translation.

And some terminologists and terminology software advocates tend to muddle things up in this scenario by overemphasizing the importance or hierarchical relevance of a wordlist or glossary, or worse, by overselling the consistency between texts.

Studying and discussing translation theories and their specialized (i.e. arcane) terminology is par for the course in academic circles for translation studies. I recently expressed my view to one of my professors (in my very poor Portuguese, mind you) that we need to be the bridges between the world and the translation studies field to share these translation theories in an accessible language. I was given a reply that best attests to the surprise of making translation theories more accessible to the layman (“translation theory does not have esoteric language”). Still, that’s one of my objectives.

If you are a buyer of translation services, you may not need to know translation theories but you already know whether a text is well written or not. If you like to write, if you enjoy reading a well-composed document, you’re already knowledgeable in writing theory. The main bridge I propose for you to meet me half way is writing well for its intended purpose. I hope to meet you there soon.

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Filed under Business of writing, Consistency, Customer relationship, Literal translation, Misinformation on translator role, Translation theory, Writing skills

The damage “translator training” is doing to the profession

A recent Proz poll asked whether we translators attended courses to improve our expertise. Most of my colleagues answered that, yes, they have attended courses or training sessions. I was reminded of some thoughts I’ve been pondering regarding translator and interpreting training, views that I have been revising mentally since May this year after a series of job interviews with a private American university.

I was being interviewed for the position of adjunct professor of translation and interpreting. I made it clear that I do not know how to teach interpretation but they were interested in seeing me personally because of my years of translator experience. I was to give a 45-minute class which was to be monitored by the hiring manager and program director. That evening, she gave me this assessment:

“Mario, your class was good but it was more like a lecture, not the kind of classes we teach here. Here we apply the student-centered approach to teaching. Your teaching style is more instructor-based, the European kind, but I’m certain you will be able to adapt.”

-What preadmission exams students are required? —I asked.

-TOEFL, of course, for foreign students. For the MA students, the GRE.

-I understand that both TOEFL and GRE tests have a vocabulary and a writing component for English. What about Spanish, since the position is for English-Spanish translation education?

-We currently do not have a Spanish writing evaluation.

Back home, I considered these answers. I was surprised at the absence of a writing test for Spanish since this is an English-Spanish translation and interpreting undergraduate and graduate program.

About a week ago (mid August 2015), the current ATA president shared her thoughts about foreign language education and whether we will fund the next generation of interpreters and translators. Her June 2015 opening paragraphs are a call to action:

ATA Chronicle June 2015 - Ms Walsh remarks about foreign language education

The proportion of high school students who have studied formal courses in a foreign language is indeed quite low. The first sentence is a gentle reprimand to the states that do not require a foreign language as high school graduation requisite. What worries me is the rest of the percentages being inserted in strange ways. More on that later.

In that LinkedIn discussion opened by the ATA president, I wrote that “fluency in foreign languages does not necessarily equal or include writing skills in a foreign language. We keep singing the same bilingualism song. How about the ATA foster a more writing, less talking in foreign languages so we can prepare future translators better?” My criticism encountered what I consider a baffling response:

Fluency in a foreign language includes reading, writing, listening and speaking ability. Much of the predicted growth is already materializing in interpreting sectors, making the spoken v.s written debate moot.

So now being fluent in a language automatically implies writing ability? A high school course covering French or Spanish may focus on the basics, just like a continuing education language course in college. Last year, I took a college French course that required attending a 3-hour session twice a week for almost 3 months. I was happy with the challenge of learning a new language and practicing it with my fellow students. The teacher is an engaging instructor who spent some years in France. I came away with a certain degree of fluency in French, situational bilingualism I call it: what to do at a restaurant, how to find a train station or ask questions to get to the post office, how to address younger or older people, friends and strangers alike in France, etc. But was the course geared to teach me how to write a letter in French? No, it was not. So, I was functionally bilingual but only in the verbal sense.

Back to the private university I interviewed for last May. Prospective students are expected to be fluent in a given language (Spanish in this case), and that implies knowing how to write in Spanish. However, there is no test to assess that competence. Moreover, the courses are designed to get the students to translate from day one and to familiarize themselves with the technology tools of the trade, such as translation memories, glossary creation and maintenance, as well as specializing in certain areas such as medicine, finance, software localization, etc.

In my view and with the benefit of having undertook years of formal translation courses and seminars, this kind of instruction is doomed to fail because it just tries to fit the bilingual circle into the square of actual translation education. There is no theory, no stylistics, no writing practice to speak of. If Spanish grammar is taught, students are already expected to have an advanced knowledge and practice of it. But without a way to assess it, how well prepared are they to absorb college-level Spanish grammar classes, let alone put them to work in a translation context?

In my years of being a member of the American Translators Association, I’ve indeed associated myself with very bright individuals and colleagues, several of them holders of MAs and PhDs in their chosen field and/or in translation or interpretation. However, whenever there has been discussion of preparing future translators or improving current ones in their knowledge of translation techniques and methods, the umbrella word, the operative term is training, which I find utterly simplistic and misleading.

By definition, training is the method to acquire mainly technical skills and takes place in a short period of time, from a few hours to a few weeks or months. In the professions, training is often called professional development. If you wanted to learn how to create floral arrangements, your training would probably take you a few weeks. On the other hand, a complex procedure such as Lasik surgery requires a degree in medicine, in Ophthalmology, a residency and further training. However, the word training in the latter context does not present the problems I’m citing in the area of translation for a number of reasons, mainly because ophthalmologists are a special kind of eye doctor (i.e. they are not optometrists!) and their profession is highly regulated. They are not considered medical specialists just because they pepper their conversation with cataract this and presbyopia that. People do not hold them in high esteem and pay high fees to see them because they wear white smocks or fancy nametags.

Think of the last plumber or electrician you hired for your home. Did you ask for a copy of his certificate or license? Electricians, for one, have to have a license number to practice, and many of the workers in the construction trades, from HVAC technicians to welders, need to be bonded. These are visible signs attesting to the practitioner’s training and knowledge. But if you take an interpreter or a translator, how does she prove her competence? Do you ask for an educated conversation in French or German, a letter of recommendation from a teacher or professor, or a writing test or a diploma? Chances are you only take her word for it. Maybe you ask her if she is a member of the corresponding professional association. A detailed person may offer her business card with the association’s seal and membership number but, do you call or write the association (NAJIT for interpreters, ATA for translators and interpreters) to verify the practitioner’s credentials? No, you will just take her word for it and focus on her being bilingual and fluent in a foreign language that you do not understand.

Hiring someone to perform a service based on this criteria would be irresponsible for a business owner, wouldn’t you agree? However, that’s exactly how many American businesses and organizations hire translators and interpreters: on the strength of their bilingualism and foreign language fluency.

I would propose that, in the field of preparing and educating current and future translators and interpreters, we take a step up and leave the word training behind. In practice, a translator or interpreter hits her stride on her fifth year of full-time practice, with or without a college degree. Right now, my proposal, my challenge, is for translators and interpreters associations and groups to take translation and interpreting education very seriously, acknowledging the inadequacy of current so-called certification programs blithely given at many American universities and colleges. I also want to make this challenge extensive to the American Translators Association to help dispel the misassociation people have between the word bilingual and the professions translator and interpreter. If the ATA is truly concerned about foreign language degrees in America, it should start going beyond the buzzwords of bilingualism and translation training and focus on the actual competencies required, mainly excellent writing skills in the languages involveds and the means to assess those skills in a way that a member of the public, a business owner, a government official, a hospital administrator who does not write in that language may find useful and purposeful.

Finally, a word or two about the misuse of statistics. In the “Fewer than 8% of college students study a foreign language” paragraph I cited above, I saw two important data points: that only 10 U.S. states require a foreign languages as graduation requisite for high school, and that 8% of college students (or a lower proportion) take up to studying a foreign language. We are not told what level these foreign language courses are: are they beginner level (such as the French course I took in 2014)? Are they mid-level or advanced level? What are the goals or expected outcomes?

The opening argument is that high school graduates with no foreign language skills represent “a skill level far too low with which to work.” We are left to guess what the author meant by that: what skill level is far too low with which kind of position or area to work? We are left in the dark.

Then two more statistics are thrown in to close the argument, the growth rate in translation and interpreting jobs since 2005 (a floating statistic I call it, because the reader is not given any reference framework to compare) and the US BLS prediction of 46% growth for these professions from 2012-2022. If you and I were government officials, we might be impressed with such large percentages…but we are not. Let’s see the actual statistic with some context:

US BLS Occupational outlook for translators

Notice the following:

The entry-level education (a BA degree), none as work experience in a related occupation, short-term on-the-job training as on-the-job training (remember what I said about training?) and the paragraphs under What interpreters and translators do and How to be come an interpreter or translator. Especially troubling is the statement: “the most important requirement is to have native-level fluency in English and at least one other language.” So it circles back to what I was saying regarding fluency in a foreign language.

At ATA conferences I’m always hearing talk about how little people and companies and governments understand our role to be, what little professional respect we are given, how demeaning it is to be considered just another bilingual professional. One immediate step or campaign the ATA’s Public Relations Committee could take is to contact the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and start correcting this wrong image. Otherwise, the ATA in practice is more like the American Bilingual Professionals Association.

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Filed under ATA, Misinformation on translator role, Professional development, Translation as writing, Translator Education, Writing skills

Translation Myths —Putting bilingualism to the test

As translators, we often are asked to do terminology research, as if translation involved only the word-for-word exchange of specialized terms. But this is a myth to discuss some other time. Let’s talk about bilingualism.

Bilingualism is the ability to speak in two languages. Knowing a few phrases in German while your native language is English or Italian does not count; you have to be able to express yourself freely and richly in two languages. Many European citizens have done this since childhood: growing up in a geography inhabited by multiple languages and dialects makes learning more than one mother tongue unavoidable. From my conversations with people from different European extractions, being a polyglot or multilingual speaker is the norm.

Some colleagues of mine tend to pooh-pooh Americans in general because they seem disinclined and disinterested in learning other languages, but this is an incorrect perception as well as a sweeping generalization. Because language learning is highly dependent on geography, we can’t blame a guy in Idaho who never cared to study or speak Croatian, especially if the number of Croatian residents in Idaho is small.

But then, you will say that that is not excuse! You know many monolingual Americans in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago who are surrounded by thousands of Latinos, Chinese or Russian-speaking folks yet they never cared to learn those languages. Point taken. But let’s discuss an often neglected characteristic of bilingualism: orality or the distinct activity of expressing oneself verbally in more than one language. Translation is writing in a foreign language with the flair, style, vocabulary knowledge and grammar capabilities belonging to that foreign language. Being bilingual has nothing to do with having the ability to write in a foreign language properly, or to write in it at all. Let me demonstrate.

I am a bilingual person because I can freely express myself in both English and Spanish. Here’s a small proof: explaining my bilingualism

Before you click on the YouTube link, can you easily “see” or “read” how bilingual I am? Of course not. Why not? Because they are spoken words. And the way we all speak words is far different from the way we commit them to paper. If you were to meet me at a coffeeshop to tell me about your latest vacation adventure in The Poconos (NY),  your speech would be full of ums, ahs, ohs, what-did-I-says and other filler expressions. Because the content is so illustrative, emotional and personally colorful, and because the communication is instantaneous (ergo, I am listening as you are speaking), we don’t need full stops, commas, semicolons or paragraphs, none of those structural strictures. It all makes sense, right?

Then why do you insist on calling me a bilingual translator? Why are your job postings inviting submissions from native Spanish/Chinese/Dari/Pashto speakers to work as translators, when you know full well that it’s apples and oranges? Translators write; interpreters and bilingual individuals speak.

Speaking of writing, how difficult is it for you or your staff to compose a sensible sentence to say what you really mean? If you want an interpreter for a call center or for tech support, say so, don’t ask for a translator. If you want a bilingual who can translate your documents, software, etc., use the word TRANSLATOR. Repeat after me: translators translate and write.

American businesspeople pride themselves in being pragmatic, direct, sensible and in delivering for the bottom line. That’s why I’m speaking to you in your pragmatic and direct and sensible language: call us for what we are and what we do. When in doubt, speak to us first. Thank you.

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Filed under Bilingual staff, Bilingualism vs. Translation, Misinformation on interpreter role, Misinformation on translator role, Writing skills

Be a translator or interpreter, but not both

When I was in college, I had a romanticized outlook on interpreting —UN interpreters were the only kind to admire. I admit, it’s a Hollywoodesque assumption, since there are many kinds of interpreters: ASL interpreters, court interpreters, Social Security Administration interpreters, federal interpreters, escort interpreters, and so on.

Again, when I was in college pursuing my BA in English and Translation Studies, I firmly believed that I was acquiring a foundation on both professions, translation and interpreting. I should have known better, since interpreting-related classes were relegated to the last couple of semesters in my four-year university syllabus.

Most educated Americans know the difference between a translator and an interpreter; if the media misuses either term, it’s either because of an innocent semantic error or simply done on purpose, correctly assuming that the ordinary reader knows what an interpreter does as separate from what a translator does. I see no serious problem here, and only the curmudgeons among us linguists will object.

What I’m concerned about, however, is the comingling of both roles in classifieds directed at translators and interpreters. I think businesses and other organizations that seek out translators to play the role of an interpreter instead of, or in addition to, that of a translator are doing themselves a serious disservice. Catholic Health Initiatives recently posted the following classified:

Medical Interpreter1400017915

This position will provide interpreter services for patients, families, staff, visitors, physicians, and others regarding consents, medical treatments, discharges, instructions, and other concerns as needed.  Also responsible for the process of identifying, prioritizing, and completing translation of documents from English/Spanish, Spanish/English. May also facilitate the translation of documents in other languages as well.  Other duties include assisting the supervisor in problem-solving with patient and family communication needs and proactively identifying opportunities for improving services to our limited or non-English speaking patient and family population

big_earWhy not call it what it is, medical translator and interpreter? By analyzing the job summary above, one may reasonably conclude that they are, in fact, looking for an interpreter, with ancillary translator duties to be fulfilled. What I see is a blending of not two but three roles here: interpreter, translator and community facilitator.

Another institution, Borrego Health in El Cajon, CA, is seeking a behavioral health translator (Arabic). The classified reads thus:

JOB DESCRIPTION

Borrego Health is seeking a Translator for their Behavioral Health Department.  The Behavioral Health Translator will be responsible providing translation services for the Behavioral Health Department.  This position will work closely with the Behavioral Health Department in providing mental health services to a particular clinic.

QUALIFICATIONS

  1. Several years experience in the medical field preferably psychiatry/psychology.
  2. Certified Translator preferred, in Arabic.
  3. CPR Card from American Heart Association.

Here’s the problem: there is no such thing as a behavioral health translator in the same way there are behavioral health medical counselors or nurses, for which candidates surely have solid credentials in the medical field. Not so translators, unless you consider physicians or nurses who happen to be, and work as, translators. Borrego Health should rename the position to behavioral health assistant/counselor with interpreting skills for the sake of honesty. In addition, Borrego Health would do well in consulting the American Translators Association (ATA) for the current state of the art of translation certifications, since there is no ATA certification for the English-to-Arabic language pair at this time.

Different roles demand different skills. The crux of the matter is that different sets of skills are required to perform as a translator and as an interpreter. Given the nature of the printed or written media, translators need to be more analytical and precise, as well as use the right presentation to display their translated texts. On the other hand, interpreters have to be quick on their feet and deliver the interpreted phrases almost simultaneously or in quick succession; therefore, they do not have the luxury to be too analytical about what they’re hearing. Their delivery is situational and very close to what the author of the original phrase is saying. That immediacy is a keen advantage to an interpreter because he or she can quickly use the feedback gotten from audience observation and adjust the delivery according to the audience needs.

Translators don’t have the benefit of proximity to the creator of the original text. Because of that, the original text is far more structured than a verbal statement and demands precision and research for successful delivery. While you may be all too familiar with translators who work as clinical or court interpreters or vice versa, very few translators have the inner resources to succeed as interpreters, and vice versa. It is not a matter of knowing and speaking two or more languages. Professional translators are trained to write well, whereas professional interpreters are trained to speak well.

I once had an interview with a powerful Silicon Valley company in 2011 regarding a position that involved translation with marketing flavor. In other words, they were looking for a Spanish translator who was well versed in marketing materials and with experience and/or knowledge of Spanish in marketing materials in different countries. During the interview, I realized that they weren’t so certain about the profile: were they looking for a marketing specialized in Latin American markets who happened to be also a translator, or vice versa? Given the responsibilities described to me during the interview, I couldn’t see how they could cover both roles with just one candidate.

Some people may call that thinking outside the box or even say that this company was disrupting the traditional role of a translator by placing him/her in a powerful marketing position. Whatever the case, you can’t expect to hire a plumber who also happens to be an interior designer, or a phlebotomist who can also operate an X-ray machine.

When a company seeks a translator fluent not in 2 but 3 or 4 languages, well, the pool of candidates will be smaller but asking for a Spanish-Portuguese-German translator is not an unreasonable request. What is unreasonable is the compensation part, as if writing translation in more than two languages were a matter of using a dicitonary and filling up pages with different words in the allotted time, 8 or 9 hours a day. Languages, especially for writing, are not some sort of costume you wear for a certain occasion or a Dremel attachment. If a company wants a translator (or interpreter) to perform double duty —and there are some fine candidates that can do it— make the compensation match that requirement. Or else hire a part-time translator and a part-time interpreter if you are so budget conscious.

There are lateral roles that a translator or an interpreter can reasonably perform, such as that of a project manager (for translations or for interpretation assignments) or an interpreter coordinator, who makes sure to match the right interpreter with the assignment. Some translators and interpreters can grow into a managerial role. Keep in mind, however, that most interpreters are outgoing individuals who enjoy being in the thick of things and help out other people with communication issues. On the other hand, translators are mostly —but not necessarily exclusively— reserved and enjoy working alone or in small teams. More importantly, translators need space, both physically and mentally, to perform well.

Translation has a different pace. Translation requires deep concentration and marshalling several mental skills to write well the first time and with almost no errors. The faster you ask a translator to do his or her job, the more errors he/she is likely to make. So, give them the space they need, away from inopportune and unnecessary distractions. That’s why translators perform better in silence. That’s why bullpens or open offices are not conducive to good translation work.

Translators who want to work as interpreters (and vice versa) need to make an honest assessment of their skills. Switching from interpreting to translation —and vice versa— takes an enormous amount of mental energy. Play to your strengths: if you are excellent at writing, stick with it. That doesn’t mean that a translator can’t turn in a good interpretation performance. In fact, some interpreters do mostly interpreting and a small portion of their job is translation. I’m the other kind: 95-99% of my work is translation and translation-related activities, and only the occasional interpreting suits my fancy and my schedule.

Another point of misunderstanding about what is involved to perform either translation or interpreting is the all-too-common requirement of high school education in many online classifieds. Most high school graduates aren’t prepared to write at a college level, either in English or in a foreign language. How can an employer expect a high school graduate to have the education and experience to turn in a well-written page?

It is imperative that a business has a clear image and a clear concept of the role of a translator and/or of an interpreter. American businesses have the right information at their fingertips, starting with the American Translators Association, which publishes free brochures explaining these positions in more detail. Businesses can use the ATA as an information clearinghouse and avail themselves of its resources, especially the directories of translators and interpreters. Also, translators affiliated with the ATA are bound to a code of ethics and are more likely to live up to professional standards than the average bilingual worker who may apply for a job for opportunistic reasons.

 

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Filed under Bilingual staff, Classifieds, Misinformation on interpreter role, Misinformation on translator role, Writing skills