Category Archives: Consistency

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

Consistency, that undefinable umbrella term

If you are a translation buyer, you are probably concerned that a translation should be consistent across the different documents it involves: marketing brochures, PowerPoint slides, technical descriptions, even sales items and press releases. It makes sense to keep a unified message out there.

If you are a translator like me, you’ve heard it too: keep the terms consistent; maintain consistency across all files.

I think translation buyers, translators and project managers are meaning different things when they request consistency and I’ll attempt to clarify it here.

First, let’s get the obvious meaning out of the way: when people talk about consistent things, they mean use the same terms: a bolt is a bolt, not a carriage bolt. A partition is not necessarily a wall anymore than a white blood cell is a blood element. The more technical a document, the more consistent it should be, because using ambiguous terms might mean using the wrong kind of steel or injecting the wrong dosage of a certain drug.

But I think consistency refers to a more important fact: comprehension. And for a statement to be easily understood, the same exact words do not always need to be used. An example:

A) Provide stainless steel self-tapping metal fasteners to attach the metal panel system to the bathroom partition.

B) Affix the metal panel to the bathroom partition using stainless steel self-tapping screws.

Both sentences above, A and B, are giving exactly the same instructions. Notice, however, that B is shorter, crisper and clearer. Imagine that the user’s manual has sentence A while a maintenance manual has sentence B: the sentences differ, but they are consistent in meaning and purpose. And that’s worth remembering.

A translator doesn't just substitute words like code characters.

A translator doesn’t just substitute words like code characters.

The other side of the consistency coin is terminology. Many people, including translators, use the word a bit carelessly without fully understanding what it means. In civil engineering, an overhead panel ceiling is the same as a panel ceiling system, or a panel ceiling. Some people like to show off a bit and call a heater a heating unit or a heating system, but they are all one and the same in the real world.

Translators should concern themselves more with doing proper word and concept research to support their translation choices rather than promise a fuzzy idea of consistency. They should know better about using glossaries, dictionaries and other sources rather than floating the word terminology so casually. Why? Because terminology is more than just building a glossary of specialized words; proper terminology also involves developing the right criteria to use those words. Terminology is not about foreign word substitution because languages are not software codes, not easily amenable to a simple search and replace action or a copy and paste method. And a seasoned translator who changes a word doesn’t necessarily do it out of preference but out of precision and, ironically enough, to preserve the much-valued consistency.

Then, what to do with consistency? Call it something else, for starters. As a project manager, I learned that the best time to ask questions about expectations is in the beginning, before mistaken assumptions cause costly mistakes and delays. The first expectations to be clarified are those of the translation buyer, i.e. the client. What are her priorities? Once priorities are stated and fleshed out, begin from there:

Is there a company glossary to use as reference? A responsible and expert translator does not promise blind conformity with a glossary without taking a good look at it first. Also, it’s also a translator’s best practice to tell the customer that the most updated, industry-specific and appropriate terms shall be used, and that those terms may or may not come from the company glossary. If this potentially sticky point is handled at the beginning, then expectations shall be clearer for all concerned and any questions of consistency will be resolved.

If the translator earns the customer’s trust about his performance in writing excellent technical translations, then nitpicking about this or that word usage will be very rare. When this trust is not established from the beginning among the translator, his customer, the customer’s reviewers and even the project manager and fellow translators working on the same project, then the entire team will spend time arguing over terminological issues, preferences and so-called consistency. Chances are that, in this chaotic environment, an otherwise well-written translation will be questioned for the terms it uses.

As an aside note on consistency, I think universities and colleges engaged in teaching translation and interpretation should teach lexicography basics rather than terminology. If we want to prepare a new generation of competent translators, we need to show them the basics of dictionary making, the process of word formation and the principles of empirical research aimed at finding the right terms and expressions in a given industry or specialization. Otherwise, we are selling them just an empty shell of knowledge —after all, terminology is widely (and mistakenly) understood as the process of building glossaries for a given industry. But, as I hoped to show above, that’s only part of the story.

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Filed under Consistency, Lexicography, Research in translation, Terminology, Vocabulary, Writing skills