My recent consideration of my translation process and the interesting online discussions that followed got me thinking. Why is it that some translators manage a more or less finished first draft, while others, like me, need a rough version which we then refine again and again to bring it up to standard? The result of these thoughts is this blog post, which is by no means backed by scientific research. It’s simply a hypothesis which I believe could be worth investigating.
Based on my own experience and some of the discussions begun by my blog posts, my idea is that there are two types of translator. The first – generally those of the near-perfect initial version – are what I will call “true linguists”. These are the translators whose brains can switch more or less instantly between one language and another. They could easily be interpreters and some of them probably are. They could be bilingual, although they don’t necessarily have to be, but they don’t need any intermediate step between the original and a well-expressed translation which requires minimum polishing. I’d say, this type of translator also takes easily to dictation software because their translations flow immediately, with the minimum hesitation.
And then there is the other kind of translator, such as myself. I will call them “writers who know languages”. We don’t get from language A to language B so quickly, although I would argue that in the end our results can be just as good. That’s because, however good our source language skills, our real strength is in our target language. What we find much more difficult, though, is thinking in two languages at the same time. If I’m right, we will also tend to be the typists of the translation world, finding it more difficult to dictate our translations because we need those few seconds of time between the brain and the fingers to work out how we’re going to express something. We’re also more likely to be editors or revisors, as we are used to constantly checking and improving our own work.
What makes the difference between the two groups? I can only speak for myself, and for what I am able and not able to do. When I look at a piece of text in another language that I know, my focus is on understanding it. If it’s in one of the two working languages of mine that I use every day – Catalan and Spanish – I may not even translate it in my head in order to do that. But, of course, if I’m working, translating it is exactly what I do. What I can’t manage at the same time is be sure I’m finding the very best way to express those same ideas in English, as I’m much too focused on the complications of the source language. And if I do try to force my brain to do it when I’m in that mode, it tends to rebel, shutting down to one or two simple options. It’s only later, when I reread the translation, that I can start to see more attractive possibilities. That’s why, writing about my translation process a few years ago, I described it as being like sculpture: first of all I rough out the shape I want to carve, then, I fill in the details, and finally I polish. That’s what I still do, only now I’m using a machine to cut the rough shape.
If I’m right with my theory, the significance of there being two types of translator is that, when it comes to the way they work, the same advice won’t apply to both of them. I’ve already suggested that one group is likely to take better to dictation software than the other. And the same is going to be the case with machine translation. And, in addition the two broad types I suggest, my discussions with colleagues have shown that translation processes are deeply individual and it’s impossible to suggest any one thing that will work for everyone.
If you do want to use the best possible method, I suggest that you look carefully at how you do translations and see if you can work out where there’s room for improvement and how that improvement can be made, taking into account any constraints there might be. In my case, I investigated where I was spending the most time and realised that my rough first draft wasn’t where the bulk of my effort should be going. The main constraint was that I didn’t want the improvement to cost me money, either by taking longer or by employing a reviser on jobs that don’t pay enough to warrant it. I also think it’s a good idea to try out alternatives. I wouldn’t have even thought about machine translation for my first draft had I not looked at it and realised that it’s now capable of producing work that’s more or less as good (or as bad) as my first draft.
A good starting point for this, I believe, would be to decide which of the two types of translator you are. That would give you an idea of what might help you: dictation, for example, if you’re a true linguist, or MT if you’re a writer who knows languages. As I’ve said, though, this is only a hypothesis. Please feel free to comment with your own views.