Two translator tribes?

Two translator tribes?

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.

 

 

 

 

10 Comments

  1. Alison Hughes

    Very interesting, Simon. I definitely fit into the second category and what you say rings true. I haven’t a formal translation qualification and have kept my French up to a standard that I can easily switch languages if I receive a phone call (mainly from friends but a client did phone a few weeks ago). I also find it very easy to write in English.

    My additional take on it is that, because I have no formal training, I’m used to typing what I instinctively think it means then I take time in the second draft to double check all nuances etc. I can’t slow myself down at this stage but can only work fast when typing. Dictation seems to involve another step in my head for some reason.

    It’s hard to explain but, from what you have written, I think you’ll understand what I mean.

    Reply
    • Simon Berrill

      Yes, Alison, I completely understand you, especially the part about not being able to slow down while typing the first draft and dictation being another step in your head. I’ve always found the idea of writing by dictation difficult. Many years ago, as a journalist, I interviewed the makers of some early text-to-speech software and they couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to dictate my articles. I couldn’t answer them convincingly, I just knew it wouldn’t feel right and that those few seconds between brain and fingers were vital for my creative process.

      Reply
      • Alison Hughes

        I can’t dictate my writing either. The path seems to be brain to fingers. It’s bizarre. Maybe it’s habit and with practice dictation would eventually become easier?

        Reply
        • Simon Berrill

          It could happen, yes. But at my age now I can’t see getting through the practice stage.

          Reply
  2. Patricia Lane

    Hi Simon,

    While your two "tribes" are well thought out and cover, perhaps, a majority of translators, I can think of many colleagues, myself included, who’d fit more comfortably in a hybrid version 🙂

    As a compound bilingual and bicultural Franco-American, my first draft is pretty close to my last, with bits I know need work or checking highlighted. My brain, however, refuses to write by dictation. Worse, when tackling particularly difficult copy to be transcreated, I reach for pen, paper, and post-it notes.

    As a writer, I’m never satisfied with my prose; I will edit, tweak, reformulate, and reread right up until deadline. I’ll probably correct mistakes in the source text too 🙂

    My translation process’ productivity would undoubtedly improve if I could stop tweaking earlier on, but the urge is too compelling!

    Reply
    • Simon Berrill

      Interesting! As I said, it’s only a theory, which is why it’s good to hear from someone who doesn’t fit neatly into the categories.

      Reply
  3. Andrew Hodges

    I’m an academic translator and editor who used to work as an academic writer. I definitely fall into the ‘writers who know/love languages’ category and usually do quite a lot of editing later on. But I’d never consider using MT (I tried it in my first year and have now abandoned it) as I find it doesn’t really work for this genre. Sometimes it would deliver a good word or phrase, but most of the time the nuances in author style and tone were lost. For academic translation, these can be unique to the writer and dependent on broader disciplinary conventions.

    Reply
    • Simon Berrill

      I agree that raw MT is not very useful for academic translations. The suggestions are useful, however, and I find it inspires me to think of alternatives. It also highlights points where I need to entirely throw out the original phrasing and bring in entirely new English versions of sentences or entire paragraphs.

      Reply
      • Andrew Hodges

        Yes, sometimes the MT suggestions would come up with a great solution I hadn’t thought of. They could definitely be used for inspiration, but post-editing wouldn’t work.

        Reply
        • Simon Berrill

          Yes, that’s the point, really. I look at the MT as a translator, not an editor, taking lots of time if necessary. I agree that as rushed post-editing it simply wouldn’t work.

          Reply

Leave a Reply to Andrew Hodges Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.