You Never Know Where Your Languages Will Take You

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It’s been a while since I have posted anything here since running a business tends to consume all of my time, sometimes to a nearly unhealthy degree. The gap since my last post has made me consider where my languages have taken me compared to where I thought I was going when I started out. To give you some background, I have had a near obsession with languages since I was fairly young, studying any language I could get materials for. This unguided, haphazard approach to learning languages became much more structured when I went to college and limited myself to my “major” languages: Russian, Spanish and French. I chose these three intentionally thinking I might end up working for the United Nations whose working languages include English, Spanish, French, Arabic, Russian and Mandarin Chinese.

Yet it was Russian that really held my attention. The mystique of the language and country during the cold war was very intriguing to me. I even spent six months in the Soviet Union studying and perfecting my Russian. I remember how excited I was the day I realized I could speak Russian easily without even thinking of the grammar. I left the country feeling very proud of my ability to speak confidently, fluently and intelligently on most topics, assuming I’d be back in Moscow very soon after I graduated. However, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 job opportunities were not the same and I ended up in graduate school studying Russian and Spanish.

After graduating, my professional life quickly led me to a job at an insurance company translating from Spanish and Portuguese, languages which I had secretly looked down on as “back-up” languages that were not as prestigious or fascinating as Russian. Now I found myself suddenly needing to use them both at a professional level. I began devouring Spanish content, memorizing obscure Spanish grammar rules and making long vocabulary lists to be sure that I could do the job well. Since I only had three semesters of college Portuguese under my belt, whenever I had “extra” time, I’d spend it working on Portuguese grammar and vocabulary, principally relying on words and grammar that were different from Spanish. Within a reasonable period of time, I felt comfortable using and speaking in both languages at work.

Yet after four years in the insurance industry, I was ready for a change. I started a language services company with my partner in 1997. It quickly became very clear just how useful and indispensible Spanish actually is in the United States. Soon after a very large client required me to put my atrophying French skills to the test. I went through the same process to ramp up my French. It’s been 20 years since that time and I still use French and Spanish on a daily basis, and Portuguese a few times a week. Yet Russian has never played a large part of my professional life in all of that time. Over the years, I can sense my Russian skills deteriorating, despite occasional bursts of interest in reading and listening to the language on the web. When I do have opportunities to speak Russian, the words are no longer on the tip of my tongue and I can feel myself having to think about verb forms and noun declensions that once came out naturally. To a large degree, we make our own opportunities in life so I am not ruling out ever using Russian on a professional level. However, for now I am enjoying using languages that I feel completely comfortable in and studying other languages for fun when I can. It can be hard to know where your language will take you right out of college so stay open to all possibilities and do your best to keep your skills up in languages that you aren’t actively using.

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What Makes a Good Translation?

A Spanish “translation” that appeared on gas pumps throughout Indiana in 2001

I am often approached by people who speak another language who are looking for work. I will ask if they translate or interpret, or both. This inevitably leads to the question, what’s the difference? As I have discussed in a previous post, there is a difference. However, the fact that they do not even know that tells me a lot so I try to steer them toward resources on getting started as a translator. Many people assume that any bilingual person can do a good translation. Therefore, often a very complicated, well-written document ends up in the hands of someone with absolutely no translation experience. So what all goes into the process of translating, and how you do judge a good translation from a bad one?

It is often said that translation is an art, and I agree. Think about it for a second. If I were asked to draw a picture of someone, I could certainly produce an image resembling a human being that anyone would recognize as such, but could that compare to the naturalness and fine detail of what a true artist could do? Could I call myself an artist? Translation can be viewed in the same way. It is an intricate and often subjective process that goes far beyond a simplistic word-for-word exchange. A good translation needs to carry the meaning and the tone of the original text, while still remaining culturally sensitive and appropriate to the target audience. Poor translations abound and it is such translations that people tend to remember. There is nothing funny about a bad translation if it negatively affects your company image or product. No one wants to be the butt of a bad joke because a translation has failed to hit its mark. The image above is just such an example. It is a translation that appeared about ten years ago here in Indiana for the “Don’t Pump and Run” campaign. I thought they had all been removed long gone until I recently saw one while filling my tank. This gem of a translation blooper wasn’t done by a computer, but by someone who honestly felt that he/she had the skills to do the translation. For those of you who speak Spanish, you will get a real kick out of it. For those of you who do not, it’s funny to native speakers because it’s a literal and nonsensical of the English version. It is also contains invented words, accent marks written as apostrophes and misspellings, including when a misspelling of the English word petroleum. How this was ever approved and posted at thousands of gas stations statewide is a mystery to me.

So what are the qualities that go into making a “good” translation? It must meet several criteria in order to be considered “good.” The first criterion is rather obvious—it has to be accurate. Examples of where this often fails are mistranslations, missing sentences and bad grammar. This point accentuates the need to use translators with a thorough knowledge of both languages, not merely two years of a high school language. Mistranslations and missing words or sentences can have devastating consequences. Additionally, if a translation is fraught with bad grammar or spelling errors, the reader tends to lose confidence in not only the document, but also the company that produced it.

Clarity is another important factor. A translation has to be easily comprehensible and well written, regardless of how poor the original document may be. Good translations commonly read much better than do the originals. Many writers tend to write in rather long and complicated sentences; this is especially true in legal documents. However, a translation should strive to present all the information and nuance of the source text in a clear and uncluttered fashion whenever possible

Naturalness of the translation is the key factor in helping to prevent a translation from sounding like one. Typically, or at least at my company, after a translation has been proofread for accuracy and completeness, an editor will go through the document and make sure that it reads smoothly and sounds as if it were originally written in the target language.

An easily overlooked component of a good translation is mirroring the mood of the author. In general texts, there may not be a definitive tone, but in editorial and literary documents there always is a clear attitude of the author. For a translation to convey the same feeling to the reader, it must use words and expressions which can transmit a similar spirit. Failure to express this accurately can easily mislead the reader as to the writer’s true feelings and attitudes.

Next, a translation needs to be culturally appropriate for the target audience. References to religious figures, sports or country–specific items may confuse or offend the reader. Such references either need to be excluded in the source document before translation begins, or be culturally readapted into the target language.

Lastly, the audience needs to be taken into consideration. Sometimes this is a broad group of people, but more often, it is a narrow, targeted audience. A text written for a group of scientists needs to be translated at a much higher reading level than would consent forms for newly arrived immigrants. Moreover, if a document is destined for a certain country, it is usually best that the translation be performed by a native translator of that country to ensure that only terms and expressions of that country are used. Metric conversions and spelling changes may need to be made to ensure that the translation is acceptable in the given country. This is just a very brief look at the basics of what goes into a good translation. If you have questions, please let me know.

What does a translator do?

When I tell people  I’m a translator, most really don’t seem to know what that means or what I do. The first question is usually, how many languages do you speak? While many translators do work in more than one language pair, this is by no means a requirement. Some people assume that I travel all the time, which is sadly not the case. First, let me start by defining some key terminology in the translation industry before I get into what a translator does. The terms translator and interpreter are often used interchangeably, but they are two distinct professions requiring very different skill sets. A translator deals with written text and an interpreter deals with the spoken word. I’ll discuss interpreters in another post. Source language is the language from which a document is translated and target language is the language into which a document is translated. A working language is the one that a person knows well enough to work in at a professional level.

The translation process goes well beyond the simple replacement of a word in one language into another. A translator not only needs to have a thorough understanding of the source language text and subject matter, but also the ability to convey (translate) the meaning, mood and style of the author accurately, naturally and completely into the target language. Merely being bilingual does not qualify a person to translate any more than being able to write makes one a poet. Translators must have excellent grammar and writing skills to produce translations that don’t sound like translations. As a general rule, translators translate from their working language(s) into their native language. There are some exceptions, such as second-generation speakers who have grown up with essentially two native languages, though even in these cases, one language is tends to be more dominant.

The work environment for translators varies by country. Here in the U.S., many companies and government entities do staff in-house translators, providing the stability of a 9-5 job without the need to find new clients on a regular basis. Nonetheless, most translators work as freelancers. This allows them quite a bit of flexibility as they aren’t tethered to any one location and can literally work anywhere in the world. Since they are usually paid by the word and rely on work from different sources, speed and quality are vital to their livelihood. That’s why even though most translators are generalists, they usually specialize in one or more fields. It’s much easier to translate a subject that you are familiar with than to struggle for hours with one that you don’t even understand well in your own language. Most translation agencies seek out specialized translators for subject-specific projects since the quality is almost always better than a generalist’s translation of the same material.

Technology has completely changed the translation profession. Nowadays all translations are done on a computer, usually with the assistance of on-line dictionaries and glossaries. Most translators also use translation memory and terminology management software. This is not computer-generated translation, but rather specialized software that archives a translator’s own work for use within a large document or for future updates of the same or similar documents. The software also enables translators and translation companies to share translation memories, which are files containing previous translations and accepted terminology, that the software uses to help maintain consistency among different translators over time. Typically when a translation agency sends a freelance translator a document to translate, the request is accompanied by a translation memory. Before delivering the translation, it should be thoroughly reviewed and edited for technical accuracy and correct grammar.

This is just a brief glimpse into the profession I love. Translators are the unseen individuals responsible for helping the world to communicate every day. You undoubtedly read their work all the time. When it’s done well, you don’t even notice.

Confessions of a Language Addict

My name is Bill and I’m a language addict. More precisely, I’m a recovering addict. Since the age of 12, I’ve studied dozens of languages to varying degrees of proficiency, amassing a formidable collection of several hundred languages books spanning over forty languages. My interest in a given language would start out strong and remain so for several weeks, or months, only to wane or vanish altogether once I heard someone speaking another language. I’d get the feeling that I was missing out on something by not studying that language. Some of these languages included Greek, Chinese, Japanese, Swedish, Finnish, Polish, Czech and so forth. I might spend ten minutes studying German grammar, followed by a half hour of Czech verbs. I managed to continue this erratic learning style while still studying my main languages in high school and college, which were and still are Spanish, French and Russian.

Addiction is generally defined as continuing a behavior that has negative consequences. Few would see any negative consequences from studying too many languages. However, in my case I had thoughts of becoming a United Nations interpreter, considered to be the best in the world. Their job requires an absolute command of at least three of the UN’s official languages, which are English Spanish, French, Russian, Chinese and Arabic. My haphazard study plan of jumping in and out of different languages was leaving me as a jack of all trades and master of none. I had become content with my language skills once I mastered most of the grammar and could carry on full conversations, regardless of how basic they might be. Such skills, though perfect for tour guides and waiters, were nowhere close to the near-native levels I would need for any serious work. I found that I was unable to easily read novels in my main languages, or follow movies and conversations of native speakers. After studying Russian in the former Soviet Union in the 1991, I came back with a deeper appreciation of the joys and practical value of speaking a language well. I began to focus much more heavily on my primary languages, almost to the point of abandoning the study of my minor languages for several years. In 1994, I began to work as a translator and was able to hone my major language skills much more effectively. A job offer in the late 90s as a Spanish/Portuguese translator required me to add Portuguese, a language I had studied for three years, to my list of working languages. This gave me a valid excuse to study another language for work. Now I struggle with the desire to add yet another working language while trying to keep my main languages at very high levels.

I now regard my addiction as more of a passion for language learning. Since I now have nearly twenty years’ experience as a translator, there are not the same downside risks to learning other languages as there were when I still hadn’t perfected my core ones. In the last five years I’ve once again begun dusting off some of those languages I first started studying many years ago. Nonetheless, I still must restrain myself from taking on too many languages since I long ago discovered that it’s a lot more fun, and enormously more profitable, to know a few languages very well than many poorly.