Untranslatable Text: Myth, Reality, or Something Else? A Translator’s Reflections on Translation and “Untranslatability”

This post originally appeared on The ATA Chronicle and it is republished with permission.

There inevitably comes a time in a translator’s life when he or she starts to challenge translation/translatability as a concept. More often than not, this occurs as a result of finding oneself confronted with a term that is deemed untranslatable and questioning not only the meaning of the word itself, but also the reality of the concept. In doing so, the translator joins the ranks of the thousands who have reflected and debated on the subject throughout the history of translation. Indeed, the notion of untranslatability has been argued by the best minds for centuries, including translation theorists, philosophers, linguists, writers, and poets. Therefore, no article can pretend to even introduce the subject, let alone offer any new and startling revelation. But humor me, as I reflect on the topic and attempt to demonstrate that when it comes to untranslatability, everything may be a question of definition, that using the term lightly may backfire, and that the answer to the translatability/untranslatability conundrum is as elusive as ever.

Untranslatability: An Arguable Reality

According to Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, “some degree of partial untranslatability marks the relationship of every language to every other.”1 Total untranslatability, however, is believed to be rare. In fact, it is generally agreed that the areas that most nearly approach it are poetry, puns, and other wordplays. This is because of their connection to sound, images, rhythm, and sense, which are often (if not always) difficult/impossible to render into another language without losing some essential components of the original text. Yet, the term untranslatable seems to find its way into everyday speech effortlessly. But are we always using the term correctly?

To find out, let’s start with a simple definition. Simple, you say? Not so much, as no two dictionaries agree fully on how to define the term untranslatable. Definitions range from the one-dimensional “Impossible to translate” (MacMillan) to the basic “Not able to be expressed or written down in another language or dialect” (Collins) to the less theoretical “Of a word or, phrase, or text not able to have its sense satisfactorily expressed in another language” [emphasis mine] (Oxford). While all true, no definition seems to convey fully the reality of the concept of the term as we translators know it. We must turn to more comprehensive works to find a balanced, complete definition with which we can relate. From these sources we learn that:

  • Untranslatability is a property of a text, or of any utterance, in one language, for which no equivalent text or utterance can be found in another language when translated.
  • Terms are neither exclusively translatable nor exclusively untranslatable; rather, the degree of difficulty of translation depends on their nature, as well as on the translator’s knowledge of the languages in question.
  • Quite often, a text or utterance that is considered to be “untranslatable” is actually a lacuna, or lexical gap. That is, there is no one-to-one equivalence between the word, expression, or turn of phrase in the source language and another word, expression, or turn of phrase in the target language. A translator can, however, resort to a number of translation procedures to compensate for this. Therefore, untranslatability or difficulty of translation does not always carry deep linguistic relativity implications; denotation can virtually always be translated, given enough circumlocution, although connotation may be ineffable or inefficient to convey. […]2

In other words, the term untranslatable is most often used to refer to lexical gaps (i.e., terms or expressions that do not exist in another language) or cultural gaps (i.e., concepts that do not exist in another culture). However, it is not necessarily because a language doesn’t have a direct lexical or cultural equivalent for a term/expression/ concept that there is absolutely no way to express it in another language.

Translators have many methods at their disposal to do so (think: adaptation, borrowing, calque, loanwords, compensation, paraphrase, translator’s notes, etc.). Does this mean that all words, expressions, verbal forms, honorifics, etc., can be translated precisely? No. But it is generally agreed that most, if not all, texts can be exported into another language, even though all elements of those texts (e.g., cultural connotations, rhymes, rhythms, puns, etc.) may not always be exported alongside successfully. So, in essence, no text would be truly untranslatable, but the translation of culturally irreconcilable texts would inevitably result in some degree of loss. It is that loss that validates the notion of untranslatability, even though the text itself can be translated.

In truth, our world is home to so much cultural diversity, so many languages, and so many disparities among them that there are bound to be terms/expressions/concepts that fall so deeply into the lexical and cultural voids that they are labeled untranslatable. Indeed, who could argue that some notions are so incredibly specific to a culture that no other culture has a direct equivalent for them?

Take the word mamihlapinatapai, for example, which is Yahgan for “a look shared by two people, each wishing that the other will offer something that they both desire but are unwilling to suggest or offer themselves.” 3 Not surprisingly, it appears in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “most succinct word,” but it is also considered one of the most difficult words to translate.4 But is it really untranslatable? Would you say that “an expressive, meaningful look between two people wishing to initiate something but reluctant to do so” is a translation (versus a definition or an interpretation)? The answers to those questions depend on your definition of translation.

Translation/Translatability: A Less-Than-Absolute Truth

Translation as a concept is subject to many interpretations, and countless definitions have been put forth by translation theorists over time. The American translation theorist Lawrence Venuti, for example, defines translation as “a process by which the chain of signifiers that constitutes the source-language text is replaced by a chain of signifiers in the target language, which the translator provides on the strength of an interpretation.”5 Venuti’s argument supports the deconstructionist ideas that everything is about context, that any text may have more than one interpretation, and that all forms of reading a text (including translating it) are forms of interpretation.

Like many, when it comes to certain types of translation, I find it difficult not to agree with the deconstructionists. In fact, I often find that in order to reach the intended goal (e.g., a text that reads smoothly, elicits an emotional response, convinces, etc.), I have to take “interpretive liberties” that prioritize sense over words. More times than not, I feel that the boundaries between translating and rewriting/transcreating are rather blurry. But without getting into the debate of whether translation is a creation or “regurgitation” process, or arguing over the merit of fidelity over transparency (or vice versa), we can all agree safely on the fact that translation is an elaborate deconstruction-reconstruction process that involves a great deal of creativity and “stretching” of the target language.

While translation always captures the meaning of a text, the way and form in which the message is communicated may depend as much on personal interpretation as on lexical interpretation and lexical choices. The more idiomatic or culturally laden the text, the more room for interpretation of both sorts, and the more creative the result.

In truth, when words/concepts such as “good and evil” (in the way we relate to them today) find their way into time-honored religious texts and become embedded so deeply into our collective cultural heritage, even when they are said to have had no equivalent in the language(s) in which they were originally written, isn’t it possible that everything is a question of interpretation? Isn’t this also implying that translation is always the subjective expression of an idea, which is itself rooted in a specific cultural, historical, and linguistic context? Going further, isn’t it possible that translatability is not so much an absolute truth as a relative notion—at least as relative as untranslatability? The only certainty is that one cannot question untranslatability without questioning translatability, and that both concepts are two sides of the same coin with one thing in common: loss, or at least some degree of it.

Because language is a cultural phenomenon, loss is ever present in translation. Some connotations are bound to elude target-language readers who are unfamiliar with the cultural context behind them, or don’t associate them with the same emotion as source-language readers—even when a text is deemed translatable. Because translators typically have one foot in each culture and are accustomed to bridging the gap between the source and target cultures, they will most likely always understand the text and its connotation, but may not always be able to export the latter across cultures. However, as long as the message (i.e., the meaning of the text) makes it through gracefully, a text will generally be deemed adequately translated. The question is what happens when the message cannot make it through? Can we then talk of untranslatability? Or rather, should we?

The Everyday Untranslatable Text

Translators often come across texts whose idiomatic nature makes it necessary to rethink their definition of untranslatability and to stretch the target language to its very limit. (All of us know how much flexibility, creativity, and innovative thinking are required in the process!) In some instances, a translator will come up with a culturally appropriate equivalent (albeit distant from the original idea). Where choices are limited by factors that cannot be controlled, the translator may substitute the text with something else altogether. In rare instances where a concept is completely unknown to a culture, the translator’s work will go even further to make up for the conceptual void. In all cases, the text will be deemed adequately (albeit creatively) translated and, by extension, translatable.

However, there are instances when translators simply cannot make the decision to stretch the language, substitute text, or explain an alien concept, because that decision is simply not theirs to make. These are instances in which translators may find themselves using the word untranslatable to refer to something else altogether.

When Untranslatable = Does Not Translate Effectively

One such occurrence of a text that is often labeled untranslatable is “must-translate” text that may not translate effectively. We’ve all been there. In order to avoid a simple (to us) explanation that will confuse our monolingual client, we might refer to that text as untranslatable. But should we? Let’s use a simple case of marketing translation gone wrong to illustrate that particular dilemma.

We’ve all heard of the Braniff Airlines’ “Fly in Leather” campaign that sought to highlight the airline’s luxury leather seats, but was a fiasco in some parts of Latin America, where the slogan “Vuela en cuero” was interpreted as “fly naked/in the nude/topless.” 6 Braniff’s misstep has become a classic example of unfortunate translation choices, but it might as well have been a case of unheeded warning. Consider the following scenario (with which more than a few marketing translators may be familiar).

Translator: The copy is untranslatable to a degree. If translated literally, it will miss the mark with the target audience because of XYZ.

Client: We’d like to keep it as is. It worked well here.

Translator: To readers from another culture, the text has a different connotation. I’ve taken the liberty of coming up with a few alternatives and their back translations to give you an idea of what would make sense to your target audience.

Client: We don’t like how any of those sound.

Translator: They sound better in the language. The back-translations are only aimed at giving you an idea of what the text means.

Client: We would rather use our original copy.

Translator: You may want to consider retaining an in-country consultant who could advise you further as to how to market your brand/ product effectively.

Client: We’ve taken your advice under consideration, but we really feel our original copy is the best way to go. We’ve asked our bilingual employees and they think it sounds good, so please translate the copy as is.

Obviously, if a client trusts the translator’s expertise and already appreciates the fact that cultural differences make it necessary to adapt copy rather than translate it verbatim, the above scenario is unlikely. But clients new to intercultural communication, ignorant of the intricate differences between languages/cultures, or overly confident in the global effectiveness of their copy/message may not understand why writing copy for a specific market is preferable to translating copy written for another. To these clients, words and expressions such as “untranslatable,” “not translatable, “not translating well/effectively,” and the like often equate to “failure to understand [the copy because of its idiomatic nature]” and “failure to translate,” so using them to avoid a likely ineffectual explanation rarely leads to the desired outcome. On the contrary, it often leads to a situation where translators find themselves trying to prove that they understood the copy and can translate it “as is.” However, it’s not in the client’s best interest to do so (so back to square one).

A better approach might be to avoid all explanations having to do with translation (and especially the word untranslatable). State simply that target readers will not relate to the message because of a cultural gap and request a more culturally neutral text. If trained as a marketing writer, for example, one may go as far as to ask the client what other directions they may consider taking and offer to come up with alternative copy based on those. Recommending that the client seek the advice of a target language writer is another option. Regardless of the road we choose to take, staying away from the word untranslatable and adjectives like it will save a lot of time and effort.

When Untranslatable = Incomprehensible

Another case of text that a translator might refer to as untranslatable is one that is so unintelligible or inarticulate that the translator cannot commit to a translation. At least not without first attaining a reasonable degree of certainty about its meaning as it was intended originally. Bible translators know this dilemma well, as religious texts are fertile grounds for impenetrable copy (which more and more translators are now choosing not to translate). For example, the new Swedish Bible reportedly features some 67 such instances! In the January 2007 issue of The Bible Translator, published by The United Bible Societies, Christer Åsberg, a professor of Swedish language and literature, explains:

Those who read Ps 141.6b in a sample of modern Bible translations may wonder why the verse is translated in so many different ways.

  • RSV [Revised Standard Version]: Then they shall learn that the word of the LORD is true.
  • CEV [Contemporary English Version]: Everyone will admit that I was right.
  • NAB [New American Bible]: and they heard how pleasant were my words.
  • NJPSV [New Jewish Publication Society Version]: but let my words be heard, for they are sweet.
  • EHS [Evangelical Homiletics Society]: sie sollen hören, daß mein Wort für sie freundlich ist (they will hear that my word is favorable for them)
  • TOB [Ecumenical Translation]: eux qui s’étaint régalés de m’entendre dire: (those who were invited to hear me say:)
  • DB [Die Boodskap]: og man skal erfare, at mine ord var gode (and people will find, that my words were good ones)

In the 2000 Swedish translation (SB/Svenskbibel), the verse is not translated at all; it is indicated with three hyphens inside square brackets, [—].7

But translators don’t have to specialize in ancient texts or languages to face that particular dilemma, and the challenges that the situation creates are not any less exacting. Indeed, when translating current texts, leaving the copy blank is not an option, and dealing with actual writers/clients may at times be even more challenging than translating texts from the ancient ones who are no longer around to explain them.

When confronted with texts so incoherent that they cannot be translated in a way that makes sense, a translator’s first reaction might be to inform the client that the copy in question is untranslatable. Honestly, this sounds better than a candid truth that may alienate the client. However, by doing so we may be doing ourselves (and our client) a disservice. Not only might the client equate “untranslatable” with “failure to understand/translate” (something that sounds perfectly comprehensible to them), but they might also get defensive, thereby lessening the chance of getting the text edited for both translation and publication purposes.

A better approach might be to inform the client that you are having trouble understanding the copy and asking them to explain it. Most clients will realize while verbalizing their thoughts that the copy is in need of editing/rewriting and thank you for your careful reading of their text. (If not, you may at least use your newly-found understanding of the copy to make sure that the translation is intelligible.)

If previous or subsequent content allows you to ascertain without a doubt what the text should say, then you may also take it upon yourself to rewrite the copy. Whether you should and the consequences of such an action are another matter entirely. (See “The Translator as an Editor” in the March 2014 edition of The ATA Chronicle).8 As to how to deal with clients who think their carelessly written text makes enough sense to be translated and insist that you translate it “as is,” the best approach may be simply to stay away. After all, a translator’s ethics and reputation are worth more than the number of clients on a list.

Regardless of the translation challenges we face and how we choose to respond to them, reserving the term untranslatable to actual instances of untranslatability will go a long way. In everyday translation scenarios, most of the challenges that present themselves to us (besides lexical gaps, which can generally be managed without much fuss or client input) are typically either oversights in the source text or cultural discrepancies. Presenting them as such may serve us and our clients well.

Which leaves us with one big question. If texts deemed untranslatable can be translated and texts that cannot be translated are not untranslatable, what are we to make of untranslatability as a concept?

Myth or Something Else?

Although much has been said and written about the “myth of untranslatability,” the concept keeps defying black-and-white categorization. Both rare and commonplace, real and not, and certainly as difficult to prove as to disprove, untranslatability may masquerade as a paradox. However, it is, more than anything else, a relative notion linked to the very definition of translation/translatability, and the extent to which text and meaning can be exported across languages satisfactorily—if ever. There is no question that terms, expressions, and concepts that have no direct equivalents or do not exist in another language pose great difficulties to the translator, regardless of how many compensation methods may be used to render the translation.

There is also no question that a certain amount of loss (both lexical and non-lexical) is inevitable as a result of circumventing the challenges that lexical and cultural gaps present, and that the more culturallybound the text, the greater that loss. The question is to know whether texts that have no equivalents should be labeled as untranslatable, and whether “non-equivalent translations” are less or more accurate translations than equivalent ones. When non-equivalent translations yield better results than equivalent ones, couldn’t it simply suggest that untranslatability is inherent to language itself and that the myth is actually translatability?

Finding the answer to that question seems as elusive as ever. After all, there is a reason translation theorists, philosophers, and linguists have been debating the subject for centuries. So let’s leave it as that. As Friedrich Nietzsche said: “Words are but symbols for the relations of things to one another and to us; nowhere do they touch upon the absolute truth.”9 And neither does there seem to be any absolute truth in the notion of untranslatability (or translatability, for that matter).

Notes

  1. A. MacIntyre. Relativism, Power, and Philosophy (American Philosophical Association, 1985), 383.
  2. Definition of Untranslatability, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Untranslatability.
  3. Urban Dictionary, http://bit.ly/1NMVBsj.
  4. Matthews, Peter, and Norris McWhirter. The Guinness Book of World Records (Guinness Media, 1994), 392.
  5. Lawrence, Venuti. “The Translator’s Invisibility,” Criticism (Wayne State University Press, 1986), 17.
  6. Wooten, Adam. “International Business: In Global Airline Marketing, Idioms Must Be Handled Carefully,” Deseret News (January 1, 2011), http://bit.ly/ airline-idioms.
  7. Christer Åsberg. “The Translator and the Untranslatable: A Case of Horror Vacui,” The Bible Translator (January 2007), http://bit.ly/Asberg.
  8. Maginot, Christelle. “The Translator as an Editor,” The ATA Chronicle (March 2014), 16, http://bit.ly/ATA-Maginot.
  9. Nietzsche, Friedrich. Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks (Gateway Editions, 1996), 83, http://bit.ly/Nietzsche-Greeks.

Author bio

Christelle Maginot has over 25 years of experience as a professional translator. For the past 18 years, she has been working as an in-house translator for a major consumer goods corporation, where she handles and supervises the translation of corporate, technical, sales, and marketing material into multiple languages. She has a master’s degree in International Business/Marketing and English, French, and Spanish translation from the University of Aix-en-Provence, France. Contact: Christelle.maginot@yahoo.com.

ATA’s Back to Business Basics – Diversification: A Tool for Thriving in Uncertain Times

ATA launched its new Back to Business Basics webinar series in September 2020. These webinars focus on a small, practical piece of business advice for translators and interpreters at different stages of their careers. The series quickly became popular: there are usually a few hundred people attending each live session. Members can access these webinars free of charge, and non-members can purchase each recording for $25.

Diversification: A Tool for Thriving in Uncertain Times was the second webinar in the Back to Business Basics series. The live event was streamed on October 5, 2020, and a recording is available in ATA’s on-demand webinar library. The webinar was given by Corinne McKay, a French to English translator and interpreter, seasoned trainer, and past ATA President. Corinne explained what diversification may look like for language professionals, shared a few reasons to diversify your business, and provided tips on how to do that.

Diversification refers to having more than one revenue stream, such as more than one type of client or service. By diversifying their businesses, language professionals can spread out their risks and avoid becoming dependent on their one or two top clients. In other words, diversifying gives you the freedom to focus on the profitable part of your services.

Corinne shared a few ways of diversifying your business. She stressed that it is okay to have multiple specializations as long as you don’t stretch yourself too thin and don’t choose too many unrelated subjects. Combining work for agencies and direct clients could also help you reap the benefits and mitigate the risks of working with each type. Finally, Corinne listed some services translators and interpreters can expand into, from purely linguistic to other creative endeavors.

Especially during difficult times, like the COVID-19 pandemic or a global recession, when translators and interpreters may see some of their work dry up and clients disappear into thin air, diversification can help you future-proof your business.

Check out the recording of this webinar and share it with colleagues who may be interested!

Author bio

Maria Guzenko is an ATA-certified English<>Russian translator and a certified medical interpreter (CMI-Russian). She holds an MA in translation from Kent State University and specializes in healthcare translation. Maria is a co-founder of the SLD certification exam practice group and the host of the SLD podcast, now rebranded as Slovo. More information can be found on her website at https://intorussian.net.

Getting Real with Translation & Interpreting

This post originally appeared on the Language Magazine blog and it is republished with permission.

Caitilin Walsh suggests 11 resources to bring Translation and Interpreting to life in your online classroom

In an educational landscape so dominated by talk of STEM—purportedly to prepare our students for technologically-influenced jobs—world language teachers are under constant pressure to defend their departments.

This sits in stark contrast to the widening “global talent gap,” a term coined in a report from ACTFL to describe the missed business opportunities reported by a quarter of U.S.-based employers who are unable to hire enough people with advanced language proficiency. Even the seismic shifts of maturing artificial intelligence and a global pandemic have not stemmed growing demand, and we see well-paid translation and interpreting (T&I) jobs continue to increase at a much faster rate than others. We desperately need people to fill these jobs.

For world language departments, this is good news: Being able to make the case to students for a potentially attractive career motivates them to continue their language studies (with the bonus of parental buy-in), increasing demand for courses beyond the first two years, while service learning, language for specific purposes, and study abroad take on new meaning.

Some schools have already connected these dots and are working to provide students with the language proficiency and “soft” skills they need to get a leg up on a career in T&I. If you’re uncertain about how to bring T&I into your world language classroom, relax. Whether you’re looking for content for a standalone T&I course or activities to keep beginning interpreting students busy, or even just trying to figure out how to engage your AP class when they can’t concentrate on yet another Zoom class, there are some quality resources online that are easily adapted for your virtual or in-person classroom.

The Basics: Exploring Language Careers

We already know that high school-aged students are actively thinking about careers and looking for pathways to get them there. So, it’s a perfect age to expose them to things they can do with their language (and other) skills and passions—and that knowledge may motivate them to seek advanced language skills, which means more enrollment in upper-level courses (and a corresponding wave of demand for post-secondary advanced language courses). I often suggest using these short videos to frame discussions around what skills T&I professionals need in addition to language—it’s fun to challenge your students to think of a domain where language services are not needed (I haven’t found one yet!):

  • A Day in the Life of a Translator or Interpreter (2 minutes) An animated short presenting how interpreters and translators work: a great overview that starts with the difference between interpreting and translation.
  • Interpreters and Translators Making a Difference (3 minutes) A short video that features professionals, many of them heritage language speakers; these students in particular need to know the value of their bilingualism.
  • How Interpreters Juggle Two Languages at Once A five-minute animated description of how simultaneous interpreters listen and speak at the same time (spoiler: the answer is practice!). As a bonus, this TED-Ed video also provides study guides and other educator material, which can be used with this and other videos.
  • United Nations, A Day in the Life of Real Interpreters (8 minutes) A short film by Sidney Pollack as a companion to the feature film The Interpreter that offers a glimpse into the world of conference interpreting.
  • Interpreter Breaks Down How Real-time Translation Works (9 minutes) WIRED uses real interpreters to break down how interpreting works in this very entertaining and accessible video. If you have advanced Spanish speakers, there’s a second video in the series where they challenge the same interpreters with awesome speed tests.

The Deeper Dive: Learning from Professionals

Of course, one of the most effective ways to deal with a topic you may not specialize in is to bring in an expert. The American Translators Association (ATA) has an established program that brings practicing translators and interpreters into classrooms—at all levels! Over its 20-year history, they’ve sent professionals to preschools and elementary schools, and from undergrad to graduate classes around the globe. Since they’re not able to show up in person, they can set you up with someone via the videoconferencing application of your choice so students can pepper them with questions about how much money you can make (an average of $50-60k) to whether machine translation will render humans obsolete (nope!). In addition, there are a couple of longer videos to give you different perspectives on professional translating and interpreting careers:

  • ATA Presents Careers in Translation and Interpreting (1 hour) If you can’t get a “live” person to talk to your class, this video follows the outline of the ATA School Outreach program mentioned above. It’s aimed at secondary levels and above.If you’re looking for a more academic focus, they have a webinar, Careers in Translation and Interpreting (and what to do to have one, 53 minutes) that’s aimed at college students.
  • Interpretips An entire YouTube channel devoted to topics related to interpreting, from community and medical to courts and beyond. Playlists also group videos by topic. A great resource if you want to explore specific areas of interpreting; ethics are particularly appealing to this idealistic generation. Many of the featured speakers have also authored guides that may be useful textbooks for your classroom.

The Test Drive: Let students try it for themselves

Another engaging way to bring interpreting into the classroom is to allow students to take a stab at it themselves! Not only do students get to try out their budding language abilities, but it can also serve as a springboard for self-reflection, class or small group discussion, or even a way to introduce a several-week unit on interpreter skills building. Students often surprise themselves with how much they can do and will often be motivated to shore up weaknesses—in both their source and target languages. Try these resources:

This list is only the beginning: many more resources used to prepare interpreters and translators for certification are freely available, and most professional associations have libraries of webinars available for a nominal fee.

Caitilin Walsh is a professional French-English translator specializing in education, software, and gastronomy. A past president of the American Translators Association, which represents more than 10,000 translators and interpreters across 103 countries, Caitilin works on a national scale to create and illuminate educational pathways for World Language students seeking to use their skills in rewarding careers.

Public Review of Published Reports

How are research papers reviewed in other fields, and how can we apply those practices to the interpreting and translation field?

As we observe the publicity surrounding vaccination efforts, we notice that developers are called to follow established procedures in their research. These research procedures are documented and can be reviewed by others. Their reports are checked for conflicts of interest. This is a matter of public interest since 2016, when the public became aware that the studies promoting breakfast as the most important meal of the day had been funded by the cereal companies, as this Vox article points out. Today, transparency is developed to the point that the World Health Organization has a template for reporting the conflict of interest of all contributors to its papers. See page 92 of this document on physical activity. What do we require in the interpreting and translation field?

I will base many of my comments on two books:

  • The General Theory of the Translation Company, by Renato Beninatto and Tucker Johnson, © 2017, nimdzi.com
  • Deconstructing Traditional Notions in Translation Studies, by Edgar Moros, © 2011, LAP Lambert Academic Publishing

When a new idea is presented in professional and scientific fields, it typically goes through a process of public discussion and debate, and over a period of time the concept is improved on or discarded.

In the translation and interpreting field, we have a different situation. Beninatto provides this list of participants. The Language Service Providers act as intermediaries:

  • Contract Language Professionals (CLP)
  • Language Service Providers (from small to large)
    • Local In-Country Single Language Service Provider
    • Regional Multiple Language Services Provider
    • Multiple Language Services Provider
    • Massive Multiple Language Service Provider

The CLPs are the independent contractors, the individuals who provide independent services. According to Beninatto, they are “the backbone of the industry,” and include interpreters and translators. Beninatto considers that it is increasingly rare to see CLPs working directly for Language Service Buyers (the people who order the translated documents). Because of the predominance of intermediaries, the practitioners are not generally able to explain their work to the people who need the work product itself.

I have developed another classification of translation and interpreting services providers based on my personal observation and standard business terminology.

Individual providers: They render all their services personally through direct contracts or as a subcontractor of one or more contractors (prime contractors).

Solopreneurs: Here they would be prime contractors, who hire subcontractors to provide services to complete the package the client needs such as providing a booth, editing services, desktop publishing, etc.

Small language service company or boutique language company. They generally specialize in a particular field and work in up to five languages. The owner renders some services directly in the languages for which they are personally qualified, and subcontracts other services to individual providers.

Larger language service company (more than 5 languages). The person who runs this company has less time to interpret and has to spend more time finding work for other interpreters and interfacing with clients.

The provider who engages directly with the translation services buyer becomes the prime contractor, and if the prime builds a team, the team members become subcontractors. This is standard business terminology across all business fields. Small businesses can be prime contractors and build teams with other subcontractors to provide a broader set of services.

Who defines the task an interpreter or translator does?

Moros (pages 20 and ff) states that when workers were not involved in describing their jobs, it led to significant problems. Stopwatch measurements of factory work were not objective, since workers and those who measured time did not agree on the definition on what the “task” was. Only managers defined tasks, assuming they were neutral, and paying attention only to their own interests. However, those doing the work have other interests that need to be considered, and human activity can’t always be measured, analyzed, and controlled the same way a physical object can be measured. The factory system of charging by the piece has been transferred to translations, where the product is often charged on a per word or per page basis, and fast workers make a better income. The quality of the product is not considered in this system.

Since translation and interpreting are essentially the transfer of messages constructed by human beings, this is a complex task that humans must carry out, and it is not a task that machines will be able to do effectively. It is important for practitioners to be involved in representing their profession and providing resource materials for users of translation services.

However, the language services field depends heavily on large language service companies as prime contractors, and therefore these businesses are the ones that provide most of the information to translation and interpreting clients.

Problems in our field

Beninatto identifies two problems in our field, and I added a third one:

Lack of outsider analysis. Beninatto says this is a problem because very few outsiders know much about the field. However, contract officers are learning more and more by analyzing the work product they receive.

Playing nice to avoid controversy (Beninatto). The CLPs depend on the intermediaries for a living. Therefore, writing documents that challenge material written by those who hire them could be difficult. What criteria have professional associations established for accepting article drafts? It is important to publish a variety of perspectives to avoid creating an echo chamber, as Mr. Beninatto calls it, in professional publications.

Lack of transparency regarding conflict of interest. When conflict of interest is not disclosed, and the information is generated by intermediaries, not practitioners, the profession may not be defined accurately.

How practical is it for practitioners to be involved?

Independent translators and interpreters are also in a difficult position. As the Theory of the Translation Company states (pg. 139), “LSPs rarely employ in-house linguists. Most linguistic services are outsourced, either to smaller LSPs or to freelance CLPs.” In other words, questioning the statements of an LSP can be dangerous in terms of workflow. Contractors have no protection if they fall out of favor with a client.

Where can practitioners publish?

It is possible for professional translators and interpreters to submit factual, well-researched articles to a professional association for publication. This is where independent contractors can publish the theory they are developing based on their daily practice of their profession, and help the profession grow.

The published articles should be reviewed by colleagues who have subject matter expertise in the topic and do      not have a conflict of interest.

How to prepare an article

Consider your audience

What kind of role do your readers play? Are you writing to translation buyers, to translators and interpreters, to decision makers in government, to language companies?

Put yourself in their shoes and think of how they might respond, what they might need to know.

What do you want your readers to learn?

Summarize what has been published. Be somewhat objective about the strengths and weaknesses of the previously published materials. Base your response on that and document your statements. Links to reliable sites will give your document credibility. Quoting the documents you are responding to will help people see the issue you are addressing.

Review it with someone who has a critical eye

As an independent provider, I suggest a further step. Discuss the article with people who can tell you how others might respond. Change whatever you need to change.

Be open to having the professional association review it!

As a professional, you have a voice. Analytical, well documented presentations on issues by practicing professionals are key to the peer review process of any publication and the growth of the profession.

So, You Want To Be A Translator?

This post originally appeared on The Detail Woman blog and it is republished with permission.

There are two main things I want to do on this page: first, I want to say a few things to people considering entering the translation profession. Mostly I want to clear up some misconceptions, but there are also some things I just plain think everyone who’s contemplating or practicing translation needs to hear. Second, for people interested in what kind of background you need or steps you can take to become a kickass translator, I want to talk a little bit about the skills needed and how to go about getting them.

I write this page not with the assumption that I am The Kickass Translator of All Time, but with the knowledge that I am still growing and that every single thing I say still applies to me and always will. In fact, I hope I’ll always be growing as a translator. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. But in my career I’ve had the opportunity to be on both sides of the process: on one side the translator being evaluated and working under supervision, and on the other side the person evaluating translators–both making recommendations on hires and quality checking other people’s work. It’s a somewhat unique set of experiences and it’s let me see a lot of things about the translating processes of myself and others, and about new translators I see entering the field.

Part 1: Opening Comments – On Translation

Over the last decade I’ve been asked a lot of questions about translating and being a translator. Some have come from aspiring translators, some from current translators, some from anime fans, and some from people who were just interested. I’ve seen remarks about translation in anime reviews, fan forums, and the like. I’ve also corresponded with people seeking translation jobs.

All these experiences have taught about some of the ideas people come into the translation field with–and some of the ideas they don’t. And I’m seeing some gaps between the expectation and the reality of translation that I’d like to address.

1. Your Work Is Not Your Work.

To translate means to deal in the borrowed or the stolen, never the owned. Everything that you are handling belongs to someone else. That show you are translating, that novel you are translating, it’s someone else’s work. This may seem almost insultingly obvious. But there are a lot of implications that you need to think about. The act of translation necessitates an extreme degree of respect. Surrender any impulses of “he should have.” Fight off any thoughts of “making it better” than the original. The greatest artist is great because of what you see testified in his work, but the greatest translator is great because of his invisibility. You must not insert your own ego. You must not change lightly. You don’t have the right to. It’s the same principle as the man assigned to guard another man’s wife: your job and your moral duty are to return her in the same condition you found her to the furthest extent possible. Because whether you love her, you hate her, or you find yourself indifferent to her–it’s your job, and she’s not your wife. You need to be thinking that seriously. If you’re not prepared to live with the constant moral responsibility that translating entails, you shouldn’t be a translator.

2. Some Types Of People Make Good Translators, Some Don’t.

Because translation carries such a high degree of ethical responsibility and there are so many cracks through which meaning can slip, a translator absolutely must be meticulous. The kind of person that makes a good translator is the same kind of person that makes a good librarian: someone who’s a little (or a lot) obsessive-compulsive. Now, of course you don’t need an OCD personality to be a translator. But if it’s not your personality, it’s got to be your attitude. Translating requires intense concentration for long periods of time and attention to the very tiniest of details. Either you need to get through on sheer meticulousness, or you need an all-absorbing passion for the work. What you’re like in your personal life, who cares (hell, my apartment looks like a nuclear disaster site). But if you’re a “don’t sweat the details” person about your work, if you skimp on research, if close is good enough for you, this is not the right career choice for you. I don’t say this out of the desire to lecture and I’m not trying to scare you off; I’m merely trying to lay out the truth so you can make an informed decision. I don’t sit in front of my computer every day shaking like a leaf under the burden of a soul-crushing responsibility and the effort of superhuman concentration, and you shouldn’t either. But we all need to understand the gravity of what we’re doing and be serious about it and honest in our evaluation of whether we can do it well.

3. Knowledge Is Less Important Than You Think.

Don’t think that just because you never remember what that one really common word you always forget means, you’re never going to be a good translator. In fact, don’t think that forgetting what those ten or twenty words mean will make you a bad translator. Translation is you in a room with your computer; you don’t have to talk to it in real time. Of course vocabulary is important. But what’s way more important is knowing what you know and what you don’t. In fact, that’s the most important thing. Because if you don’t know and you realize that, you can always find out. If you can research as appropriate and you can figure out how to find out what you don’t know, remembering the word for “farming” isn’t important. You can always look it up. ^_^

4. Knowledge Is More Important Than You Think.

Don’t think that you can translate TV shows with an A in first-year Japanese class and a dictionary. It just doesn’t work that way, for Japanese or for any language. Yes, a dictionary can–usually–define a word for you, but language isn’t just a bunch of definitions strung together with elementary grammar. You need to have both a good grounding in Japanese grammar and a good idea of how it’s actually spoken and written out there in the real world. There’s always going to be some weird sentence you need help figuring out no matter how good you get, but if you don’t have subtle and nuanced enough understanding of Japanese syntax to understand what the grammar of most every sentence you encounter is doing (it’s okay if you have to sit and ponder it for a while first or remind yourself somehow), you’re going to misinterpret and your dictionary cannot save you.

5. You Need Good English.

Whatever language you’re translating to, you need to be really damn good at that language. Say you’re translating from Japanese into English. If your English skills aren’t good enough and you can’t make appropriate choices for how to express something in English, it doesn’t matter how masterful your Japanese is.

6. “I Speak Both Languages” vs. “I’m a Good Translator.”

For some reason a lot of people seem to think that a native speaker of one language is going to be better at translating from that language (actually theorists agree that it’s best to be a native speaker of the language you’re translating into), or that someone who’s bilingual is going to be good at translating from one of their languages to another. That’s not true. Translation is a skill and an art. Speaking multiple languages doesn’t make you a good translator any more than being able to see multiple colors makes you a good painter. Just like with any craft, becoming good at translation is part talent, part attitude, part education, and part practice.

7. The Native Speaker Is Not An Oracle.

This is partly an extension of #6; as we’ve said, speaking a language doesn’t make you a good translator. So it follows that speaking a language doesn’t necessarily equate with being able to answer questions about that language well. Some native speakers are great resources for word meanings and other linguistic issues; some native speakers are horrible resources for those things. And many are somewhere in between: it depends on how good you are at asking the right questions. It’s important to have native speakers as resources if you’re not native in the language you’re translating from, but it’s equally important to choose your advisors wisely–and then use them wisely, respectfully, and kindly. Finally, keep in mind that no one is infallible. All of us make mistakes, and all of us have things we’ve got the wrong idea about or just don’t know. I’m a native speaker of English with a B.A. in linguistics, and there are certainly English words I don’t know or have wrong ideas about. ^_^

Part 2: What You Need – On Developing the Skills

The Monterey Institute of International Studies has a ten-point list of ways to prepare for being one of their translation and interpretation students. Highly-paraphrased (so much so it’s not even ten points anymore), it basically says:

-Read extensively in your native language and in the language(s) you translate from.
-Pay attention to the news in all your working languages.
-Take steps to make yourself a more knowledgeable and well-rounded person.
-Spend time abroad.
-Develop your writing, research, analysis, and (for interpreters) public speaking skills.
-Get computer savvy.
-Don’t stay up for days at a time and live on junk food.
-Remember Rome wasn’t built in a day.

I think this is a great list that applies to any translator in any field–although in the spirit of full disclosure, I will admit that as an anime translator I don’t generally feel compelled to read the newspapers in Japanese. However, that is something I feel is important to me, because I’m looking ahead to if/when I ultimately transition to working more on projects that aren’t pop-culture. At that point having that experience will become as critical as everything else on that list. So take MIIS to heart, but also know what your own goals are. There’s good solid reasoning behind everything on that list and everything will power you up. Now to flesh that out and add some things born of my personal experience, here’s my shot at a ten-point list:

Ten Ways to Become a Kickass Translator

1. Get good at the language you’re translating from.

This is the obvious one that everyone knows. But hey, it’s obvious because it’s true. To be a good translator of any language, you need to have strong skills in that language. I translate Japanese, so I need to have strong skills in it. There are many other webpages out there which can tell you better than I how to develop your skills in your chosen language. So I’ll just be short and sweet and say “use it.” Read, write, study, research, speak, listen. Also, one thing other places won’t necessarily tell you: I find my background in linguistics has allowed me to synthesize a lot of my language learning faster than my peers with other academic backgrounds.

2. Get good at the target language.

The “target” language is the language you’re translating into. So for me, my target language is generally English. You need to have intimate understanding of the language you’re translating into. I can’t stress that enough. To craft a truly fine translation you need to have truly fine skills in English (or whatever your target language may be). Otherwise you won’t be able to communicate your ideas as clearly and you won’t be able to make appropriate or inspired choices that capture the spirit and texture of a literary text. Your skill in the target language is even more important than your skill in the language you’re translating from.

If you don’t speak your target language natively: read, write, and study it extensively, become acquainted with its high literature and its use in pop culture, and make sure you have trustworthy people to advise you on language choices. Also see my tips to native speakers below.

If you’re a native speaker of your target language: good, because that’s ideal–but that alone isn’t enough. You also need to have skill in wielding the language. The best way to develop it is to read extensively and write different kinds of things (articles, essays, etc.). Also, if applicable to the kind of translation you want to do, practice poems and stories–they don’t have to be publish-me good; you just have to work with them enough to get a grip on what’s involved. It’s best if you can get some constructive criticism on them as well. If you’re still in high school or college, you’re in the best possible position to get your English (or whatever) skills up to snuff: take courses that have a heavy writing component. Try to take at least one literature-type course and at least one technical or scientific course that make you really exercise your writing, and really pay attention to the feedback from your professors and peers. (Often it helps to do a little asking around about instructors before you sign up for the courses; upperclassmen can usually tell you which instructors will be truly helpful and which won’t.)

3. Research, research, research.

Many kinds of translation, especially of books, movies, and TV shows, are about knowing a little bit about every single thing that’s ever happened everywhere. In the course of a typical week translating anime, I might have to search for information on rainforest spiders, Pakistani names, a 1960s Japanese TV drama, the Reformation, aerospace technology, and the daily habits of Tibetan monks. And then it’d be Tuesday. Obviously, you’re never going to know all that plus everything else (Norse mythology, the Koran, Italian…). So you need to get good at finding stuff out. Not only that, but the answers need to be from reliable sources where possible. So one of the most key things to develop as a translator is research skills. If you’re in high school or college, try taking courses that will help you in this, or attend a library orientation day. (In most colleges the main campus library will hold an orientation day, often including research tips, once a semester. The only trick is that you’re probably only going to find out when it is by going up to the librarian in charge and asking.) Hell, try to get a work-study job at the library; you’re bound to learn something (I did), and make money too. If you’re not in school and/or don’t work at a library, don’t worry. Many college and public libraries offer sporadic courses on research methods; you can find out and try to take one. If that’s not a possibility, you can go to a college or public library and find that mythical figure called the Reference Librarian. The Reference Librarian’s job is to know how to find out stuff. If you’re a student, your school/college Reference Librarian is fair game. If it’s a public library, try to go on a slow day or make an appointment. Then go up to him or her, introduce yourself, and ask for help learning good research skills both online and in print (if you think you’ll need to be doing most of your research online, let her know). TIP: It will help if you bring some sample questions/areas of research so that s/he can help you by example. You can kill two birds with one stone by bringing research questions that have come up in one of your translations. CAUTION: Remember, the Reference Librarian is not a research monkey. S/he is not a research assistant. S/he’s there to help you do your own research. There is nothing that will alienate a Reference Librarian faster than expecting him/her to know or find all your answers for you.

Now, it’s worth taking a step back and saying that if you’re an anime translator and you already have some experience researching things, even if you’re not the Research Queen you may still be okay. Most–but certainly not all–of your research needs can be met by developing a passionate love affair with Google (both Japanese and your home country’s). However, watch out! Do not think for one moment that Googling isn’t a skill. There are ways to utilize search engines to find out esoteric things or get helpful, reliable results. There are also ways to take three hours getting completely useless results. Maybe you want to get some tips, or maybe you just want to set yourself a long list of hard questions and try to get better and better at finding the answers. Maybe you’re the Google Queen already. No matter which it is, the fact is good research takes practice.

4. Make friends.

Remember how I said translation was about being an expert on everything ever? Well, knowing an expert on everything ever is the next best thing. Networking is the way to go for a translator. When I need to be an expert on Latin for five minutes, I call my friend who teaches Latin. When I need to be an expert on Buddhism, I call my friend who’s an expert on Buddhism. When I need to know something random about flesh, fowl, or good red herring I call my dad. There are some things where all the Googling in the world is not going to deliver the goods as well as a consultation with someone who really knows the stuff. And if you don’t have someone to call, you’re going to have to spend a day at the library. You don’t want that to happen if deadline is tomorrow! So keep the various expertises of your friends and family in the back of your mind. Remember people you’re introduced to and be nice to them. And remember, when you call one of your people in the middle of the day and say “I need to know all the Biblical implications of this Greek word right now,” ALWAYS thank them before you hang up. They save your life, so be sure to show your appreciation.

5. Have an idea of what your goal is.

It’s my belief that someone who’s thought about what her theory of translation is, what translation means to her, and what she’s really trying to do overall as a translator is going to be better at her craft. So I would read a little bit on translation theory, and then spend a little time pondering what you think and what your philosophy of translation is. As an added bonus, reading other people’s writing about translation can give you ideas for how to handle problems you encounter. I suggested some books to start with on the Translation Resources page.

6. Get in-depth knowledge of the relevant field(s).

This may sound like a no-brainer. If you’re going to spend your career translating court documents, duh, you need to learn about law. But in less cut-and-dried fields I find people don’t always think about this. For example, a literary translator needs to have a strong literary background, with in-depth knowledge of major literary works and schools of literary thought. And an anime translator absolutely must have good knowledge of anime. You need to actually study it in a disciplined way, because it’s your field. You need to learn about the animation process itself (it’ll come up in interviews and extras if not the actual show), and about anime and its history in general (to get started, see the Becoming an Anime Expert page). Finally, the cultures and histories of the relevant countries are necessary fields of knowledge for ALL translators. I don’t care if you’re translating a great work of literature or a restaurant menu, you absolutely must have some foundation in the cultures behind all the languages/locations you’re working with. Yes, that includes your own.

7. Get a little bit of knowledge about the irrelevant fields.

Hey, like we’ve said, we’re the five-minute experts on everything. So pretty much anything you learn about in any capacity will probably come in handy eventually. Take the opportunities to learn about things, and just generally pay attention to what’s going on around you (especially the way people are talking) and file it away for later.

8. Have awareness of popular culture.

If you’re like me you find keeping up with popular culture and current events kind of a pain. But the fact is, it’s going to come up. Anything the world is preoccupied with works its way into everything. So keep your eyes open. Listen to the radio on your drive to work. Just find some way to pay a little attention to what’s going on. I always end up failing to read the newspaper, so I read TIME magazine–cover-to-cover so I get the news and the random.

9. Get creativity (yes, it can be a skill).

Scientists have been telling us for a while that creativity is a learned behavior, and it’s true. The more you practice brainstorming new and different language-play ideas, the more creative you are in your translation work. What are the common problems for every translator? What are the common translation problems in your specific language? When you run across examples of them in your daily life, take a moment and try to brainstorm ways to deal with them. Sometimes you do even better in this daily-life brainstorming than on your actual work, because there’s no pressure. What I’ll do is, when I’m reading comics in Japanese and I come across a really thorny issue, I’ll ask myself how I would’ve handled it. If I think of a joke in Japanese, I ask myself how I could make a translation of it work in English. Another thing you can do is look at other translations to/from your languages. Maybe you always handle puns in the same way. Does another translator handle them differently? Maybe that can break you out of the box and get you thinking in new ways.

10. Put thought into your work setup.

Translation is inherently uncomfortable because it often involves sitting on your butt for long periods of time, crouched over your desk peering at text. It can also be extremely inefficient if there’s a problem with your workspace or your equipment. You need to futz around with various different setups physically, to make sure sitting in that chair isn’t killing you, or to find out that moving your computer monitor up a few inches saves your life. And for goodness’ sake, get up and take a walk once in a while. It’ll save your spine and reboot your brain. You also need to futz around until you find a comfortable mental setup on your computer–if you’re translating from video, maybe there’s a video playback program that fits your habits better, for example. Little changes like that will boost your efficiency. Whether you’re a religious computer user or you’re one of the few holdouts who translates with pen and paper, you need to become very proficient in computing in all the languages you use. Clients will expect that and demand it. And there will be times when it’s just the only way to be efficient. There are all kinds of complications in computing in other alphabets, especially Asian alphabets, and the issues vary from operating system to operating system, program to program. Make sure that if nothing else you figure all of that out in whatever internet browsers you’re likely to encounter and in Microsoft Word.

Well, that’s about the size of it. If I were to say anything else, I think it would be that you can’t go wrong to take a linguistics course. Any aspiring translator still in college can probably benefit from some background courses in ling. Learning about language as a general system has greatly helped me develop my skills in all areas of translation, from as basic as language learning to as advanced as finding the intersections and deviances between languages and everything in between.

Author bio

Sarah “Alys” Lindholm is a Japanese to English translator of audiovisual media, academic papers, and other fun things. In addition to her freelance business, she is currently the Translation Manager at Funimation, where she spends her days acquiring new gray hairs and making sure your anime launches on time.