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.

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.

On Translators

This post originally appeared on Kevin L. Hull’s blog and it is republished with permission.

This post is an assignment I did in English 101 in the summer of 2017, and I would like to share it with the world. The assignment was to do a paper on careers, and I did mine on translators. I hope that those of you who hope to work in translation find this helpful.

I have to admit that I am having a hard time determining my career path! I haven’t even chosen a major! All I know is that I want to do something different from what I have been doing. For this reason, I have started researching careers that interest me, based on my interests, skills, and values. In this essay, I will analyze four articles related to the career of translating.

Review of “Interpreter and Translator”, by Sally Driscoll

The first article I will discuss is “Interpreter and Translator” by Sally Driscoll. In this article, she lists the interests, work environments, duties, and responsibilities of interpreters and translators. She shows how interpreters and translators differ. She gives the pay and growth rate of these occupations. She concludes by listing the education, training, and experiences that are helpful, even necessary, to become a translator or interpreter.

This article is meant to inform people about the professions of interpreter and translator, and it presents good ideas in a clear, coherent, and orderly manner. Her information has increased my interest in becoming a translator. Driscoll writes, “Interpreting and translating attract those who are linguistically gifted and enjoy foreign cultures. Translators tend to be introverts who prefer reading and writing…” (under “Occupational Interest” heading) Well, I am an introvert who loves other cultures, has considered being a writer since childhood, and enjoys reading.  Furthermore, I have a better idea of which courses I need to take should I decide to become a translator. Thus, my conclusion is that Driscoll has made her point well, and I would refer aspiring translators and interpreters to the article.

However, I do have a critique. Driscoll didn’t address global employability. While she  mentioned “Employment & Outlook: Faster Than Average Growth Expected”, she neither addressed whether or not red tape is reduced when translators seek work outside their home countries nor gave tips on where to seek foreign employment. Since she mentioned “foreign cultures” under “Interests’, this would imply that some translators would like to work outside their home country. So it would seem logical to reference it.

On the other hand, perhaps that topic was beyond the scope of the article. After all, she did mention the practicality of travel and study abroad programs, and said that sometimes internships are needed. Perhaps she included foreign employment under that umbrella.

Review of “Differentiated Instruction and Language-Specific Translation Training Textbooks”, by Anastasia Lakhtikova

The next article I will discuss is Anastasia Lakhtikova’s “Differentiated Instruction and Language-Specific Translation Training Textbooks”, in which she reviews two Russian language textbooks (Russian Translation: Theory and Practice by Edna Andrews and Elena Maximova; Introduction to Russian-English Translation by Natalia Strelkova) and one Spanish translation textbook, Manual of Spanish-English Translation by Kelly Washbourne. Lakhtikova is not impressed with Russian Translation, because she assesses that it contains a lot of dated exercises (such as a medical text from 1942, on p. 154) and requires an advanced level while marketing it to people with only two years of college Russian (p. 155). On the other hand, she highly praises Strelkova’s Introduction to Russian-English Translation, calling Strelkova “a Julia Child of translation giving enthusiastic advice to apprentices”, and “Students would find it useful to read it over and over again before going to bed” (p. 156). Lakhtikova also heaps praise on Washbourne’s Manual of Spanish-English Translation. She praises both as practical, but says that Washbourne’s work is even better, in that, unlike Strelkova’s, it is useful for translation students in general. That is, what Washbourne includes is useful even for translation students not working with Spanish, provided they find similarly-themed material to the stuff included in the exercises. Lakhtikova sees this as developing skills that translators use.

The purpose of this article is to inform readers on the quality of three translation textbooks, and it presents good ideas in an orderly, clear, and coherent manner. I find Lakhtikova’s tips to be useful in determining resources, should I embark on a journey to become a translator.   There are a number of things I like about Lakhtikova’s review of Introduction to Russian-English Translation. “Its discussion of written bureaucratese (i.e., administrative language) and colloquialisms is aimed at non-native Russian users…the text focuses on ‘accuracy’ (Chapter 3), ‘readability’ (Chapter 5), and ‘correctness’ (Chapter 6)” (p. 156), all of which is useful. However, due to my desire to be able to translate multiple languages, I particularly like the review of Manual of Spanish-English Translation. Since the latter book teaches the skills needed to actually do the work, and is applicable across languages, a multilingual translator could apply the principles to other languages as well. So, I think Lakhtikova made a good point.

However, this is not enough, in my opinion. Right now, this is just someone’s opinion. What I would like to know is what the rate of user satisfaction among both instructors and students is. I would like to know about research done on these textbooks, on whether or not they are effective.

Review of “Some Misconceptions Concerning Bilingualism and a Career in Translation”

The third article that I will discuss is “Some Misconceptions Concerning Bilingualism and a Career in Translation” by James Bell. The bottom line is that a career in translation requires more than bilingualism. First, the author mentions overhearing a conversation between two students who were complaining about their English Comp class. One student said that the English Comp class was one of the reasons that she was majoring in Spanish. She told her friend, “I want to teach Spanish, but if I can’t, after taking a couple of professional translation classes and being bilingual, I can always translate or interpret.” (p. 38). Bell arranged to meet with her later to clarify things. At that meeting, after telling her the average annual pay for translators and informing her that the industry is expanding, he told her that she has to have a good knowledge of both languages. The author then responds to a couple of the student’s questions. The first question was why translators need to translate into their native language, “since translation appeared to be a two-lane road…both leading to the same direction.” (p. 40). His answer was cultural knowledge, and that cultural misunderstandings can lead to misleading translations. The second question was, “So why am I going to take ‘Introduction to Professional Translation’ and ‘Advanced Professional Translation’ as part of my Spanish major?” (p. 41) Bell’s answer is that translation enhances Spanish learning (p. 41). He concludes by saying that the reference to “Professional” should be dropped from the course title.

In this article, the author tells readers a story in order to inform readers that there is more to being a translator than being bilingual. He tells the story and presents his information in a clear, coherent, and orderly manner. As someone who did not know what being a translator entails beyond bilingualism, I find this article enlightening. I have a strange feeling that the student and I are not the only ones. Because of this, I think this is good advice for aspiring translators. I especially like the following quotes from M. Eta Trabing’s article “Beyond Bilingualism”: “Having two languages does not make you a translator or interpreter any more than having two hands makes you a pianist” (quoted by Bell, p. 39); and “For translation you must know the target language (the one that you are translating into) in great depth, and your grammar, spelling, and punctuation should be nearly perfect.” (quoted by Bell, p.40). I see the point of the latter, in that, in my experience, knowledge of grammar in English has helped me learn other languages. I also like his mention of the need for cultural awareness: “Culture is arguably the main reason a translator, especially a beginning translator, should translate into his or her native language, rather than a second language.” (p. 40). Due to the existence of culture-specific terms and the existence of figures of speech, I find this advice to be wise. Furthermore, I like the fact that Bell takes the student’s objections seriously and replies to them. In my view, this makes him seem more informed. With his replies to the student, his mention of language competence in both languages, and his comment on the need to be culturally aware, Bell’s article gives direction on a couple of areas of knowledge that aspiring translators need to seek.

I do think, though, that the author could have given more information on what is needed to become a translator. My question is, “What else is needed to become a translator?” On the other hand, the author was responding to a specific incident, and trying to correct a misconception that one merely needs to be bilingual to be a translator: thus, that may be beyond the scope of the article. Ultimately, this article is helpful for those seeking to become translators.

Review of “What Does It Take to be a Good Translator?”

The last article that I will discuss is Jim Healey’s “What Does It Take to be a Good Translator?” In this article, Healey asks four professional translators their thoughts on a Parade article called “What People Earn”, from 15 April 2007. Healey’s questions focused on the line, “not all jobs require a four-year degree… ‘Some of the best opportunities are for workers with an associates degree or some kind of vocational training. One type of worker in particularly high demand is interpreter/translator.’” (quoted in Healey, p. 29). Among the translators, there is agreement that bilingualism is insufficient to be a translator. In addition, more than one mentioned the need for good writing skills and cross-cultural knowledge. However, they differed on the necessity of a college degree. Two of the translators, Dena Bugel-Shunra (a freelance translator specializing in IT and sub-specializing in legal translation [p. 29] ) and Lori Thicke (co-founder of Eurotexte, which was renamed Lexcelera [p. 32] ) said that a degree isn’t that important. Bugel-Shunra says that clients generally do not ask about degrees (p. 30); however, she recommends getting one for the societal advantages that it gives (p. 31). Thicke says, “In the 20 years since I moved to Paris and co-founded Eurotexte (now known as Lexcelera), I have noticed that certain characteristics are shared by virtually all good translators, and that a degree in translation is not one of them.” (p. 33) She then goes on to list seven traits she feels define a good translator better than any degree. On the other hand, Cliff Landers (a freelance literary translator) and Donald Barabe (vice president, professional services, at the Canadian Federal Translation Bureau [p. 29] ) say that a degree is required. Landers is concerned that a lack of degree sends the message that one only needs to be bilingual to be a good translator. Barabe, observing declining language skills among the younger generation, says, “Recruits not having the basic skills normally acquired by a three-year university program in translation require additional training and supervised coaching.” (p. 35). Barabe then continues by discussing the Translation Bureau’s training program. The article concludes with Healey’s summing up his findings, with the following conclusion: “It becomes clear that there is no single path to becoming a qualified and successful translator. The profession has many avenues of entrance, not to mention the hard work, discipline, dedication, sacrifice and a love of languages that accompany this career choice.” (p. 36)

The purpose of this article is to inform readers: in particular, to analyze a claim made about the translation industry, and it was written in a clear, consistent, and orderly manner. I find Thicke’s aforementioned list of traits of good translators to be helpful. These traits are intelligence, discrimination (that is, between literal and figurative language), ethics (specifically quality work), writing style, experience in the source language culture, continuing access to the target language, and specialized knowledge (pp. 33-34). Concerning writing style, she says, “Good translators are good writers…often better writers than the original authors.” (p. 34) Since Landers also mentions cultural experience, I would like to share his thoughts on the topic: “Familiarity with German culture is likely to be more valuable in translating an Austrian novel than a Dutch one, and all but useless if the work is from Albania.” (p. 32) Not only do the translators clarify the misconceptions in the Parade article, they also give aspiring translators direction and advice on what they DO need. I think that with the advice given here, aspiring translators will have information to make plans on how to obtain their goal.

I also like that both opinions on the necessity of a degree were given. This allows people to make their own judgments based on their own personal situations. My personal opinion is that it is better to get the degree, in that it won’t hurt. In addition, the degree will increase employment prospects. Furthermore, getting the degree can help with specialization, something that Thicke mentioned helps make a good translator. (p. 34)

Concluding Thoughts

Having reviewed these articles, I find myself more informed on the translation industry. As I mentioned in my review of “Interpreter and Translator”, I have an interest in other languages and countries. This is what got me interested in the profession in the first place. However, as a couple of the articles revealed, bilingualism is not enough to be a translator. I have also learned skills about the skills that I need to become a translator, and thus am better prepared to take the steps needed to move in that direction. I still remain undecided, but I plan on taking my courses in such a way that being a translator is an option. Even as I have found these articles useful, I believe that they will be useful to other undecided students who are considering becoming translators.

Works Cited:

Bell, James. “Some Common Misconceptions Concerning Bilingualism and a Career in Translation”. Journal of the Georgia Philological Association, 2008, pp. 38-42

Driscoll, Sally. “Interpreter and Translator”. Salem Press Encyclopedia, January 2016

Healey, Jim. “What Does It Take To Be A Good translator?”. MultiLingual, Vol. 18 Issue 5, July/Aug. 2007, pp. 29-36

Lakhtikova, Anastasia. “Differentiated Instruction and Language-Specific Translation Training Textbooks”.  Translation & Interpreting Studies: The Journal of the American Translation & Interpreting Studies Association, Vol. 10 Issue 1, 2015, pp. 153-160

Six International Language Associations to Join

Language associations are a great way to connect with people of different backgrounds who share a similar appreciation for learning foreign languages. By joining a language association, you have the opportunity to engage with speakers at various levels of proficiency and practice your language skills with native speakers. You’re probably already familiar with the American Translators Association since this blog is run by ATA volunteers, but what about other international associations for languages?

Learning a new language can be very difficult and it’s also a challenge to maintain proficiency. Language associations allow you to stay proficient in the languages you have worked so hard to master while also connecting with new people.

If you’re looking to improve and increase your foreign language skills, take a look at these six international language associations you should join!

  1. The International Language Association (ICC)

The International Certificate Conference (ICC) is a non-government organization that sets the standards for a transnational network of language learners. This international language association offers foreign language teaching and learning with exchange of ideas and culture.

This association provides the following to its learners:

  • Proven expertise in projects
  • Quality assurance
  • Networking
  • Theory and practice
  • Personal development
  • Independent voice

As a platform for ideas, projects, teachers, and courses, the ICC encourages research and development in language teaching by collaboration. In addition, the ICC has a local impact, representing the field of language learning and teaching, and promotes quality in both aspects.

  1. American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL)

The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) is committed to the improvement and expansion of the teaching and learning of all languages at varying levels of instruction. Established in 1967, this organization now has over 13,000 members including language educators and administrators ranging from elementary through graduate education, with some holding positions in government and industry.

The ACTFL strives to advance the value of world languages and empower learners to become linguistically and culturally competent through the following strategic priorities:

  • Equity, diversity, and inclusion
  • Outreach and advocacy
  • Teacher recruitment and retention
  • Professional development
  • Research

If you’re looking to make your mark on the language education field, become a member of the ACTFL today.

  1. Association of Departments of Foreign Languages (ADFL)

The Association of Departments of Foreign Language (ADFL) supports the language, literature, and cultural studies communities in the United States and Canada. This association has a broad range of members, with representatives of departments and programs in diverse languages at postsecondary institutions.

The ADFL membership base provides a network to review the issues faced by language-related humanities fields and works to develop solutions and fieldwide policies. Through seminars, journals, discussion lists, and their website, the ADFL provides a forum for collegial exchange about important issues and legislation that affects the field of work.

Looking to find out more information about the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages? Check out the ADFL website.

  1. The Australian Federation of Modern Language Teachers Associations (AFMLTA)

The Australian Federation of Modern Language Teachers Associations (AFMLTA) is a professional body that represents educators of all languages in Australia. This association strives to provide vision, leadership, representation, advocacy, and support for promoting quality foreign language teaching and learning.

The AFMLTA strategic plan outlines actions they intend to complete in order to achieve their goals and support their members in the following key areas:

  • Member services
  • Governance and operations
  • Leadership and representation
  • Research and professional practice

For additional information on the AFMLTA and membership opportunities, contact the AFMLTA team.

  1. Association for Language Learning (ALL)

The Association for Language Learning (ALL) is an independent registered charity and the United Kingdom’s major subject association for individuals involved in the teaching of foreign language at varying levels of proficiency. It is their goal to represent and support language teachers and their ongoing professional development. The ALL supports their members by offering opportunities to access local, regional, and national training or networking events.

Founded in 1990, ALL is run by teachers for teachers and consists of thousands of members across the United Kingdom and further afield. To learn more about how the Association for Language Learning can help to improve your foreign language skills, check out the ALL website.

  1. Association of University Language Centers (AULC)

The Association of University Language Centers (AULC) is an organization for staff working in language departments and centers located in the United Kingdom and Ireland. With approximately 70 universities as current members, the AULC provides opportunities for networking for all staff involved in management, teaching, and resources.

The major goals of the association include:

  • To encourage and foster good practice and innovation in language learning and teaching
  • Effective resource management and administration
  • To conduct regular meetings to facilitate discussion and an exchange of information on the diverse activities hosted by the various language centers
  • To facilitate contacts with university departments internationally
  • To monitor emerging international and national language standards and work to develop quality assurance mechanisms

To learn more about their membership guidelines, check out the AULC site.

About the author

Molly Downey works with the Kent State Master of Arts in Translation program. This department provides a variety of courses in foreign languages, cultures, and literatures.  

Teacher’s Top Ten: Business Practices

One of the main reasons we encourage students to join ATA is to take advantage of the wellspring of knowledge surrounding best practices—the kind that make working for yourself a smooth ride rather than one riddled with potholes.

Over the years, I have assembled a collection of ATA materials that I share with students and mentees alike. Because when we present ourselves as professionals, we all benefit.

Here then are my top ten professional business practices resources:

10. Questions to Ask Before Accepting a Project This blog post gets you started building a checklist that you should consult when communicating with a client about a potential project. I had a checklist next to my phone for years until I committed it to memory.

09. Translation Certificate vs. Certification This one pairs nicely with What is a Certified Translation. If you’re still confused about the difference between a certificate, certification and a certified translation after reading this, go back and read them again.

08. “Hot” Specializations Past President Corinne McKay takes on the question of specializing in her ATA Chronicle column.

07. Transitioning from Classroom to Career in Translation A free ATA webinar from someone who made the transition herself, packed with practical information.

06. Tips For Navigating Your First ATA Conference A rite of passage for many students, the ATA Conference is a transformational experience that for many marks the beginning of their professional career. Because it’s an investment, it’s a good idea to come prepared, which is what this free ATA webinar does.

05. Preparing to take the ATA Certification Exam While it’s intended to be a mid-career exam, many talented students will sit for the exam after a few years. Watching this free ATA webinar will give you an idea of whether you are ready to take the exam, and how to prepare for it if you are ready to take the plunge.

04. ATA Compensation Survey (the Executive Summary is free, and the full report is available to members) One of the hardest issues T&I practitioners wrestle with is how much to charge. The ATA compensation survey provides a context for understanding what colleagues are charging. The full survey breaks things down by language and geography, and is also useful for influencing policy makers. Be sure to spend some quality time with it before you get to number 3:

03. Is This Still Worth It? A classic article by veteran translator Jonathan Hine that walks you through the full process of setting your rates. Bonus hint: look on the ATA website for the US CalPro Worksheet, a spreadsheet file that does the math for you.

02. ATA Guide to a Translation Services Agreement and ATA Guide to an Interpreting Services Agreement Free, editable downloads of modular contract language that you can include and customize to meet your own needs and situation.

And the number one resource I want every student of translation and interpreting to have:

01. The ATA Code of Ethics and Professional Practice and Commentary Far from being a dry, lifeless legal document, the ATA CEPP embodies our professionalism. The accompanying commentary is a living document that illustrates the concepts with easy-to-grasp situations. Since you signed on to uphold it when you joined ATA, you should probably be very familiar with it—and bookmark it.

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About the author: Caitilin Walsh is an ATA-Certified French-English translator who delights in producing publication-quality translations for the computer industry and food lovers alike. A graduate of Willamette University (OR) and the Université de Strasbourg (France), and a past-President of the American Translators Association, she currently chairs the ATA Education & Pedagogy Committee. She brings her strong opinions on professionalism as an instructor of Ethics and Business Practices at the Translation and Interpreting Institute at Bellevue College, Chair of the T&I Advisory Committee for the Puget Sound Skills Center (both in Washington State), the ALC Bridge Committee, and the Executive Board of the Joint National Committee for Language (JNCL-NCLIS). When not at her computer, she can be found pursuing creative endeavors from orchestra to the kitchen. She can be emailed at cwalsh@nwlink.com, and you can follow her on Twitter @caitilinwalsh.