The Thoughtful Translator Part I

How do you become a better translator? Is practice enough in itself? If it is, why is it that some translators with ten years of practice are still at the same level as some new university graduates? Is it all down to talent? In this three part series, I intend to look at one way that experience can be turned into improvement. And it all starts with a single question.

Yesterday, I was asked to take part in a survey of people’s views on the Nida School, a translation and interpreting summer school, which took place last summer. One of the questions asked whether the summer school had improved my skills. For most people, the answer would have been an obvious “no.” There were no translation workshops, no interpreting teaching and no displays of new translation tools. The vast majority of presentations were on translation theory rather than individual translations. Nevertheless, I answered with a strong “yes.” How on earth could ten days of semiotics, cognitive science, literary studies and Bible translation theory have altered my translation practice?

My answer is simple: those ten days allowed me to become more thoughtful and this thoughtfulness has impacted my work. The idea goes like this: the more I am able to think about my own work, the more I am able to see new approaches to translation problems. The more I am able to think about translation problems, the more patterns I can see and the more I can find even better approaches to solving them. The more effective I get at solving problems, the better I work.

Here is a very simple example. At the Nida School, there was a lot of discussion about what translators are actually doing when they translate. Are translators simply handling the words on the page or are they thinking about how the document will be used? Do they only care about what their clients will say or are they thinking about how their translation fits into society as a representative of a certain kind of text and even a symbol of a certain ideology?

Everyone will have different answers to those questions. For me the main point was to be able to reflect on a) why I translate b) the purpose of translating this particular document I am working on and c) the standards expected of this work. Starting from this angle, I can see my work in a wider perspective, which helps me to move away from simply seeing it as a collection of French words that have to be turned into a collection of English words by 3pm Wednesday morning.

Once I am thinking about the purpose of this translation, I can start to think about what type of text it is, what people expect of that type of text in the UK, the kinds of translations, styles and documents the client has already used and who is going to read this thing. Some of this I have already covered in other posts but here my emphasis is on how I arrived at this point.

What is even more exciting is that being able to translate thoughtfully puts me in a strong position to find solutions to problems than I haven’t even discovered yet. If I get into the habit of actually thinking about my work, then the chances are that I can see problems before my clients do, avoiding embarrassing mistakes and keeping quality high. So, the question remains: how much thought are you putting into your work?

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About Jonathan Downie

I am a conference interpreter, public speaking coach, preacher and researcher.
This entry was posted in General, Theory, Translation and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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