Monday, May 24, 2010

"Harmonizing" -- A Waste of Translators' Talents But Clients Pay

This item was sent to me by a professional translator who specializes in medical documents. She and several other translators needed to grapple with less than a dozen questions in a survey. Her experience sheds light on some common myths about translation. One is that you should hire only a "native speaker" to translate into their native language. See what you think after you read this brief item!

Recently, a large pharmaceutical company, seeking to expand sales internationally, contracted a dozen translators, all residing in the same city, to translate a patient survey consisting of less than ten questions. The original survey had been written in US English.

After each translator had completed his or her work, the agency asked them to attend a session called a harmonization meeting. The goal: to be sure that each translator had rendered the English questions accurately into his or her native language. The first question that should be occurring to anyone familiar with translation or anyone with common sense should be: How can each translator possibly help the others if they are all working into different, mutually incomprehensible languages? The only common language around the table will be English.
 What became clear was that the translators had been a bit confused by the English, to varying degrees and depending on the passages. Since none of them were native speakers of English, except for the monolingual moderator and me (native bilingual of English and Tagalog), I next had to wonder what reliable insights into English these non-natives of English were going to be able to give to each other.

Everyone was very friendly, had a great time meeting each other and talking about the questionnaire. In a few cases, the feedback revealed that the composers of the original had used a bit more slang than they probably should have, but for a translator who really knows American English, this did not present a problem, since it was meaning, not style, that needed to be conveyed to the readers in the target languages. But nothing happened around the table that would enable one translator to suggest the wording of the other translator’s target text.

In order to ensure the proper translation of a text and perform quality control, there are three things a company must bear in mind: First, select a translator who can comprehend the source text. Just because a person is a “native speaker of language X” does not mean that he or she will be able to translate a text from your language into the other. The more technical the topic, the more the translator needs to have a track record of translation in the given industry. Next, the company needs to trust the translator and be accessible to answer questions about the content, preferably with the writer of the original. This can create a very healthy symbiotic relationship. In some cases, the third thing a company might do is have a quality control expert (QC) who is a native speaker of the target language look at the translation – and communicate with the translator.

Some may wonder why this QC expert shouldn’t do the translation to begin with. The reason has often been demonstrated. A doctor whose native language is, say Spanish, may have great difficulty translating a document about his or her field of expertise, but can easily judge its medical accuracy when presented with a document.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Study Spanish This Summer

The school year is drawing to a close for everyone in K-college. If you've been studying Spanish and want to make progress over the summer, instead of letting everything you've (probably almost) learned wash away with the summer fun, this blog posting will give you some ideas.

My suggestions are organized according to two main rubrics: age group and language proficiency level. I do not take into direct consideration the students who are unmotivated and yet are forced by their parents or other circumstances to get a tutor or work on their Spanish in some other way. 

However, to address that common situation parents face, particularly with teens, the most positive advice I can give to parents who are thinking of how to encourage a child of any age to improve their Spanish is to find a program that involves some other activity that your child likes a lot but which is conducted in Spanish. In other words, create the motivation to communicate rather than push directly on the need to learn the language, or worse, to improve a grade.

As for the motivated, let's start with youngsters, K-6. Regardless of where they are with their study of a second language, this is the age group that most benefits from an unstructured immersion environment. Throw them all together with adult native speakers of both languages (not necessarily bilingual themselves) and their young brains will soak up quite a bit. 

Depending on your community, you are likely nowadays to find day camps, church groups and even community centers where there are sufficient Spanish-speaking children to encourage bilingual day camps -- for the benefit of the English- and Spanish-speaking children.

Things get trickier in every way at adolescence. But let's still assume that the young person is motivated. Something about Spanish is fun. Find out what that "fun" was. Then create a way to continue that "fun" through the summer. However, in order to be pedagogically effective, there has to be increasingly more purposeful and deliberate analysis of the language as they get older. This means that an experienced teacher needs to be found to give some direction to the study of the language. It is easy, too easy in fact, to push vocabulary, so be sure that they are forced to use the vocabulary. With Spanish, as with most languages, this means learning verbs and how to use them. This ought not to be dry. Games can be played to make even conjugation fun, but don't stop there! They need to then have activities that "force" them to use the vocabulary in meaningful and communicative ways with each other. Language is about community. No one would or could learn any language if they grew up alone in a cave. 

College students and adults face advantages and disadvantages. Their greatest advantage, if they will harness it, is that they can analyze structures and discern patterns, use models and so forth. Their greatest disadvantage is that they no longer can soak up a language's grammar just by being exposed to it in natural speech for a few hours a day. But consider these two facts: While it takes us all about seven years to learn our first language in this unstructured way, the adult, capable of deliberate, organized and sustained effort, can learn a second language well enough to be socially functional in a couple of years, depending on the language and the effort.

For example, the closer two languages are to each other, the easier the other is to learn. For an English speaker to learn Chinese is much harder than for him or her to learn French, Spanish, German or Norwegian. Much, much harder. Even though Chinese grammar is not difficult (it's much more skeletal than English), it is painfully difficult to learn to pronounce (because of the tonal system) and read (because of the thousands of characters).

Suggestions for college students over the summer: instead of thinking of earning credits, how about spend some "unstructured" time abroad? That doesn't mean not studying grammar, it means taking charge of your language study. Take good books that focus on what you need to master. My three books (soon four) about the subjunctive, past tenses and pronouns are excellent and inexpensive tools to take, along with a paperback bilingual dictionary. Avoid English speakers when you go abroad to study. Remember: immersion is 90% psychological and only 10% geographical!

¡Buen viaje!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Reflections on Teaching Translation

In the early 1980s, I had the honor of beginning my study of translation under Margaret Sayers Peden -- one of the most prolific literary translators of the twentieth century.

To give you an idea of what sort of intellectual acumen she brought to the table, in 1988 alone, while she was the second reader of my doctoral thesis on Baroque Spanish drama, she published twelve novels she had translated from Spanish to English. If you have read the novels of Isabel Allende after House of the Spirits, you have read her marvellous creative work. I believe Eva Luna was the first of Allende's novels she translated but by the time she began that she had an impressive trail of titles by names as famous as Carlos Fuentes and Octavio Paz. I had the joy of helping her do her edits of her translation of Paz's work, Sor Juana InĂ©s de la Cruz or the Traps of Faith -- a monumental work that is at once a primer and an encyclopedia for anyone studying Baroque literature and culture. 

Dr. Peden, or "Petch" as her family and friends know her, designed her classes as a hybrid. On the one hand, to satisfy the bean counters of the accreditation world, she included an academic exploration of the subject, but her strong inclination was to say that for her, translation was something to do, not talk about. To satisfy the academic content, we read and reported on chapters from books by translators about translation, one of which was George Steiner's weighty After Babel.

However, most of the class time was spent as a workshop in which students, divided into a blue team and a red team, would bring passages from their projects to get advice about problem words, phrases and so forth. The blue team and red team alternated class days to critique and to ask questions. The discussions which grew out of these questions and contributed to the academic side varied organically -- they simply depended on what popped up. In my translation classes, I follow her model, and have added a few other books to read, such as If This Be Treason -- the memoires of Gregory Rabassa.

In the thirty years since I studied with her, I can only claim the translation of one literary work: The Complete Poetry of St. Teresa de Avila (1996, soon to go through a second edition). On the other hand, I have spent years as a professional, certified technical translator, a field in which I have earned a living for at least three full years outside of academia. I've translated on subjects as arcane as Polynesian archeoastronomy on Rapa Nui or as scientifically useful as medical material, military applications of telecommunications technology and so forth.

I mention this variety of topics in technical work because Peden often said that if a person knows two languages -- and she meant really, really knows them -- translation in any particular technical area chiefly presents the challenge of learning specialized vocabularies and shop talk (also not easily acquired in many cases). Technical translation is less demanding grammatically than literary projects and makes fewer demands on stylistic or artistic intuition. On the other hand, it makes tremendous demands on terminology, which is why computer assisted or machine-assisted translation (MAT/CAT) is so often employed as a tool, despite its weaknesses with syntax.

On the other hand, she observed that literary translation is the area that requires intellect and deep stylistic sensibilities, which result from reading far, wide and deeply. MAT/CAT is useless for literature. Just as a good chef must eat, a translator must read. Another caveat: Literary translation does not pay the bills. After all, it didn't pay hers (at least when I knew her) -- she was a professor!

While many professional, accredited translators are college professors, many, if not most professors who teach foreign language have not employed that skill in some way other than to teach it in the artificial, contrived environment of a classroom or in overseas programs where the problems of the traditional classroom usually remain, but are masked by the marketing allure of the illusion of immersion.

Few college professors of foreign language have run a business in that language, managed an office or run a newspaper that publishes in that language. In general, university professors of foreign language come in two flavors: They either specialize in literature or linguistics. Because they like teaching their specialities and they are aware of their lack of experience outside academia, professors of foreign language usually are not interested in teaching a skill they have not deliberately developed and  used.

A lot of students think they can become translators after majoring in a foreign language in college. Fortunately, whether they have real world experience or not, professors know quite well that translation is tough. It requires more than bilingualism. It is a special skill. Think of it this way: Just because you speak English doesn't mean you can instantly be a technical writer for a manufacturer. So, when professors advise students, they dissuade all but their most thoroughly bilingual students from even entertaining the notion of becoming either translators (written texts) or interpreters (oral, usually live, media).

In fact, in the interest of public safety (and to keep them from embarrassing themselves) I put a disclaimer in my translation syllabus to the effect that taking the class and even getting an "A" does not constitute a qualification as a translator. For that, there is a guild, The American Translators Association, that administers a very rigorous and long exam to would-be translators. 

So, if you are contemplating becoming a translator or teaching translation, visit the ATA website in the link above. They offer practice exams, advice about how to improve your skills and much more. In either case, credentialize yourself, read their literature and become active as a translator. Build up a professional translation CV.

Learn the business side of the profession. Become familiar with the tools and issues of the trade. If you're hoping to make a career of it, don't quit your day job since it takes sustained effort to build up a steady stream of clients and contacts.

If your goal is to add a credential and the experience that qualifies you to teach, after a couple of years on the inside, you'll be in a ideal position to make an informed proposal to teach a class in translation -- one that will be of real value to your students and one that you can feel confident about teaching.