Wordsmith Translation: What is translation?

What Is Translation?

If you have reached this part of the site, it is because you want to know more. Indeed, so very little is known or understood about this profession outside of those who do it, that you would not be alone if you couldn’t describe translation any better than “you just take some words and then you put them in the other language.” But if you’re reading this then you already know that there’s a lot more involved.

Because translation is an activity that is very little understood, it is also greatly misunderstood. Many feel all that is required is to be bilingual and translation then comes naturally, you just have to switch between the two languages, right?

See below for how translation happens.

One need only type in ‘translation’ in an internet search engine and the screen is instantly filled with a host of computer translation software solutions, free instant online translations and electronic dictionaries with translation functions. You would be forgiven for thinking that translation is a purely mathematical process and that if a machine is capable of it then what’s the fuss all about?

The fact is that computers cannot translate, and this can be proven in seconds by testing even the world’s most advanced machine translation software for yourself. And what is more, they will never be able to, for exactly the same reasons that a computer will never be able to write a novel or devise a joke. Translation requires thought, skill, style and talent!

See more on Computer Assisted Translation in the CAT Tools section.

For those who speak two (or more) languages, not only do these two languages co-exist in their brains, but two parallel worlds exist in their brains; worlds which share a lot of the same information but label it differently, and of course contain a lot of information which is unique to each world, in the same way that France and Australia both have bread (and label it differently) but Australia does not have ficelles and France does not have crumpets.

This is fine for bilinguals, they understand that some things exist only in one of their worlds and use each language set as required, but translators go beyond this; they make it their job to travel across the borders and bring these unmatchable items across with them.

See more on the differences between bilinguals and translators in the Pitfalls section.

How translation happens

So what is really happening in a translator’s brain as they do their work? On the most transparent level, what a translator can be observed doing is writing; in very much the same way that a writer writes, except that the translator’s inspiration is coming from somewhere different. Rather than inventing the ideas behind their text, the translator takes the ideas directly from a text in another language and then processes and filters them through their creative mind in the same way a writer does to come out with an elegant and grammatically correct sentence which expresses what they want to say.
So the very basic elements a translator must possess in order to do this are firstly, a perfect understanding of the original text, then the vocabulary and grammatical knowledge of the other language to be able to formulate a message in that language and finally the skill and flair of a writer to be able to write that message elegantly. So that doesn’t sound very hard, I just need to be bilingual and able to write… right?

If we start to break down each of these processes you can see that a lot more is involved in each step. First let us consider the first step of having a perfect understanding of the original text.

Firstly, consider just the vocabulary aspect. Although you speak your native language perfectly, how often do you come across a word you don’t know (or misunderstand) when you read a newspaper for example, or a novel, or an 18th century poem.  Now consider how that figure might change if you were reading a finance report, a legal contract, pharmaceutical breakdown, sports account, mechanical assembly instructions or computer programming manual. We all know some areas better than others and translators are no exception, but we also make it our job to know more about more areas than most, and in all our languages.

Now think about the training required to have a perfect grammatical understanding of a foreign language, as well as a highly refined sense of stylistics, tone, register, nuance, subtext, metaphorical expression and play on words, not to mention whether or not the original text was well written itself. The translator must also not only read what is written but must be able to read between the lines, to understand the subtext and, in particular, to recognise any cultural allusions it may be hiding. Then add to language the extremely rich layers of cultural understanding which must exist for a reader to interpret any text with sensitivity. Unlike language, culture cannot be learned at a distance and you will find that most skilled translators have spent a considerable amount of time living in the country or countries of their second language.

Once the language and culture aspects have been taken care of, the translator must cut back to a further level of the original text in order to understand it: the author. Unlike a writer, the translator is not writing their own text, they have a duty to the original author to convey insofar as is possible what that person wished to say. So who was the author? What was their writing style? What was their ‘voice’? Why did they write this text? What was their intention? A translator must attempt to understand all of these things if they are to faithfully reproduce the original text. A lot of this part of the process happens on a subconscious level as the translator reads and absorbs the original text, but there can also be an immense amount of research involved in this phase, particularly in regards to who the text’s original audience was and what impact the writer wished to have on them through his text.

Of course, some of the deeper levels of this phase are only really necessary in literary translation, as the author of a mobile phone instruction booklet only has one clear purpose and probably doesn’t have much of a writing style. However, these are all things that a translator must not take for granted when studying a text and cannot overlook.

So let us assume that the translator has done the preliminary work (and has been suitably educated in and exposed to the language and culture of the original text) and now understands the original text perfectly. In their mind, they then start to search for possible matches for these ideas in the vocabulary and grammar of the other language. This is where it becomes extremely important that the translator be a native speaker of the language they are translating into, because although a translator may have studied their second language to an extremely high level and spent extensive amounts of time immersed in the culture of that language as previously mentioned, it is exceptionally difficult and very very rare to reach a level of proficiency which compares to that of a native speaker. And whilst such people do exist (I am lucky enough to know two such individuals personally), they are absolutely the exception to the rule. So for most of us, it is better simply to translate into our native language only. The difference between a native speaker and a highly skilled foreign speaker lies in the innate sense of what ‘sounds right’, as unscientific as that may be. Research shows that foreign speakers, however proficient, have a very limited ability to play with words and syntax to achieve different nuances of style and meaning, and a perfectly grammatically correct text will still read a little woodenly. You may read it and say, “Well it’s correct, but I don’t think I would say it that way”.

See more on the differences between native and foreign speakers in the Pitfalls section.

Once both the perfect understanding of the original text and the highly skilled ability to formulate meaning in the other language have been established, the translator comes into a world of choices, all of which will be informed by their understanding of the original text and their writing skills in the other language.  Let us consider the differences between the following options::

The cat sat on the mat.
The pussycat is sitting on the runner.
The feline seated itself on the tapis.
The pussy plonked herself down on the rug.
The moggie lowered its behind down onto the carpet.
The tabby took a seat on the carpeting.
The kitty parked its butt on the carpet tiles.
Upon the throw the felis silvestris catus reclined.

What’s the difference? They are all perfectly correct English sentences which conjure up an image of a certain animal in a certain position on a certain fabric. Is it simply a matter of choice of words? Or are there different registers or tones? What about tense and word order? So which one’s the best translation? Well, it depends entirely on our perfect understanding of the context of the original. These represent only a small number of the actual choices available to a translator at any point in the translation of a text, given that the languages in question may consist of entirely different tense systems which have no equivalent in the other language or cultural items which again are absent in one of the two languages. The translator is therefore the decision maker in an infinite number of choices throughout any text, which is why no two translations are ever the same, and why translators almost never use the words ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

This is also where the translator’s language transfer competence comes into play, and this is a specific, trained skill that professional translators have studied and honed to a high level. It is also a skill which bilinguals, language teachers and other language professionals do not possess.

See more on the differences between bilinguals and translators and the differences between translators and other language professionals in the Pitfalls section.

Speaking two languages fluently is all very well, but unless you are both trained and practised, chances are you have quite a limited ability to transfer information from one language to the other. And, what is more, you may not realise that your ability to do so is limited. Translators must be trained not only in each of their languages but specifically in the skill of language transfer.

In the final phase of translation, the translator relies purely on their skill as a writer to produce an elegant, finely honed and accurate text which compares to the original author’s finesse in the writing of their text. This is also an element which is very difficult to teach if a person does not already possess a certain degree of talent.

After the translation is finished, it must be proofread and edited to examine things such as text cohesion and coherence as well as to fine tune any lexical, syntactical or semantic nuances.

And voila! You have translated Joe Bloggs’ passport and that’ll be $50!

Training to be a translator

So, having gained an insight into the process of translation, and having a greater appreciation of the skills required, how does one train to become a translator?

Until relatively recent times, translators relied on ‘life training’; i.e. being raised and educated bilingually, training and working in a specific field, living overseas and through their work being required to translate documents in their area of specialty, progressively learning the trade through trial and error, sourcing information from their own reading, etc. Thankfully, things are now much less haphazard; translation has been recognised as a fully-fledged profession and translators can now gain post-graduate diplomas and degrees in translation through major universities throughout the world. There are now five universities in Australia which offer programs in translation studies (see Friends).

Along with tertiary studies, there are also accreditation bodies which run translation testing (NAATI in Australia) and professional associations which govern standards and ethics for the profession (AUSIT in Australia). To translate professionally in Australia, the minimum requirement is level 3 professional NAATI accreditation. When selecting a translator, check their tertiary qualifications, accreditation and memberships with official bodies.

It should be noted that when entering translation training or testing, it is assumed that you already speak all of your languages perfectly. Translation courses are not language courses and fluent command of all languages in question is a given. Your languages are merely your tools which you will use to learn translation, without them you are like a writer without a pen. Similarly, translation tests are not language tests, do not assume that because you can speak two languages you can pass a translation test. You have two legs, but can you run a marathon?

The translator’s invisibility

One of the primary reasons that translation is so little known or understood is the fact that one of the principal criteria used to determine a good translation is the translator’s ability to make themselves disappear! In popular thought, a ‘good’ translation is one that reads like a non-translation; the reader should not be able to tell that they are reading a translation at all. No wonder the translator is little better known than the shadow writer, their very skill lies in their ability to not exist!

In more recent times however, this school of thought has been called into question and it is now widely recognised that it is not possible to eliminate a translator’s ‘voice’ from a text (they did after all write it!), and nor is it desirable to, given that the translation is a text in its own right and has its own identity.

However, it is still quite common for translators’ names to not even appear on the books they translate (for publishers’ fears that translations do not sell as well as original works) and for people to be completely unaware that they are reading a translation. We all know for example that Les Misérables was originally written in French, and we also all know that it was written by Victor Hugo. But the fact is that most of you will have never actually read a single word Hugo wrote.  And sadly, the vast majority of you won’t know who wrote the book you did read.

Next time you pick up a book with a slightly foreign-sounding author, check if what you are holding in your hand is actually a translation. Where does the translator’s name appear? On the cover? On the third page? On the last page? Not at all?

The translator’s resources

A translator draws on many many resources in the process of their work and is consequently something of an expert in information and documentation research. Apart from the obvious references of bilingual and monolingual dictionaries, thesauri and encyclopaedias, in both paper and electronic formats, a modern translator will make significant use of both CD-ROM and on-line technical glossaries and terminological databases, subscribe to several relevant specialised journals, participate in professional on-line forums within the translation community, have frequent contact with other translators and specialists in all their languages and subject areas, and be a voracious consumer of information in all its forms; press, radio, television, internet and others besides. As a translator consults any source of information, they are subconsciously (or consciously) recording and categorising any new or technical words in their minds for later use in their work.

A typical translator’s bookcase would almost certainly contain most or all of the following: specialised technical dictionaries and glossaries (legal, medical, financial, business, marketing, engineering, etc.), rhyming dictionaries, thesauri and dictionaries of synonyms and antonyms, slang dictionaries, books of metaphors and idioms, illustrated dictionaries, encyclopaedias, atlases, dictionaries of quotations, books of facts, almanacs, grammatical reference books and conjugation tables, as well as a number of books and journals on a wide variety of subject matters. The translator is a jack of all disciplines and must gain and maintain a very broad general knowledge.

CAT tools

In addition to all of these resources, the modern translator may now also make use of a whole host of CAT or Computer Assisted Translation tools. It is very important to distinguish between CAT and MT (Machine Translation), as the first involves a series of tools which the human translator may use to assist them in their work, whilst the second is a piece of software that spits out a computer-generated text which has not been processed by a human being in any way. Obviously, the difference in quality between the texts produced by these two kinds of translation software is rather significant.

There are many different sorts of CAT tools, the most commonly used of which is a TM, or Translation Memory, of the type SDL Trados, Wordfast or Déjà-Vu. Other types of CAT tools include text alignment, terminology management, concordance, text and data mining, term extraction, localisation and voice recognition tools, among others. Which tools and to what extent they are used depends entirely upon the translator.

Whilst some of these programs are slowly becoming more and more widespread in the translation industry, particularly with translation agencies, it is important to remember that CAT software programs are translation assistance tools. They will in no way actually improve the quality of a translation and a translator’s competence cannot be measured by whether or not they choose to use one, in the same way that a writer may choose to use a word processor to assist them in their work, but this will in no way make them a better writer. In terms of quality control, the use of a spell-checker may make a writer’s text more error-free and a translator’s use of a TM program may make their translation more terminologically cohesive, but certainly no more than the work of a conscientious writer who checks their own spelling or a conscientious translator who checks their own terminological cohesion.