Posted by: sbilingual | February 29, 2012

What Does A Translator Know Anyway?

The October issue of the American Translators Association’s ATA Chronicle features an article by Diane Howard called Ethical Codes: Where Are We? The article, besides being very clear and well written, made the argument that much more precision is needed in ATA’s Code of Professional Conduct and Business Practices, which is currently under review.

One point Diane made that I’d like to focus on is this: none of the professional codes cited in the article — the British Institute of LinguistsAssociation of Translators and Interpreters of AlbertaAustralian Institute of Interpreters and Translators, and the ATA’s own — covers translation skills. That is, when these various codes speak of skills a translator needs to know, they talk about language skills and subject area skills but not specifically translation skills. As Diane puts it, “The ability to analyze a source text, to apply translation strategies, to articulate the translation process — these elements are either assumed or discounted.”

So the essential skill of the translator–the skill that sets him apart from the millions who know a second language and even those who are conversant in a specific discipline–has not been codified. Yet we know it exists. How do we know? Because it irritates us when someone tells us their brother-in-law speaks a few languages so, naturally, he’d make a good translator. “Maybe you can send him some. He has a free weekend now and again.” Hey, come to think of it, maybe I’ll let him work on my car over the weekend, too. He has a few cars, doesn’t he?

Could this be the source of the lack of respect translators often feel from people who don’t understand their profession? That the whole is no more than the sum of the parts? Pehaps. I do know that anyone who’s given translation a serious try quickly finds there’s more to it than knowing two languages.

One big discovery for beginning translators is that languages were not made to interlock like Lego pieces. Sure, there are plenty of words that have a one-to-one correspondence, more or less. But there are so many more that are slippery. The image that comes to my mind every time I translate is of two sheets of plastic with glue in between. You try to slide one around on top of the other–making tiny adjustments–while the glue is still wet. By the time the glue dries (the deadline!) we hope the two texts align as closely as possible, albeit never perfectly.

I overheard a translator friend arguing with a lawyer about who makes the best translator: a seasoned legal translator, or a law student with a language background. You can see from this post which side I was on, but it was an interesting — if infuriating — conversation to listen to just the same.

We, as translators, put our best foot when we talk about our essential skill, not just the accessory skills needed to perform our job. Now if we can just update the Code accordingly.

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