Translator, heal thyself!

I have never had a problem with editing translations produced by other translators. Nor for that matter have I had a problem, in principle, with others editing my own work. As far as I’m concerned this is just good practice; most professional activities require a second set of eyes to ensure quality and to catch those little booboos that crop up every so often. Over the years, of course, I have had to lock horns with overzealous editors who missed the point of editing and tried to impose their own stylistic preferences on my translations when they were supposed to be looking for inaccuracies, checking terminology etc.

The thought has crossed my mind on more than one occasion that sometimes the editor is secretly a little miffed that they weren’t asked to translate the text and that they are “just” the editor” but that’s a different story.

Its bad enough that any quack can call himself a translator but when they start self-revising...

Does translation quality need to be a team activity?

This idea of editing is an essential part of ensuring the quality of translations and we owe it to our clients and to ourselves to do this. Recently however, over on the Translation Journal blog I discovered that there is something of a question mark over whether translators should edit the work of others. To be honest, I finished reading that post with the feeling that the author and the person who posted a comment were just a couple of grumpy sods. You get them in every profession and you get used to the way they can see the negative in pretty much anything. One of the conceivable abuses of editing that the article mentions is an agency who is not willing to pay the translation rates of a good translator so instead pays the lower rates of a “bad” translator in the knowledge that the “good” translator can be paid for 2-3 hours to fix the mistakes and stylistic infelicities in the translation.

So basically, you’re getting a good translator’s translation, without paying for it. As cynical as this might seem, I have thought on occasion that this was being done to me – simply because the translations I was asked to edit were so bad and involved so much work to bring them up to scratch. I did raise it with the client and it turned out that the translator was actually a trainee in-house translator so my edits were serving two purposes: fix the translation, obviously and also “train” the translator because I tend to include comments and explanations for my changes (force of habit from being a lecturer).

There are various benefits for editing another translator’s work but recently I’ve been wondering about the ethics of self-revision. I have been asked on several occasions to do “translate and edit” jobs. You may be asking how this type of job differs from a typical translation job. Shouldn’t all translators check their work? Of course they should and the vast majority do carefully proof their translations before they send them back to the client. This type of  job is different because the client was an agency and their clients, large multinationals, specifically requested translation and review, which is a separate service in addition to the revision a translator does as a matter of course. The customer assumes that one person will translate and another will edit.

Miracle cure for all your translation woes

Miracle cure for all your translation woes

For whatever reason, the agency decided that it was preferable/acceptable to have the translator do both but I wonder whether this is sensible. There must be ethical, moral and possibly even legal questions to be answered. Is it the same as doctors treating themselves?

You could argue that self-editing is as questionable as self-prescribing medication. But is it? Lots of us have seen the curmudgeonly Dr House on TV throw fistfuls of painkillers down his throat while wrestling with the ever-changing facts of complex medical dilemmas. There’s even the doctor in France who “cured” his alcoholism by prescribing himself insanely massive doses of muscle relaxants so there’s obviously some mileage in this self-medication gig but as a translator can you really spot and fix the types of errors that an editor can when you’re reading you own work? Most of us know that when you’re looking at the same piece of text for a long period you go a little snow-blind and stop noticing even obvious things.

By the same token, if you make a mistake because of a lack of knowledge, for instance, you can’t really be expected to spot it afterwards can you? But ethical quandaries for the translator aside, I wonder whether this practice is not just a little bit dishonest. By paying for a second pair of eyes to look at the translation shouldn’t the client get just that, not just the same pair of eyes but with a different hat on? Instead of getting a doctor, the client might unwittingly be buying snake oil from the back of a wagon.


Carbon-neutral translation?

When it comes to the environment, we are constantly being told that we all have a part to play, that every little change we make, no matter how small, adds up and will help us avoid a flaming, flooded, hurricane swept, ice-cap melting Armageddon at the hands of global warming. So where does this leave translators? Is there such a thing as an environmentally friendly translator? Is it even necessary for translation to go green? If you think about it, it’s hard to imagine how we could be playing a large part in the extinction of life as we know it. We don’t appear to be using up lots of resources: computer, light and heat for translators are all reasonably minimal. Those among us who are freelancers don’t have to commute so pollution from cars isn’t much of an issue either and because most of us work directly on our computers there’s not much printing being done. So if we are all supposed to play our part in helping the environment what can we do?

The eco-friendly solution to personal transportation

The eco-friendly solution to personal transportation

Well according to the New Scientist (“Is the net hurting the environment?”) the Internet has a carbon footprint roughly equal to that of the airline industry, accounting for around 2% of global CO2 output. Apparently it takes an estimated 152 billion kilowatt-hours just to run the data centres that run the Internet. According to Google the electricity needed to power one single Internet search generates 200 mg of CO2. The New Scientist article admits that this may not sound much but 1000 searches produces the same CO2 emissions as an average car traveling 1 km.

So given that, as I mentioned previously, translators have become so dependent on the Internet not only as a way of researching translations but also as a way of finding work and communicating with colleagues and customers, I imagine that it’s safe to say that we are easily at the mid to upper end of the scale of hardcore Internet users and are contributing quite a bit towards the Internet’s emissions. And you thought that searching for terminology was harmless?

Build your own house (some assembly required)

Build your own house (some assembly required)

There have been various initiatives aimed at reducing the environmental harm done by computers such as the RoHS directive and the black version of Google – imaginatively called “Blackle” ( – which claims to reduce users’ energy usage because it takes less energy to display the colour black on a computer screen. Other companies like IBM have developed new hardware and software monitoring technologies to minimise the amount of energy used in data centres but is there anything translators can do? Probably not but it’s worth remembering this next time we click on that “Google Search” button. Of course we could reject our toxic, environment-killing lifestyle and addiction to “mod-cons” and go live in a hut made from recycled guano and knit our own muesli but to be honest I don’t much fancy dumping such creature comforts as light, heat, the Internet, my car, clean clothes and non-scratchy underpants.

An alternative would be for translators to sign up for some form of carbon offsetting scheme. The Carbon Trust in England describes offsetting as a scheme which “allows organisations to indirectly reduce their carbon footprint through the purchase of carbon credits associated with emissions reduction projects (such as energy efficiency and renewable power) that have occurred elsewhere”. I looked at the CO2 Balance website and discovered that to offset the 1.72 tonnes of CO2 my car produces each year I can spend £15.50 on energy-efficient wood stoves for villagers in Kenya, donate £12.92 towards an 8 Megawatt hydroelectric power station in China or fork out £20.66 to plant trees in a forest in Brittany. I’ve no idea how much I’d need to spend to offset my Google habit but it’s probably better to give something than nothing at all even though I’d prefer to see my money go towards reducing exhaust emissions from farmyard animals. I wonder if carbon neutral translation will be the next big selling point for translators much in the same way as Trados certification (supposedly).

Will scratchy, organic knitted underpants really save us all?

Can scratchy, organic, knitted underpants really save us all?

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Translators make bad language students

Over the Easter break I decided to take the plunge and enroll on an intensive French language course for beginners. French has never been a language that I’ve been particularly attracted to. Instead I’ve always been drawn to the languages of Northern Europe for their logic, order and general coolness. In fact the list of languages that I would love to learn includes Finnish, Swedish and Icelandic (but this probably has a lot to do with my liking for bands like Korpiklaani, Amorphis, Entombed and Sigur Ros). Having said that I’ve dabbled in Romanian so there’s probably no real logic to my languages wish-list and whether I get around to learning them is another matter altogether.

But anyway, back to French. I think the accent is always something that put me off learning French. Not because I don’t like it, but because it seems to require a lot of effort to achieve the right level of sophistication and “Frenchness”. As an Irishman, I’m not a huge fan of flamboyance or drawing attention to myself and this gives rise to a sort of linguistic shyness which has put me off learning French for a long time. But I decided to give it a go because I’m going to a music festival called Hellfest in June which happens to be in France.

Excusez-moi, il faut prendre quelle direction, pour aller vers le centre ville?

Excusez-moi, il faut prendre quelle direction, pour aller vers le centre ville?

Being a very well-organised festival there’s absolutely no need to speak French because everyone speaks English and there’s absolutely no danger of me going hungry, or more importantly, thirsty but as a linguist, I don’t like being reliant on the language skills of others. I’m used to being able to communicate with people, even if it’s just a few broken words and phrases to order a pizza or buy a train ticket and I find it frustrating when I can’t do this. Several translator friends have told me that I’m not alone in experiencing that incredible frustration of going to another country where I don’t speak the language. Last year I had this experience in China and in France and I didn’t like it. China in particular was especially frustrating because it is such a fascinating and exciting place that I felt I was missing out on a world of interesting things by not being able to speak or even read the language and it felt like I was just scratching the surface. I think the translator in me is so used to seeing something in a foreign language and understanding it that couldn’t come to terms with the fact that here was a language situation that I couldn’t decipher.

So I turned up on a Monday morning for my French class, a little apprehensive, but looking forward to it nevertheless. I told myself that I’m not here to become fluent, just to learn enough so that I can ask for directions, food and beer… no more! And I really enjoyed the class. The teacher had a nice relaxed style and there was a really friendly atmosphere in the class. But I found myself wanting to know more and I was actually in danger of becoming one of those students who constantly asks questions the answer to which is “we’ll be coming to that in a little bit if you’ll just bear with me” (and as a lecturer I know how annoying this type of student is). Once I’d reined in my enthusiasm I wondered whether the fact that I am a translator makes me an impatient language learner? Does being a career linguist make you impatient with yourself and your ability to pick up a language? I think that being a translator gives you a unique insight into how language works and you start making links between the different aspects of the language and then mapping it onto other languages. You then start to look beyond the set phrases and situations of a beginners class and want to know how to put the limited knowledge you’ve picked up to use. In the controlled environment of a language class this inevitably creates a little tension because your brain is trying to use the language at a faster rate than you can get the raw materials into your head. I think maybe at a subconscious level, translators view languages as a way of making money and when they learn a language their eye is on the meter and they just want to get to the stage where they can translate and earn money from it. Eeep, that makes us sound like a gang of mercenaries…


Translator, interpreter…tom-ay-toe, tom-ah-toe

There’s nothing more likely to get my professional hackles raised than hearing some clueless news reporter saying something like “Speaking through a translator, Mr. Smith gave a press conference…”. Apart from the obvious practical considerations of how you hold a translator up to your mouth and where do you speak through, it galls me to hear people over and over again refer to translators as interpreters, and vice versa.

And it’s nearly always television and radio reporters who are the culprits. Our fellow wordsmiths in the newspapers generally get it right, thankfully. But it is surprising that people have such difficulty in grasping the difference between a translator – someone who takes stuff from one language and writes it down – and an interpreter – someone who takes stuff from another language and speaks it. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with interpreters at all and am in awe of conference interpreters (except for one nameless interpreter in Dublin who spoke about “research machines” when the French speaker was talking about “search engines”). It’s just that translating and interpreting are two very separate jobs which require different skills and qualities. It’s like the difference between pirates and ninjas, apples and pears, cornflakes and rice crispies… they’re similar but very different.

Priates vs. Ninjas (Source:

Pirates vs. Ninjas (Source:

Perhaps it’s merely a symptom of a wider ignorance among the general public of what it is language professionals in all of their flavours actually do. Maybe it’s a wake-up call for the translating and interpreting communities to raise awareness… then again, maybe it’s only me that’s bothered by this in which case, never mind!


An easy target for cash-strapped universities

A recent article by Melanie Newman in The Times Higher Education makes for grim reading about the state of higher education in the UK. The article reveals a raft of job losses, voluntary redundancies and recruitment freezes at four more institutions which is causing alarm among staff. Nothing new you might say. Indeed this is pretty much par for the course across the university sector but one particular example, if it is true, is especially worrying. Newman writes that the Centre for Translational and Comparative Studies at the University of Warwick is set to close following an internal university review. With Susan Bassnett, who heads up the centre, approaching retirement and the failure to find a replacement for her, it looks quite certain that the centre will be shut down, although no final decision will be made until July of this year. The article quotes an unnamed academic who says that student recruitment for MA programmes hosted by the centre has been halted.

Unions are blaming this development on the university’s preoccupation with money from research funding, or in the case of the centre, the lack of it. It seems that the way in which universities’, with their current business model, evaluate the usefulness or, regrettably, the profitability of various disciplines whereby huge value is placed on external research funding is not only inequitable but downright inappropriate. Sure, a department offering translation and languages , for example, may not capture massive research grants but it will attract students to the university and this brings in money. Possibly a lot more than any research grant. By offering translation programmes we create additional demand for languages at an institution and this serves to reinforce the system.

All of this begs the question of whether Translation Studies (and languages in general) is seen as financial deadwood by universities. Is it an easy target for university bean counters looking to shave a few zeroes off university expenditure? The move to close the translation section at Warwick could be regarded as a opportunistic cost-cutting exercise but more cynical souls could be forgiven for wondering whether universities see translation and languages as nice to have, but not, strictly speaking, necessary; an expense that doesn’t return on the investment. The argument that researchers need to pull in external funding is one with which all academics are familiar but we all know that the humanities and languages in particular are never likely to attract the same level of funding that the biosciences and engineering disciplines seem to do so effortlessly. There simply isn’t the same pool of money to drawn from so when you look at funding revenue you’re not comparing like with like.

Money matters aside, it is unthinkable that a university could conceive of jettisoning languages and translation. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to propose some form of soft-minded, woolly, right-on, touchy-feely model of education where we defend and indulge useless academics who can’t get a job in the real world and allow them to research and teach ridiculously obscure and – let’s be honest here – pointless topics like the effects of wallpaper on the linguistic and cultural identities of bilingual Russian hedgehogs between 18-27 August 1892 (incidentally, if this is your research area, shame on you, wasting all of that precious research funding!). It’s just that some subjects which need to be taught have an intrinsic value for a country and an economy which is less obvious and which cannot be measured solely in terms of grant capture. Translation Studies is one of these subject areas but the lack of high levels of visible revenue in comparison with other disciplines shouldn’t be seen as evidence of a discipline which isn’t pulling its weight and it certainly shouldn’t be used as an excuse for questioning its continued existence. Let’s just hope that the Warwick case is just an isolated case of financial opportunism.