I had a strangely unsettling experience over the weekend which has left me a little concerned for the future of translation and possibly even the world as we know it. OK, maybe not the world, just translation. What happened? I couldn’t access the Internet! Yep, my ISP decided that the day I started on a large medical translation was the day they would shut down half of their network for “essential maintenance”. Typical!
A drug-eluting coronary stent
So there I was, ready to start working on a medical text (on coronary stents and aortic aneurysms no less) and about to do my usual ritual of spending some time scanning the web for parallel texts and clarifying the meanings of unusual terms, but not this time. After the initial indignation bordering on rage at the fact that I couldn’t get online, this indignation gave way to unease. What if there was term I didn’t know? How would I find out how to translate it? Now I have dozens of general and specialised dictionaries at hand and over 12 years experience as a translator so there really wasn’t anything to worry about but not having Internet access, and more specifically no Google, knocked me sideways and it took me a good half hour to regain my composure.
Google has helped reinforce my belief that translators shouldn’t put too much faith in dictionaries because they are often out of date and won’t tell you which of the various synonyms is correct. On top of that they rarely tell you how to use a particular word; the style and general language usage of certain genres of texts often being every bit as important as the specialised terms they contain. (I have to confess that I have been known on occasion to advise students to forget about paper dictionaries and use Google instead because parallel texts in particular are the only way to go when translating.) But Google has also made researching subjects much faster – or at least it seems that way. You mightn’t really find the answer any sooner but you’ll plough through a lot more material looking for it in the same time. I think I’ve gotten used to the fact that with access to Google, you can find the answer to any question providing you know how to search and more importantly, how to separate the wheat from the chaff in search results and you can do this much more quickly than nipping down to the local public library. There’s also a certain reassurance that comes from simply knowing it’s there.
This begs the question of whether we (I’m assuming it’s not just me who’s been affected by this) have become too dependent on the Internet. Yes it’s amazingly useful and fast, and yes it helps us to access enormous amounts of resources but what would happen to us as translators if we woke up one morning in an apocalyptic post-Internet age where Luddites danced through the streets rejoicing at the fact that there was no Internet and no search engines, iPhones, netbooks or online databases? Would we have become so reliant on the Internet that we would have forgotten how to do translation the old-fashioned way (”acoustic translation” for want of a better term – ok that’s probably not as funny as it sounds in my head). Would the quality of translations suddenly plummet? Would translators simply sit there, bewildered and at a complete loss as to where they should start?
Or am I just getting my undergarments knotted over nothing? Is lamenting the good old days when translators used pens and paper and the occasional carrier pigeon and never resorted to such demon-possessed trickery as the interweb the same as yearning for the “make-do” days when people could darn socks, use an abacus or wash half a dozen kids with one bathful of water? Useful skills maybe but, let’s be honest, not particularly desirable or likely ever to come back into fashion. Was translation “purer”, more honest and more difficult back then? Who knows?
As for my translation, I finished it on time and my subject knowledge of the area and old-fashioned paper dictionaries came through in the end… it just took a little longer to get started.