It’s now June and in one of those rare moments of calm between supervision meetings for my dissertation students, marking essays and going to various other meetings I started doing some reflection on that age old question of who makes the best translator: the subject matter expert or the professional translator?
Of course most people will be biased towards their own particular background but realistically, is it easier to learn how to translate and write or to learn about science and technology (for example)? I once asked this same question on Proz and opinion seemed to tip in favour of the expert-turned-translator (ETT). This surprised me a little because the ETTs almost unanimously said that the only way to gain all of the specialist information necessary in order to translated technical texts, you needed to have a degree in it. But then they would though, wouldn’t they? I don’t have a degree in science or engineering yet I’ve been translating texts in these areas for years with nothing but praise from clients so obviously I think they’re wrong as wrong can be. Not only were the ETTs a little more dogmatic, dare I say even fundamentalist, but the fact that they seemed to be heavy users of Proz makes me wonder now, in light of my previous post on rates, whether they are part of the problem when it comes to the devaluation of the translation profession.
If people haven’t gone through formal training as a translator, but instead have taken a degree in engineering, for example, have they had a chance to develop a bond with translation as a profession and for many of us as a way of life? It’s obvious that they won’t have had the chance to develop at least some of the skills needed before they start taking real projects. It also occurred to me why would someone with a degree in something like science, business or whatever would decide to throw it all in and become a translator? Do they hate the work that much? Do they see translation as an easy way of making a quick buck or two? You could also argue that subject matter expertise is, by and large, “just” declarative knowledge and the main challenge is just remembering it. Translating and writing, are skills which require procedural knowledge and as such take time to develop and perfect.
Seriously, do I really need to be a welder to translate a text about welding?
On the other hand, can you really expect people with degrees in translation or worse still, languages, and nothing else to have the sufficient expertise in a particular area to call themselves “specialised” translators? Few, if any, translator training programmes include tuition in specialised areas such as science, technology or economics so where to these translators get the knowledge to allow them to understand and translate complex texts? In my own case, my training at DCU did involve a couple of years of science and economics and in any case, I have always had a profound interest in technology and as a child invariably had my nose stuck in an encyclopaedia.
So how come professional, career translators still manage to provide high quality translations? My own feeling is that an interest in a subject combined with the excellent research skills you develop on a reputable translator training programme are more than a match for a qualification in some engineering or scientific field. In fact, I’d probably go as far as to say that professional translator training is probably the better approach because it gives you the flexibility to move into new areas and the linguistic and research skills which will allow you to deal with the new and ever-changing challenges that present themselves each day. Ultimately, I’m not saying that a professional translator is better than an ETT but I do know that proper training in translation makes the job a whole lot easier otherwise it will take many years of trial and error and numerous mistranslations before you get it right.
Feel free to comment, challenge or just share your thoughts…