A translator must be, among many other things, a good writer. During an Internet chat session with readers of the newspaper el País, Spanish novelist Javier Marías gave the following advice to a participant who wanted to know how a young person could become a good writer. “Read,” he answered. “Read books written by unquestionably good writers: Titus Livius, Ammianus Marcellinus, Dickens, Conrad, Montaigne, Flaubert, Shakes-peare and Cervantes, among others. And if you can, and have the knowledge to do it, translate. It is the best school for learning to write.” Translation, editing, and composition are inseparable aspects of the labor of carrying a text into another language successfully.
Translation and copyediting are both good schools for learning many new things, from the names of previously unimagined mechanical parts to the subtleties of esoteric theories. Translators and copy editors are students for life, always working on their vocabulary and style and forever improving their knowledge of the sectors they translate for. However, both should bring a wealth of personal knowledge and experience to their professional projects. To quote Carol Fisher Saller, the author of the delightful book The Subversive Copy Editor, a person who works with someone else’s words should be “liberally educated and culturally literate.” Everything that translators and copy editors have heard, read, or observed throughout their lives―from the fine print in a contract to a favorite line of a beloved poem―contributes to the work that they do.
Translation is exacting work that requires not only discipline, intense concentration, and analytical thinking, but also the ability to write fluidly in at least two languages and a profound understanding of the source language culture or cultures. Being truly functional in more than one language often entails reading the same book, poem, news, or website in all one’s working languages in order to compare how the information is communicated in each. It always involves listening carefully and asking detailed questions about everything.
Translators and copy editors should be communications professionals. They provide a key link between authors and audiences in every media. Massaging an initial text into a new document that is engaging to readers without changing the author’s original intentions requires patience, insight, and respect for another person’s vision.
I have created this blog to share this marvelous experience of being a wordsmith. I hope you enjoy it.
I also invite you to have a look at the links to other articles related to translation, language, and culture posted in Google+.
The Art & Science of looking at a text
Recently I came across a French video that compared the eye movements of a professional editor and those of a layperson correcting a text. There is no doubt that the eyes of a professional editor scan a document differently than those of the average reader and that this distinction has important implications for the successful rendering of any document into another language.
The purpose of the French video was to demonstrate a method of assessing work efficiency known as “eye tracking”, the process of measuring either the point of the human gaze or the motion of the eye relative to the head and of tracing the route of the gaze and plotting the points at which it pauses to study a detail. Eye tracking has been widely used in advertising design and has proven to be useful in evaluating the efficiency of web layouts.
The Swiss government has even used eye tracking to compare the visual analysis of road conditions made by novice and experienced drivers. In these images, for example, the novice is busy estimating the distance between the wall on his left and a parked car, while the experienced driver is using his peripheral vision for this task while concentrating his direct gaze on the dangerous point in the curve ahead.
A very interesting post in Greta and David Munger’s psychology blog Cognitive Daily (marred only by the use of the word “different” where “differently” should have been used) cites a study by Stine Vogt and Svein Magnussen that compares the eye tracking of an artist and a psychologist when looking at a picture. It turns out that the scan pattern of the artist was far more complex than that of the psychologist, a result that elicited numerous comments from readers with arts training.
Vogt and Magnussen have put forward the theory that artists are trained to identify the real details of a picture, not just the ones that are immediately obvious perceptually, an idea seconded in the blog’s comments section where Dan Lurie noted, “ Artists look at framing, proportion, balance, symmetry, and rhythm (among other things) when examining the world around us. We are trained in composition as it relates to where the eye will go first, and where it will travel …”
I use my arts training every day in my translation and editing work, not only to scan the original document, but also to pre-visualize the possibilities of the target document I’m aiming for. Every gesture that can make or ruin a work of art has its correlative in translation, copywriting, and editing, whether the project is a corporate report or a novel. With words, as with images, bad decisions, poor craftsmanship, and a failure to capture a concept as a whole can result in a finished document that is stilted, difficult to appreciate or understand, and of little interest or use to the intended reader.
A good translator or editor, like a good driver, is continuously using his peripheral vision to gauge the relationships between textual elements while concentrating his attention on the “dangerous point in the curve ahead” that may be lurking in what first appeared to be a straight-forward document. Dan Lurie’s list of an artist’s preoccupations (framing, proportion, balance, symmetry, and rhythm) is similar to the list of elements that a translator or editor must keep in mind to achieve a readable final text. “Where the eye will go first and where it will travel” is an important factor to consider in the translation of any document and a crucial element to keep in mind when translating and editing literature, advertising texts, and instructions. Part of a translators or editor’s job is taking care of what Brian Mossop calls the “writer-reader relationship”. If the end document isn’t readable for its intended audience, the work has been done in vain and the client and original author have been poorly served. A well-translated and well-edited text that is a pleasure to read, regardless of the subject matter, has a greater possibility of distribution in its entirety and of being quoted by others—an essential consideration in today’s viral world.
Some of the most useful workshops I have taken as a translator have been sessions devoted to readability. John Bates, Head of Languages Services at Rovira I Virgili University in Tarragona, Spain led a terrific workshop on readability offered as part of last year’s Mediterranean Editors and Translators annual conference in which he stressed the need to be on the lookout for incorrect or missing inflected ends, dangling and misplaced modifiers, and the excessive use of abstract nouns.
Workshops, a good bookshelf of reference manuals, and constant comparative reading in both one’s source and target languages keep a translator’s peripheral vision in peak condition. One of my favorite reference texts is Brian Mossop’s Revising and Editing for Translators, published by St. Jerome Publishing. I reserve time each week to read well-written articles and reports in both Spanish and English from organizations dedicated to education, communication, international cooperation and development, and the humanities, as well as several major international newspapers in both languages. All these activities pay off in the moment I’m faced with a new text.
Eye tracking, as well as many other perceptual techniques, have been adapted for and by the translation community with an emphasis on reducing translation time and increasing output. A few of the techniques currently being touted remind me of those described in the 1950s best-seller Cheaper by the Dozen, written by two of the dozen children of time and motion study experts Frank Bunker Gilbreth and Lillian Moller Gilbreth. The world of communications media spins at an ever faster pace and professionals in all communications fields struggle to keep up with it. For today’s translators, the trick is not to lose one’s sense of the Golden Mean of word craft, or one’s sense of humor, while keeping up with the rhythm of the times.