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. Eye_movements_of_drivers

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 translator or editor’s job is taking care of what Brian Mossop calls the “writer-reader relationship”. If the intended audience doesn’t consider the document readable, all the work put into it has been done in vain and the client and original author have been poorly served. Regardless of topic it addresses, a well-translated and edited text that is a pleasure to read has a greater chance of being distributed in its entirety and being quoted by others—an essential consideration in today’s viral world.

Reading similar material in both source and target languages helps translators keep their peripheral vision in peak condition. I try to reserve time each week to read well-written articles and reports in both Spanish and English related to the fields I work in, as well as a selection of major international newspapers in both languages.  All these activities pay off in the moment I’m faced with a new text.

OriginalFilm_Gilbreth timeclockEye tracking and similar techniques are used by translators and editors to enhance their perform and 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 and editors, the trick is not to compromise one’s standards of quality or lose one’s sense of humor while keeping up with the rhythm of the times.