Mutatis Mutandis

Any skill, no matter how difficult to acquire, can become obsolete when the machines improve.
Jaron Lanier

ErasingFor the last two decades, none of the “things that need to be changed” in the typical translator’s profile have been changed, despite the advance in translation technology and leaving aside information technology.

People generally can see what a translator is, as they do a typical association with books. They can hardly understand, though, what exactly translation involves, especially today, and what the many profiles in this industry are.

A major reason is not the nature of the job, i.e. not standing in the foreground, but it mostly depends on a profile that has been left essentially unchanged for centuries. Rather than taking advantage of the technological innovations of the last two decades to promote the image of high-tech professionals, an entire system has preferred to stay anchored to a sadly obsolete romantic image.

Have you ever described yourself as other than a translator  to someone because you have trouble explaining exactly what you do? Or, on the contrary, winding up the same issue by simply saying you are a translator?

Maybe, in the first case, “translator” is simply much too hasty, and does not encompass the bouquet of skills and competencies required to accomplish a certain task, while, in the second case, you see your conversation partner as unworthy of further elucidation. This is what penalizes further your own role and the industry.

On the other hand, have you ever been asked “And what else?” after saying “I’m a translator”?

As a matter of fact, moonlighting is widespread in this industry, maybe more than in others: freelancing in translation is often a good second option, especially in hard times, and translation teachers, who are all too often moonlighters themselves, are not a good examples for their students.

Universal translatorIn the last few months, what people or – more correctly – the media think is important in regard to translation has come to the spotlight. Rivers of ink have been poured on Microsoft’s new trove of wonders, namely the new speech translator.

The market has its rules, and we should be well aware of the marketing strategy behind so much attention from the media. Yet, the closeness to the world depicted in Star Trek and the Universal Translator heads the mind far beyond any suspension of disbelief.

The power of marketing grows with the resources to enforce it. Google, Microsoft or Apple are not simply very good at making their products known: even though their stories are not really cool, they have the means to make them sound cool.

Technology is always fashionable because it is a tangible expression of human genius. Books have no longer been fashionable since when Erasmus wrote that printers would “fill the world with pamphlets and books that are foolish, ignorant, malignant, libelous, mad, impious and subversive; and such is the flood that even things that might have done some good lose all their goodness.”

But why, then, translation teachers are restlessly devoted to conjure up the hoariest image of translators so keen to their books to let these obscure their names and their work? Is the artist aura they pretend surrounds this work really worth the price?

Translation is a hard job, and the translation industry is a hard one to work in because of its low profit margins, and its harsh working conditions. Nonetheless, the adage that the best translators are subject matter experts with a sound language competence is becoming common place. But who might want to achieve a major in medicine, science, physics, engineering, architecture, economics, or jurisprudence to be a translator?

Florence Noiville is a long-time staff writer for Le Monde and editor of foreign fiction for Le Monde des Livres. After attending Sciences-Po university, the international business school HEC, and receiving her Masters’ in Business Law, Noiville began her professional career in an American financial corporation. Against all odds, four years later she moved from numbers to letters, leading her career towards what had always interested her: writing and literature. In 2009, Florence Noiville wrote I Went to Business School and I apologize (J’ai fait HEC et je m’en excuse), a half-essay, half-personal narrative short text about capitalism and its excesses. Is Noivile’s a success story? Yes, it is. Is Noiville’s a repeatable success story? Hopefully yes, most probably not.

Translation courses have traditionally been taught as a part of foreign language curricula and, therefore, do not train students to pursue a professional career in translation; they follow a pure academic approach, with no professional vision or goals.

It’s no wonder, then, that industry players complain of the shortage of qualified people and blame academic institutions for an unbridgeable gap between training and professional practice, even though their hypocrisy is second only to their avarice and shortsightedness.

Why hypocrisy? Employers in the language service industry have always been complaining that the level of expertise of graduate students (and even professionals) is far from the one required. Now, everyone, not only in this industry, understands that academic institutions cannot chase any trend in the related industries just as industry players should  do – and all too often don’t do. Technology is advancing too fast to keep up.

Why shortsightedness? Because players knows that if you want something done well – i.e. the way you want – you have to do it yourself. In other words, the professional training of translators should be in charge of their employers or, at least, of translators themselves, if they see themselves as entrepreneurs.

Mutatis mutandis, translation schools could start renewing their approach by looking at teaching methods that make translators more efficient, since the industry mantra is “more, faster, cheaper, and better.”

Right now, there’s a need for real-time or near-real-time translation and cost effectiveness. And yet, human translators have never been and are still not taught to be cost effective and to concurrently support really quick turnaround times. What is going to happen in the future?

In recent years “competence models” have become the most debated issue in translator education, and yet little has changed in centuries-old teaching and practicing models. TEP is still the reference model and the figure of the translator is still that of an isolated and independent professional, with teamwork being just an idea, vaguely and poorly sketched, while the Internet and its main effect, globalization, have been affecting translation earlier and more than any other job, making people and jobs interdependent.

Moreover, the starting point of any debate on this issue remains translation as an art, skill or science; translation as product or process; specialized versus literary translation; translation technique/practice versus translation theory etc… All this does not lead us anywhere or at least not very far.

Before addressing the issue of “models”, we should ask ourselves what translator’s competence comprises, and if and how it is different than foreign language competence.

If competence is to be intended as the appropriate use of specific abilities according to the demands of the environment, technical and instrumental skills are key aspects. These skills are supposed to be “predominantly procedural knowledge related to the use of documentation resources and information, and communication technologies applied to translation.” In this case, the emphasis is clearly on technological skills, and translators should be mastering a complex set of tools, techniques, and media.

This competence could and should be developed on the workplace. Translation courses should aim at optimizing the efficiency and effectiveness of methodology, by heightening problem awareness, and helping build adequate resource evaluation, selection, and manipulation abilities. In other words, translation students should be taught how to refine their processes and enhance the usage of their tools and resources.

Most of these tools are simply techniques that speed up and broaden the production or the elimination of alternatives from which translators produce and select.

In a traditional perspective, translators are first of all people who are competent in two languages, and their work clearly involves putting those two competencies together. And this is exactly what kept – and indeed still keeps –translator training within language schools, while translating is a question of solving problems, not of moving meanings.

Translation schools are generally still focused on outdated issues, and their teachers are actually language teachers. And if the difference between a professional who studied to be a translator and an amateur translator is the ability to give reasons for his/her choices, this is because translation schools still approach translation from a purely linguistic point of view and forget to teach their students to face the changing reality.

Nevertheless, most probably there is no ideal course description to be taken into account when designing a translation course, nor there is an ideal approach to teaching, simply because teaching everything is impossible. Teaching does not equal learning and problem solving – the core of translation – can’t be taught.

At least from now on, the focus on problem solving should prevail on language knowledge. In fact, today, translation competence is a three-legged table, based on data, tools, and knowledge. Language is just a a tool, a technology, while knowledge is made up of skills that must include being able to use tools and producing data, access it and use it. Translation students should learn how to use language as a tool, how to use it and the right tools to exploit it.

Translation remains a very intellectual job where culture is crucial, but culture requires time to be developed. Specialized translators should be educated in special areas such as economics, finance, law, science, medicine, and the like. Nevertheless, they do not need to be taught to become economists, lawyers, scientists, or whatever but to develop the necessary skills to deepen each area of interest. They should be taught to detect and process different text types as they were authors in the relevant fields.

There are many new subjects to know and there is much more to know about each of them since categories are extremely broad in themselves. No translator can be expected to have the knowledge required to translate all types of documents well and within a reasonable amount of time.

As knowledge expands in all areas, translators can no longer be expected to master the large body of concepts found in most subjects and the associated terminology in two or more languages.

In addition, under the new conditions of volume, content type, and publishing times, the founding elements of traditional education of translators make the job simply uneconomic and inefficient, regardless of the tools and the technology used to do it.

The challenge for translation teachers will not be to be good at using and teaching how to use these tools, but how to shape processes to take the most from any of them.

One of the simplest things that can be said with respect to the profession of translator is that, over time, and especially in recent years, translation has become increasingly simpler and easier, especially in the eyes of buyers. As a matter of fact, the variety and availability of technological tools and their apparent simplicity make the translator’s job even more easily accessible than ever, and this helps devalue the effort and dedication needed to acquire the specific technological skills together with the typical language and translation skills.

Why then translation teachers are not willing to see translation competence from a professional qualification point of view? One reason certainly lies in the nature of the eternal science that many a translation theorists have been trying to build.

In fact, competence is multi-componential and multi-dimensional. It is actually three-parted like the above mentioned three-legged table.

Does translating require a knowledge effort? It should, if you actually should know your client and your audience, explore the cultural context behind your assignment, and carry out focused research in a limited time frame.

The evolution of the translation profession itself has radically fragmented the range of activities involved. In the 1970s, translators basically translated. In our own age, translators are called upon to do much more: documentation, terminology, rewriting, and the gamut of activities associated with the localization industry. Multi-componentiality has undoubtedly followed the fragmentary development of the profession.

Therefore, there is no longer any neat definition of the things that translators need to know and will be called upon to do.

For this reasons, university should not prepare for work, but form knowledge and the ability to exploit it. Companies can and actually should activate to promote this training, rather than merely state their expectations, which are doomed to be left unfulfilled because the pace of universities is not and cannot be that of the labor market.

On the other hand, if universities will be tailing companies on this ground, hoping to increase their employment rates and their prestige, they are going to make a mistake. Unfortunately, many translation teachers are convinced, for example, that before switching to automatic translation, one should first be able to translate or to review a translation. This is the clear demonstration of their foolishness, which is contrary to the nature and spirit of university, otherwise they would know that, before learning to translate, you have to learn to write, that you cannot learn to write by translating, while you could learn to translate by translating, and that machine translation (especially SMT) and post-editing have nothing to do with translating.