Volume 6, No. 3 
July 2002

  Peter Wheeler





Reader Survey Results

Index 1997-2002

  Translator Profiles
Aerial Trap and the Lao People's Republic
by Peter Wheeler

  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee
What Every Novice Translator Should Know
by Antar S.Abdellah
Translation Economics 101
by Danilo Nogueira
Translator Education
Quality Assurance in Translator Training
by Moustafa Gabr 
Positive Transfer: A Neuropsychological Understanding of Interpreting and the Implications for Interpreter Training
by Lin Wei, Ph.D.

  Financial Translation
Implications in Translating Economic Texts
by Guadalupe Acedo Domínguez and Patricia Edwards Rokowski, Ph.D.
Saisir les subtilités qui existent entre l'anglais et le français ?
by Frédéric Houbert

English to Japanese—to What Extent Can Translation Be Accurate?
by Angela Loo Siang Yen

  Science & Technology
A Translator’s Guide to Organic Chemical Nomenclature—A Fond Farewell
by Chester E. Claff, Jr., Ph.D.

  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor

  Translators’ Tools
Translators’ Emporium

Translators’ Job Market

Letters to the Editor

Translators’ Events

Call for Papers and Editorial Policies

Translation Journal
Translator Profile


Aerial Trap and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic

by Peter Wheeler

  pretty girl who once worked for me—oops, this is 2002 PC—a young person in whom those still entrapped in outdated lookist attitudes would detect a pleasing symmetry of countenance—was telling me a story which didn't make sense. There was a gap, an undistributed middle, a logical hiccup. "A" did not result sensibly in "B." Seeing my puzzlement, she took a deep breath, hesitated, took another deep breath, and told me that "B" arose from the other way—in addition to helping me with French translations—that she financed her studies, namely working as a go-go dancer.

Well, her need for her story to flow logically was evidently greater than mine is now because, if there are places in this odyssey that I don't want to talk about, for whatever reason, I shall just jump over them.

if a French doctor has written “buffalo hump” for bosse de bison, that might just indicate, however bad the rest of the English, that he knows that the correct term is not the literal “bison hump,”
With that caveat, here goes: approaching the end of my university studies, I "knew" that there were only three things you could do with a languages degree: teaching, the diplomatic service, or international business. I also "knew," with that comforting certainty that ignorance brings, that translation had to be incredibly boring—replacing one word in one language with its equivalent in another, moving onto the next word, replacing that one, moving on, and so on.

So, international business, then. Into the light-grey suit and into marketing, product development, personnel—and into not using my languages at all. Everything, but everything, happened in English. After three years, I was desperate to get back into languages, desperate enough tentatively to tackle the terrible tedium of the T-word. I answered an advertisement from the Bank for International Settlements, which was looking for experienced translators. Despite having no experience at all, I made it through to the final shortlist of two, and was invited to Switzerland for a test. I didn't get the job, but suddenly I knew exactly what I wanted to do as a career. That couple of hours of trying to wrestle a difficult banking text into elegant English told me exactly where I wanted to be going. One might say that my Road to Damascus was the Aeschenplatz in Basel, if only—heaven forfend!—it didn't sound so pretentious.

With a new determination, I pursued various other advertisements, and then a vacancy for a translator opened up at my employer at the time, a tractor manufacturer. (A company with a very hands-on approach to training for all the staff, with the result that, as my website says, "If you need a translator of agricultural texts, you have here one who has actually driven a tractor, actually turned over some furrows, although not, it must be admitted, very straight ones.") Applied for the vacancy, was refused. Went home, and in that day's mail was a firm offer for a translator post with BP Chemicals. With that extra leverage, I was able to twist the tractor manufacturer's arm into giving me the job. I was on my way.

After a year or so came the Sunday when the wrong newspaper was delivered, and in this interloper was an advertisement for a translator with Siemens in Germany. Another application, some more tests, and suddenly I found myself in a small town in Bavaria in the middle of winter. Into the foundations of my career as a technical translator, dug by a Massey-Ferguson TDL, Siemens poured the concrete. It is a company that takes translation very seriously, investing a lot of effort in teaching its beginner translators their art and their craft, and I remain very grateful for the professional grounding I received there.

But after only one beer festival, only one Christkindlmarkt, it was time to move on again, this time to the European Commission in Luxembourg. Where I translated agricultural texts (the time at M-F came in useful there), texts on electrical engineering (thanks, Siemens!), as well as new subject fields such as nuclear power and coal mining.

And where for two years I accepted the popular wisdom that it was impossible for a foreigner to learn Luxembourgish. Until one vivid day, when I thought to myself "What does that mean, 'impossible to learn'? We're professional linguists ....." It did in fact prove rather difficult, although for a reason extrinsic to the language itself: since all Luxembourgers are trilingual, detecting a French or German accent in the beginner's fumbling attempts to speak Luxembourgish they will reply in French or German, frustrating one's attempts to learn. With the best of intentions, of course—they simply can't believe that anyone wants to learn their language.

But I persevered, agreeing with arguments I didn't understand, and buying products I didn't want, rather than admitting that I had not understood something and risking having an explanation in French or German. Of course, I thought that learning Luxembourgish was just a fun intellectual exercise, without any professional relevance whatsoever, until... but I'm getting ahead of myself.

I loved my time in Luxembourg, and in many ways still regard that country as home. Indeed, if I can finish this reminiscence by the deadline Gabe has given me, I'm about to go back there, to a reunion of all the English translators who have worked at the Commission since the mid-'70s!

A change of job, although this time without a change of location. The Commission had brought rights to the Systran machine translation system, and was looking for someone to manage the development of its French-English component. Of course, I "knew" that a computer could not translate—"Do you know, it actually rendered 'the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak' by....."—but I suddenly realized that I should go to the interview, because then I would "really really know" that machine translation was impossible.

Within minutes I was captivated! I realized that machine translation was not only possible, but that pushing the limits of what was possible could be tremendous fun. At the same time, however, I was approaching the problems of translation by computer from the point of view of the working translator—not concerned to prove one academic linguistic theory over another, but aiming to develop a practical tool that would be helpful to my translator colleagues, among whom I still counted myself (and to whom, organizationally, I still belonged).

Tremendous fun, indeed, was what it proved to be, for several years. And as well as the fun, the job gave me my first taste of America, since from time to time contract work had to be supervised at Systran's headquarters in California. "I like America," I mused. "America has palm trees, and ocean breezes, and characters from Baywatch long before the series has been invented. I like this country." Other trips to California followed, sometimes with my family, and we all agreed that we liked "America."

Which made it all the more of a shock when we found ourselves disembarking in Newark NJ in a freezing February!

But one adapts, and it was while thinking about additional sources of work that it occurred to me that I was only just down the road from UN Headquarters. Surely, they must have truckloads of freelance translation work that they were just desperate to hand off to someone? Surely, I was the answer to their stressed-out prayers? "No, we don't send out freelance work. Except to retired officials." "Oh." Crestfallen, I was on the point of hanging up the phone. "But you can come in and test for short-term in-house contracts, if you like." I liked.

And it was during one of those in-house contracts that translation seemed for one magical moment to gain the respect it was owed: heading tiredly one evening towards the exit from the Secretariat building, I was surprised and pleased when the uniformed guard stamped to attention, snapped off a respectful salute and bellowed "Good night, Sir!" Wow, recognition for the profession at last! Glow, glow. Alas, a moment later it became evident that as I was approaching the door from one angle, the Secretary-General was approaching it from another. Sigh.

More training, more learning, more working in an environment that takes translation seriously. And the work at Headquarters, in turn, opened up another door. For much of their working time, UN translators are not actually translating, but acting as report-writers for meetings. On the basis that it is better for report-writers to be listening to the speakers directly, rather than through the filter of the interpreters, in as many cases as possible. Since translators have to have three official languages—as against the two required of non-language officials—this makes them the personnel of choice when there is report-writing to be done. And various bits of the United Nations system need report-writers at various times and in various places: "Hello, this is the Montreal Protocol. We're in, well, Montreal, actually. Could you come up here and do some report-writing for us?" "This is the Biodiversity Convention. Could you do two weeks' report-writing for us in December? In the Bahamas?" Sigh—"Well, if I must..." "Could you do some report-writing in Buenos Aires?" "Could you come to Jakarta?" "Bratislava?" "Ouagadougou?"

Another phone call. "Remember me? I used to work for you in New Jersey." (No, not the dancer.) "I'm with a translation company in Luxembourg now, and we need someone to translate a speech by the Prime Minister from Luxembourgish into English. Don't I remember that you know Luxembourgish?"

Enjoy what I'm doing? Love it. Does it frighten me? Comes with the job, I think. If each new assignment doesn't start with a terrifying sensation of writer's block, then I'm probably not taking it seriously enough. Correspondingly, if one doesn't—in one's fourth or fifth read-through—experience a modest buzz of pleasure at the quality of the writing, then the translation still needs work.

Compounding the writer's block problem is the additional effort needed when deliberately tackling a subject with which one is less familiar. Or, similarly, accepting a job in one's weakest language. (Yes, I know which my weakest language is, but I'm not going to say—there could be clients reading this!) Deliberately making things harder for oneself might appear somewhat flagellatory, but we are going to be doing this for a long time—I've been doing it for over a quarter of a century—and who wants to spend their entire career doing something they already know perfectly how to do?

That may be why I don't like working with translation memory systems. (Which might seem paradoxical, given my enjoyable time in machine translation.) I suppose my fundamental objection is that the sort of translation where a TM is of use is not the sort of translation I want to spend my days doing. I have tried out several of them and found them all to have annoying little quirks: annoying in particular because it was easy to see that a number of the drawbacks could have been avoided with some fairly trivial additional programming. Indeed, with one of the programs, at least, work was demonstrably slower than doing it the old-fashioned way. But if some people find them helpful ..... like this "ball-point pen" that I understand some of the younger translators are using nowadays instead of a quill.

What do I find hardest? The "little words," and the literal ones. The little ones: is it "of" or "on" in the Universal Declaration .... Human Rights? And the Office of the High Commissioner ... Human Rights? Is that "on," or "of," or "for?" I knew it once, I wrote it down on an envelope. And what about the Commission .... Human Rights? Then I tucked the envelope somewhere I'd be sure to remember. But what about the International Convention ... Economic, Social and Cultural Rights? Where did I put that envelope?

Is "the" up or down when "Lao People's Democratic Republic" comes in the middle of a sentence? Or should that be Democratic People's Republic? Korea's one way round, isn't it, and Laos is the other. And the "the" rule—Laos is one way, isn't it, and "the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" is the other. Or not? Or am I getting confused? I wrote it down on an envelope somewhere.

Any one of the options would get the meaning across, of course, but only one of them is right, and I find that I spend hours tracking down those little right rascals. Of course—more of that flagellation—the harder they are to find the greater the satisfaction when you finally do so.

The literal ones: when do you stop hunting through your resources, when do you decide that the literal translation is, in fact, the right one? Piège aérien, a type of fish-trap—can that really be "aerial trap," when the thing is suspended under water? Well, yes, it can, actually, I found it in my Dictionary of Fish Traps for Puzzled Translators, but suppose I hadn't? How long am I supposed to go on hunting for something that—perhaps—isn't in the references precisely because its correct name is indeed the literal, obvious, word-for-word one?

Personally, I always feel a little disappointed when my researches reveal that the literal answer is the right one. In that same job about the fish trap, how lame to find that a chaîne Loran is a "Loran chain," or that pied d'immersion is indeed "immersion foot." The translation would have been so much more picturesque if the correct terms had been "Loran cross-linked matrix," or "nasty grungy disease that you get from having your feet in the water too long."

Conventional wisdom, again: all this sort of research is so much easier in the Internet era. Well, yes and no. There is much more information at our fing—cliché alert! cliché alert!—available to us instantaneously, but the problem of deciding what is genuine is paradoxically greater than ever. Yes, there are lots of bilingual sites out there, but I would never accept a literal translation from a site that showed signs of having been written by a non-native (if, for example, all the verbs at the ends of the subordinate clauses were). I might, cautiously, accept a non-literal translation: if a French doctor has written "buffalo hump" for bosse de bison, that might just indicate, however bad the rest of the English, that he knows that the correct term is not the literal "bison hump."

I use a modified form of this rule when researching the names of things in the international domain, only trusting international sites. Too often I have found that when researching French terminology relating to an international organization, for example, national French, or Canadian, or North African sites will have it slightly wrong. (Usually in those "little" words). The only way to be sure is to stay with the sites of the international organizations. But even that may be no more than 95% foolproof: I recently saw a webpage of an international organization (no, I'm not going to say which one—I might want to work for them one day!) which had two different versions of the name of a treaty on the same page! Gasp, shock, horror.

The Internet-era tool I do wholeheartedly endorse is Flefo. I love Flefo! So often a Flefoid has helped me out of a jam, either giving an answer or suggesting where else to look. In terms of justifying the cost of the fee, Flefo is to CompuServe as The Sopranos is to HBO. However much we treasure the solitude of our chosen profession, sometimes it's such a relief to be able to cyber-pop into our colleague's office next door and ask "What on earth do you think this means?"

What other tools and devices do I use? Putting a translation aside for some time before doing the final read-through is probably common practice for most of us, but I have my own refinement on it. If at all possible, I will leave any translation alone for 24 hours before finally reading it through, and the really important ones I don't look at until the end of the day, with the evening's first glass of wine. For other colleagues it might be a really good cup of coffee, or one of those special cigars—whatever your poison. The point is to be sure that, relaxed and settled down and out of my working mode, I can still find pleasure in reading what I have created. If not, the translation still needs work.

(Of course, there are dangers in my method. "Needs more work? I'll have another drink while I do it, I mean it is the beginning of the evening after all ....Let's read it again—better have another drink to replicate the conditions accurately. No, it still needs something more—leave the bottle there, this time .... Let's read it one more time—better go to the backup bottle now. Shuddenly it readsh absholutely shtupendoushly. The cushtomer will be ecshtatic. Shend it in, Sham.")

Better make myself comfortable now and read over this reminiscence before sending it in. Pass the nectar, would you, my dear, and perhaps you'ld like me to critique your new dance routine at the same time .....