accepted my first translation job approximately two or three months after graduating from college with a B.A. in English language and literature. At the time I was living in Cairo, Egypt, taking care of two small children. Eager to work and preferring to work at home, I accepted a translation assignment that I could complete at home. Having passed two undergraduate courses on translation, I thought translating would be a breeze. Egypt's Ministry of Information had launched an ambitious cultural and educational project to translate into Arabic hundreds of different books on a variety of different subjects. The book that was allotted to me was an elementary book on economics and economic systems. I was given three months to translate the book from English into Arabic, and after I turned in my translation, I swore I would never, ever translate anything again. I had spent three months working very hard on my assignment, an assignment that turned out to be very frustrating because no matter how hard I tried, I could not always figure out how to make the Arabic text sound natural, make sense, and accurately convey what the English text communicated. My task had turned out not to be the breeze I had expected it to be, and my task had placed severe restrictions on my social life. Years later I realized that the references, the dictionaries, and research skills I had at the time were negligible and certainly inadequate. Needless to say, there was no Internet at the time. Furthermore, when I considered my compensation... well!! That was an amount that could be described as laughable or pathetic, depending on one's point of view. In short, I had concluded that there was absolutely nothing positive or worthwhile about that experience.
Approximately 15 years later I resigned myself to signing a contract with an agency of the U.S. Federal Government to work as an independent contractor translating into English selected articles appearing in the Arabic press. Much had happened during those years: I had immigrated with my family to the United States; I had become a U.S. citizen; and I had earned a Masters Degree in English Literature with a minor in linguistics. In graduate school I had improved my research skills and gained some more knowledge about research tools and methodology. To my surprise, I found myself enjoying the process of looking up information in dictionaries and doing research in the library. Looking for the right word and learning about different subjects were fun. What had happened during those 15 years? The reasons behind this change in attitude and point of view did not dawn on me then.
Relevant knowledge for translators, like for many other professions, includes the concept of continuing education.
After completing my first few assignments I was not sure exactly why the task I had found so tedious fifteen years earlier had now become interesting and intellectually challenging. In time, however, I was able to understand the reason why I felt comfortable with work I had thought years earlier I would never attempt again. Today, some 40 years after completing that first translation assignment, I find myself a U.S. citizen, living in the United States, and employed as the senior Arabic translator at the Office of Language Services at the U.S. Department of State. In recent years I've taught a course on the methodology of translating Arabic texts into English. Sometime before my journey had brought me to this point, I joined other colleagues in an effort to include an Arabic into English exam in the American Translators Association's (ATA) Accreditation program. I was privileged to serve on ATA's Accreditation Committee, and I was honored to serve as its chair for approximately three years. I love my work, and I enjoy teaching. I also learned a great deal from my ATA colleagues who serve as graders and members of the Accreditation Committee. To this day, I find the work that I do in the office and in the classroom interesting and intellectually challenging. One of the things that truly appeal to me about translating is that my daily work is never boring and is never routine. In fact, I don't think I would choose to do anything else. My purpose in writing this profile is to explain to younger colleagues, who may be entertaining thoughts similar to the ones that crossed my mind many years ago, what had changed over the years. My purpose is to explain what caused my attitude toward the task of translating to change so drastically. I am writing this profile because I am convinced that what changed my attitude could help colleagues whose educational background may be similar to mine or who became translators by accident or by default, just like me. Why is it that I now love what forty years ago I swore never to do again?
This purpose is very important to me, and I believe it should also be important to others at a time when our country needs skillful, qualified translators and interpreters in all languages, not just in Arabic. Although many of our leaders may not really grasp how important our skills are to our national security, many of us in the profession do. I believe that the only way we will be able to make our leaders understand the importance of our linguistic and analytical skills is to show them the difference upgrading our skills makes in the quality of the service we render.
But I would like to go back to the question of what had changed over the years to make a tedious task become a challenging, enjoyable one. Obviously, I am olderI hope I am also a little wiser. But all kidding aside, I think that the most important difference between my attitude many years ago and my attitude for at least the last 25 years can be attributed to the acquisition of relevant knowledge. My experience has persuaded me that "relevant knowledge" for professional translators goes beyond the traditional and common belief that fluency in the target and source languages as well as subject knowledge are all that is required for success as a professional translator. In addition to that, "relevant knowledge" includes thorough, in-depth knowledge of the grammar of the target and source languages as well as a professional writer's ability to handle different text types and manipulate the different parts of the text so that its message can be conveyed in the target language accurately, completely and effectively.
I was persuaded furthermore that the notion of "relevant knowledge" is not static. In other words, "relevant knowledge" is not a static body of knowledge that one can claim to have once one masters it. "Relevant knowledge" for translators, like for many other professions, includes the concept of continuing education, and that means learning anything and everything we can to become better professionals. For translators, "relevant knowledge" is very closely related to language. It is primarily about how languagethe target as well as the source languageworks. It is about how language works in different contextsgeneral, scientific, legal, diplomatic, to name only a few. It is knowledge that permits one to understand how words are used in context and how they are put together to convey meaning. It is knowledge that permits one to recognize when words are being used in their primary or secondary senses, when they are being used literally, and when they are being used figuratively. It is knowledge that permits one to understand and recognize all the intricacies and complexities of one language, including how and why languages use implicit meaning as well as explicitly stated words to convey complete messages.
A number of translators who regularly attend the American Translators' Association annual conferences and continuously upgrade their computer skills fail to pay adequate attention to improving their understanding of the grammars of the source and target languages. They think that grammar is something a person learns in grade school and that once one graduates from high school, thinking about the rules of grammar is no longer required. Translators who have not revisited their grammar books in years and who have been selling their translation services successfully for years dismiss the suggestion that they should refresh their memories of the rules of grammar and sentence structure. They see no reason for spending time reviewing a book of grammar when they can use the time more profitably working on a client's translation for pay. Many professional translators who have excellent writing skills and who have been practicing for many years have internalized the rules of grammar and good writing and are able to apply all those rules correctly and effectively. But they are not always able to explain clearly and unambiguously the reasons for their choices. While they may be able to correct mistranslations and improve upon inelegant renditions, they are not always able to explain clearly and unambiguously why one rendition is better than another if they do not have the ability to use the rules of grammar to describe the deficiency. I believe that a sound, working knowledge of the grammar of the source language gives the translator a superior ability to understand and analyze the text properly, and a sound, working knowledge of the grammar of the target language gives him or her the confidence required to render the meaning of the source language text accurately, completely, idiomatically, and effectively.
I learned this lesson rather early in my career when I was asked by a client to review a translation into Arabic of a private contract. The client wanted to find out whether or not the translator he had hired to translate the contract had done a satisfactory job. I was asked to compare the English language textthe source text-- with the Arabic language textthe target text. I was also asked to draft a memorandum, noting any discrepancy I found between the source text and the target text and explaining the nature of the discrepancy. Since this was the first translation review job I was ever asked to write a memorandum of explanation for, I was not sure what was the best way to tackle the task. I eventually decided that using the rules of grammar, where applicable, to explain discrepancies might be the way to go. So I took my reference grammar books off the shelf, dusted them, and proceeded to put them to use. It was a difficult, challenging, and time-consuming task, but the feedback I received from the client later indicated that he was very pleased with the product he received. Not only did I get repeat business from that client, I also got referrals. I do not need to stress here how important repeat business and referrals are to a freelance translator's bottom line.
Years later I was gratified to find confirmation for my approach in a textbook on translation methodology that I was fortunate enough to acquire and to read. This book validated many of the concerns I had with difficult texts that I had translated and that I occasionally had to translate. Alan Duff's The Third Language talked about the "mental sets" associated with the vocabulary and syntax of each language and that the constraints imposed by the "mental set" of the source language text sometimes cause the target language text to sound strange and unidiomatic. When that happens, the translated text that results is "a third language" and not really the target language. But it was Professor Mildred L. Larson's Meaning-Based Translation: A Guide to Cross-Language Equivalence that finally provided the light that demystified much of what I do at work every day. Professor Larson's detailed, step-by-step approach to analyzing texts provided the methodology I knew I needed to gain a better grip of the problems I regularly face. It gave me a larger and a more versatile toolbox, if you will, that I can use to tackle difficult texts and to explain to others who ask why I make the choices I do make when I translate any given text. Professor Larson provides her readers with those tools in a way that clarifies how the source language text constructs meaningthe "mental sets" that Alan Duff discussed in his book. Her methodology makes the task of analyzing the source language text more accessible. It also gives translators more efficient tools they can use to construct the appropriate "mental set" in the target language text that will convey the meaning of the source language text accurately, completely, and idiomatically. I strongly recommend these two excellent books to all my colleagues regardless of their language combination.