Practical tips for practicing translators.
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I was at a friendly gathering of bilingual friends this weekend when one of them mentioned that she was being flown to a nearby military base this week to "interpret" for a foreign delegation visiting state-of-the-art aircraft and weapons there.
Although I do not know the details (who these delegates are, the purpose of their visit, what exactly my friend is expected to do, etc.), I was nevertheless shocked when she started joking around about not knowing anything about the technical aspect of the visit, and hoping that they wouldn't start discussing anything too complicated. She then went on to boast about how she improvises, smoothes things over, and adds in her own explanations when she "interprets" for someone who says something inflammatory or unclear, or when she doesn't understand. She is obviously not a trained interpreter, although she is perfectly bilingual and a highly intelligent person. She is also a friend of mine, whom I've always liked and respected.
I don't want to offend her, nor do I know if there is anything that can or should be done about this situation. But I find it outrageous that military authorities are turning to untrained bilinguals as interpreters. Aren't they aware of the importance of hiring professionally trained and certified interpreters?
Down with Amateur Hour
Military authorities are cleaning up their act, we're told, spurred by recent gaffes and media interest in same. But the behavior you describel'il-ol-me self-deprecation for those plying the cocktail circuitis an enduring trait of linguists, be they untrained bilinguals or professional translators and interpreters.
OK, we are not recommending expert translators wade in trumpeting years of study and decades of experience in field X, Y or Z, reeling off high-profile assignments with captains of industry and government leaders. Hey, arrogance is a turn-off, too.
But if clients are to acknowledge professional skills and pay you properly, you can't hide your light under a bushel either. Quiet confidence with the occasional insightful yet discrete anecdote about saving the day are the way to go. A sense of humor won't go amiss eitherperhaps this is what your friend was aiming for. Unfortunately, by carrying on like Betty Boop she simply underscored her amateur status, reinforced by her ignorance of the wee matter of confidentiality.
Concretely, should the opportunity arise again, you can help by countering amateur and professional linguists' silly stories in public with some pithier ones of your own, weaving in the importance of training, experience and your role as solution provider.
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
The 27-year old daughter of an old friend is interested in pursuing translation studies. She grew up speaking both English and French, though English is really the language most spoken at home. Her father tells me she studied fashion design and spent some time as a wardrobe mistress in a theatre group, but her other pursuits sound not all that substantial ("other assorted B.S." is his term).
He sounds modestly overjoyed that she has at last thought of doing something that could actually qualify as a career and wants to provide paternal encouragement. More specifically, he is wondering whether a degree program is absolutely necessary (vs. a certificate program), and whether there are places that do a particularly good job with teaching the skills of translation in a way that supersedes the particular language, or if the best programs are all within particular language departments. He is concerned also with the importance of developing a specialty. Any thoughts?
Roped In Expert
Question 1: Is this young woman truly language sensitive? (Is she a rabid reader? Does she write for her own pleasure, or for others?...). Bilingualism, while enormously impressive to monolinguals, is not on its own enough to guarantee a successful career as a translator.
Question 2: How rich is this family? A focused budding 27-year old translator may not need a two or three-year program to make the leap, but if she lacks discipline she must somehow acquire or polish her research and writing skills, and here a structured program might be just the ticket.
For details on specific courses, your best bet is your national translators' association. We are aware of quite a number of good certificate programs; she'd probably want to do her course in an English-speaking environment if that is to be her A language. Re specialties, and to cite just one example, if she is interested in theater arts, she might apply for a place on one of the dubbing/subtitling courses. But this is where money comes into itcan she afford a year or two in London, Manchester, Strasbourg or Lille?
Ultimately, beyond a certain age and level of job experience, a translation diploma is unlikely to make or break a career, although formal classes may be a good way to encourage a promising candidate to start creating the network s/he needs to hit the ground running.
A successful translator friend whose academic credentials are in a different field altogether remarked recently that his job satisfaction and business took off once he stopped "doing translations" to pay the bills and "became a translator," i.e., upped his intellectual investment and commitment.
That's the direction your friend's daughter should be headed in if she's going to make it.
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I recently discovered that a person with whom I have exchanged various comments on an elist has been claiming to potential clients that he "has worked with me." This makes me very unhappy, since work-wise I am quite a stickler, and an independent stickler at that.
I'm uncomfortable simply telling him that I want him to stop it, as this seems too aggressive (perhaps he didn't really mean it that way, perhaps he has personal problems that I am unaware of). But I want it to stop.
Have you got a good one-liner and/or hook to make this point succinctly, elegantly, not too unpleasantly?
Every Man for Himself
How, indeed, do you let indelicate/unaware/desperate individuals know they've stepped over the line?
The least painful option we've found is an email indicating you are aware of what is going on, yet providing a plausible excuse to let the guilty party off the hook (this first time).
Example: "Hi, I recently discovered that [fill in name] has erroneously come to the conclusion that we work togetherno doubt because our language combinations are similar. I've written them already to set them straight, but wanted to ask that you keep an eye out for it, too. Wouldn't want to tread on your toes. Thanks!"
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
YES!! I HAVE THE FLAME!!! (jumping up and down, high fives all around!!!!!) Ding dong!!! (rap rap rap) Let me in dearies, I'm home!!! (fluttering of eyelashes, beseeching look)
Thank you for the hard work you have obviously invested in this website. I delight in the reading of it. In your "Bottom Line" column, I was genuinely thrilled to read the words (paraphrase) "Most of the successful professional translators we know have a genuine fascinationeven passionfor language. The Flame. Whether or not you've got that is something only you know, but its presence or absence may also help you decide whether to pursue this career option further."
HOLY COW, I am not a freak after all. (mouth agape)
I am so happy and relieved to know my "malady" has a name and face. And you call it "The Flame", yes? My, but you are a SMART fire ant and worker bee. Because it truly does feel just like a flame. I nearly burn up just thinking of where a word originated from, and what necessitated that invention, and then I am overcome by a desperately greedy wish to be immersed in every culture so that I may KNOW the answers to ALL "Mysteries of the Word"!! Unearthing secret treasures like this, manipulating the language however you fancyisn't it so exciting??!! (deep sigh) Pure bliss, I tell you. Rapture.
I thought I was just plain weird. Thanks to you, I now see there was a perfectly reasonable explanation behind my obsessive behavior, and that I am NOT weird. (okay, maybe a little eccentricyou got me!) But now, dear fire ant and worker bee: Could you advise me how best to go about using my "flame"??
Having never been, I want to go to college NOW. But, alas, I will have to wait a couple of years (when time constraints have lessened, i.e.., work and children) for this greatly anticipated event. But I am 36isn't it too late for me?? Will I really have a future in this field "at my age"?? I have to do SOMETHINGmy friends, and family, and acquaintances, and strangers are sick to death of receiving 15 page (typewritten) letters from me every few days!!!! (yes, I write to strangers, too. You would not BELIEVE some of the reactions I've gotten) I'm not exaggerating about 15 pages, eitherhear me now and believe me later!!!
I have been doing that since I was about eight, and I can't help it, the words simply spew out of me. Please, could you just take a peek at some of my below listed "obsessions", and would you then be kind enough to impart your sage counsel??? (if you merely write back to say "hi" I'll be happy)
- I am fascinated by writing. I love to write and can't STOP (nothing of true substance, very sophomoronic as you can see&my writing skill was unfortunately stunted in high school)
- I am fascinated by words. (if I see a word I don't know the meaning of, I will mentally dissect it until I can ascertain the required information. Or, as I like to call it, "The Jackpot")
- I am fascinated by the dream of reading, writing, and speaking in foreign languages. (Latin, Farsi, French, Italian, Spanish, German, and Japanese especiallybut I'm a glutton for more. Told you I was greedy)
- I am fascinated by the idea of learning everything about different cultures (but not simply book learning, I want to behave precisely as the natives do)
- I am fascinated by manners, and believe that ETIQUETTE RULES. Miss Manners is my hero. (well that has to help me somehow, right? Particularly in regard to Japanese culture!)
So what do you think? There are two really great universities near me:
Southeastern University in Hammond, La., and Louisiana State University In Baton Rouge. If I want to become a translator, should I get four years majoring in foreign language, with a minor in (fill in the blank) and then get specialized "translator" training elsewhere, or what?? I'm unsure how to go about this, and so I really need the benefit of YOUR advice via personal experience.
Thanks so much for reading this far. (ha!) I appreciate your time and attention!!!
Sherri, of the Grossly Talkative Clan
Fire Ant buzzes:
Confirmation: to be a translator, you must master at least one foreign language. That is step 1 in the FA&WB "10 steps to success as a translator" program. Come back when you've got it under your belt and we'll tell you about step two.
Worker Bee hums:
Your enthusiasm is heart-warming, Sherri, but to make it as a translator you need Flame + Skills (pursed lips, finger wagging). Go to college, major in a foreign language, by all means, and minor in communications and technical writing. But keep your day job for the time being, OK?
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I'm not a translator, just a monolingual editor. A client of mine (a government agency) has directed me to develop a Standard Operating Procedure for translating technical documents from English into Spanish. He doesn't have any examples, so I'm trolling the Internet. Are you aware of, or do you know where I could find, examples of SOPs for translators? Any advice you could give me would be greatly appreciated.
You are several steps ahead of the crowd, since your client appears willing to pay you to provide advice on this red-hot topic&which means they are probably going to read what you pull together, too.
Yet it's extremely hard to give an intelligent answer without information on document types, deadlines and volumes.
Example: assuming low volumes, reasonable deadlines, low repetition rates and the need for high quality, the best way forward could well be to interview experienced translators with a view to long-term investment by both parties in a long-term business relationship aiming for high, consistent quality, mutual confidence, continuous learning, etc.
But if any of the basic assumptions changeshigh volumes? tight turnarounds? massive repetition? mediocre quality acceptable in some cases?the best solution could be radically different.
As a general lite backgrounder we recommend Translation, Getting It Right, a brochure with which we are intimately associated. It can be downloaded for free in .pdf version in US English, UK English, French, German and Czech from translator association sites starting with atanet.org and iti.org.uk. For a more detailed approach, you will want to check out the various standards already developed by the translation industry (e.g., DIN 2345), and look into work on the forthcoming European and American standards (some history on the latter at http://accurapid.com/journal/11astm.htm).
FA & WB