This blog is about living and working on the road. So far, I have spent a lot of time describing roads past and present, and more than a little bit describing my life on the road. However, I have said very little about my work on the road. The “About” web page of this blog notes that I am a “freelance writer, translator, reviser, and editor.” It is the translator that pays for this crazy lifestyle that I have chosen. This week, I would like to explain a little about what that means and try to describe what the work looks and feels like. As my family used to complain, it looks like I am just “sitting at the computer all day,” so I need to invite you inside my mind. Enter at your own risk!
What is a translator?
First, a definition. A translator is a bilingual person who renders the meaning of a written text in one language into a different language. Immediately, a relationship is created, which includes at least three people: the source language author, the translator, and the target language reader. Being bilingual is part of the definition, but it is only a prerequisite. How we acquire a second language (at home, in a polyglot community, or in school) is not as important as learning that language well. If our family speaks a dialect at home, that becomes a third language: we still have to learn the national language. Language schools can help us become bilingual, but they do not train translators.
To achieve and maintain the competence needed in a source language takes time and hard work. At one time, I was competent in five languages, but the Latin, French, and Spanish have rusted. I have more work from Italian than I can accept. Over time, I have had to turn away the others.
A translator is always creating a new document in the target language, so, in addition to being bilingual, one must be a good writer in the target language. For most translators, this is one’s native language, in my case, English. There is an adage that one should never translate out of one’s native language into something else, but I know too many truly bi-directional translators to accept this without qualification. It is possible to achieve native fluency in a second language, but it requires years of immersion in the culture and country of that language, preferably at a formative age. I might have been bi-directional when I was 17, just coming out of high school, but I would have had to continue living in Italy to maintain that level of proficiency for professional work.
So, we have a bilingual writer, but that is still not a translator.
Anthony Pym, who teaches translation studies at the University of Barcelona, defined translation as “the generation of all the possible choices and the selection of the best one.” I have always liked his definition, because I can apply it to describe what we do at any level of competence.
A beginning translator may do each step in order, and with difficulty. The choices are generated with the help of a dictionary, perhaps, which is tedious and does not include all possible choices. The best possible one can only be selected by combining the context of the source text, an understanding of the cultural baggage surrounding it, and a certain amount of life experience (what one gets by living and studying the source culture). Add to this the fact that we are always translating something, and that subject matter needs to be familiar enough so that we can read about it and understand it. It might be nuclear physics or art history, but we need to know something besides the two languages that were translating. The value of a broad, liberal education (in the old-fashioned sense of that concept) cannot be underestimated. So, too, it is valuable to have worked at something besides languages: we bring our life experience to the task.
As one’s competence grows, the process of generating choices and making selections becomes internalized. Those with a so-called “gift” for translation internalize the process sooner than others, but with experience and study, it can happen for almost all of us. Today, I can “sight-translate” a document by dictating it in English while reading the source text. However, you could go back and quiz me about any point in the translation, and I could tell you which choices I rejected in articulating the translation that I did. Whether dictating or typing, I work until I have a first draft. Then the heavy lifting begins. As with any kind of writing, reviewing one’s work, making changes until it is as good as we can get it, consumes most of the time required to produce a professional product. The difference between a translator and another kind of writer is, of course, the presence of two texts in different languages. As a translator I am not writing my own stuff; I am writing the author’s stuff. My skill as a writer is the vehicle through which the author speaks to the target reader.
If you were to ride with me, this is what it would look like. Almost the first thing I do every morning is to check my smart phone for email. It is already afternoon in Europe when I get up. I scan the headers, to see if any are from clients, and open them to see if they require answers. If yes, I light off my computer and answer those before getting dressed and having breakfast.
As I ride to the next place, I check my phone about every hour to see if there are updates to the email. For one thing, I stop every hour to stretch, so that I can keep riding all day. For another, I keep my phone in airplane mode while I am riding. This conserves the battery, and prevents me from being distracted by my cell phone in traffic.
After I arrive where I will spend the night, I stretch, and relax. Then I start or continue working on the translation in process. I may or may not have dinner first, depending on how late I stopped riding that day. If I have a room or place by myself, I dictate the translation. If I am sharing a campground, or working in a café with a Wi-Fi hotspot, then I have to type. I type at about 40-50 words per minute, but I can dictate 125 words per minute. If I have already written the first draft, I usually do not dictate when I am revising. However, the revision process is when I most urgently need my online resources. The need for an Internet connection is the principal reason why I prefer to stay in hotels and motels rather than camp. While I am working, I will probably have two or more online dictionaries open, my word processor (Microsoft Word®), and my CAT (computer-assisted translation) tool, also known as a translation environment tool (TEnT). My preferred tool happens to be Déjà Vu X®, made by Atril (www.atril.com).
I use computer-assisted translation when I have a document that is large and repetitious enough to make my work more efficient. A CAT tool is not machine translation. The software displays the text for me in two parallel columns. Each row contains a text unit of source text next to a blank cell. A text unit is usually a sentence or a phrase ending in a semicolon. Behind the software is a translation memory (TM) that contains matched sets of text units that I have translated in the past. I let the translation tool fill in any blank cells next to source-language cells that it recognizes. This is called “pre-translation.” Then I dictate or type the translation into the remaining blank cells. As I work, the CAT tool leaps ahead and fills in any text units that repeat what I just translated, so that I do not have to type them again when I get there. It also stores the new translations in the translation memory, so that they will be available if I ever encounter those text units again. The CAT tool is a tremendous help, because it relieves me of much of the drudgery, which reduces the number of errors that I make. For example, the blank cells keep me from skipping something if I am interrupted and then come back to work. When I get to the end of the document, I run a spell checker and some other quality assurance steps. Then I export the document into Microsoft Word®. This gives me a first draft, and the revision process starts.
I put my revised translation aside, and look at it again the next day, if possible, or at least after a long break. When the document is ready for delivery, I bring up my accounting software and generate an invoice to go along with it. I save the invoice as a PDF file, and attach the translation and the invoice to an email to my client.
While I am working, I keep track of the amount of time I spend on each task. That record allows me to complete my invoice if I am billing by the hour. It also allows me to understand how well my business is doing, by comparing the revenue coming in to the time being spent generating it. But the business side of my work should be the subject of a different blog.
Translation requires concentration. Whether I work in the basement of my house, or a hotel room, or a campground, it is not the sort of activity that I can do while holding a conversation with somebody else. Thus, it lends itself to the sort of solo riding that I do. I do make myself stop every 20 minutes, just to keep from sitting at the computer too long, so maybe riding with somebody else will work. I have not tested that yet.
Another variation on my work is the long document with a tight deadline. For those jobs, I simply extend my stay where I am, and continue riding after I deliver the translation. This happened in Georgetown, Texas, and again, in Miami, Florida.
This week’s blog is so long that I am simply going to report that I have continued to travel north through New Jersey and New York. I am on Long Island, continuing to make my way to New England. Next week, I will provide an inclusive trip update along with the sea story. I post daily reports on the ride itself to Facebook (http://facebook.com/tradux).
Smooth roads & tailwinds,
“I have more work from Italian than I can accept. Over time, I have had to turn away the others”
Maybe I’m preaching to the choir here because it is not completely clear and “turn away” means in this context, but as a general comment on of the biggest mistakes successful, good, and professional independent translators do is just turning down work instead of outsourcing or at least referring it.
One of the problems translators face is the appearance of isolation. I believe that this isolation is artificial and self-inflicted. This isolation is also part of a bigger problem of thinking of colleagues as competitors. Translators should network more – online and offline – and develop relationships with fellow like-minded colleagues to form a de-facto professional practice that outsource work, or at least a network of trusted and trustworthy peers that can refer work to each other, thus creating a win-win-win (the third win is for the client) situations. Recommendation from a trusted colleague and word of mouth are probably two of the most effective marketing tools available.
There is shortage of good translators, most of them are busy over their heads and by turning down work they just push their existing and future clients into the arms of the unscrupulous bulk market that is generally more visible and readily available.
Thank you, Shai, for your comments. I hope you obtained some “translation therapy” from the posting. You have a nice, clean blog.
I note that your comment went to my spam folder, which I only clean weekly, so I owe you a bit of an apology for not approving the comment sooner.
You make an excellent point about referring translation work to colleagues. This blog is not about translation specifically, so the practices that I have developed over 52 years are not completely explained in a single post. For the record, I never (absolutely never) “turn down” an assignment without offering a few specific names of colleagues who could competently perform the assignment. When this is impossible, usually because I have not been allowed to see the material, I at least ask the client to let me know if they want referrals.
I do not do this to relieve anyone’s sense of isolation. It is simply good business practice, and a natural reaction on my part, because I want to help the client get the job done, even when I am not available. The wonderful result of this is, of course, that my colleagues remember me when they are not available.
I know we do not work in the same language pairs, so you will probably never get a referral from me, but I do wish you the best of luck, and I thank you for following my blog.
Thank you Jonathan, and no need to apologize about my comment ending up in the Spam queue, I know how these system work, and nothing you can do about it.
I suspected that much (that I’m preaching to the choir), and made my comment in a more general context for those who read this blog or stumble upon it at later time.
I enjoyed your post very much. I take a particular interest in posts describing the thought process and workflow of colleagues. One can always learn a lot from them. We all have different circumstances and perspectives, and there are lessons to be learned almost everywhere, if one is only open-minded enough and willing to step outside one’s comfort zone from time to time.
I wholeheartedly agree that referring/outsourcing work is a very good business practice, yet, I know quite a few colleagues that this concept completely eludes them and they are always so overly focused on their current work schedule,
Happy (and safe) riding; keep documenting it, it is a pleasure to read.