Monday, April 22, 2013

How To Be... a Translator

I was listening to NPR the other day; they were talking about this dude that worked as a translator for the State Department and, later, CNN on recommendation from the State Department. They even played some clips of him translating during a CNN interview. It's what gave me my idea for "T."

Of course, it was all wrong. Which I knew but was forgetting during the moment of listening to the report on NPR about this "translator." But, see, he's not a translator. He's an interpreter. A translator is someone that works with documents. As wikipedia puts it:
Translation is the communication of the meaning of a source-language text by means of an equivalent target-language text. Whereas interpreting undoubtedly antedates writing, translation began only after the appearance of written literature.
[The bold print is mine.]
It was surprising to me that NPR made such a fundamental mistake, but, then, I'm sure most people would never even think about thinking that it could be wrong, because we, culturally, use the idea of translation incorrectly all the time. And that's where it gets even more complicated, because many languages don't make a distinction between the two: it is all "translation." But, here in the USA, we do make a distinction, and it's for rather important reasons, which I will get to in a moment. One other note, when interpreting, it is always "interpreting" or "interpreter;" it is never "interpretation," because that means something entirely different and is more related to translating, which we'll also get to in a moment.

I do have one friend who became an interpreter. She was fascinated with Japan and had decided by our senior year that she wanted to be an interpreter. She went on to get a degree in Japanese cultural studies (or something like that) and graduated from college with a (very) high paying job for some corporation in Japan.

I mention that because my impression is that people think that interpreting is difficult while translating is fairly easy and straightforward. That anyone who knows two languages well enough can sit down and translate, but acting as an interpreter requires much more command of both languages. And, while it's true that interpreting is no easy job, especially high level interpreting (especially high level interpreting like for the UN or the State Department), most of what I found leans toward interpreting as being the easier of the two because it doesn't involve so much interpretation. [See, I told you these word distinctions are important. Okay, so I didn't explicitly say that, but I implied it.]

But why interpretation? Because languages don't always translate directly. There may not be an equivalent words between two languages. Or, as is the case with "interpreting" and "translating," one language may make a distinction in meaning when using a particular word. Or there may be phrases that mean a particular thing, but the individual words, if translated, won't add up to the meaning of the phrase. OR... Or it may be an artistic work, like a poem or a work of fiction, and the translator becomes tasked with evoking  more than just the meaning of the individual words. (S)he must make an interpretation of the work as (s)he translates.

Yes, it's all very complicated.

So, then, how do you become a translator?

Well, to start, you have to have a more than competent grasp of both languages you're working with but an even greater grasp of the language you are translating into. But it doesn't stop with knowing the languages; you also have to be versed in both cultures. Remember that I mentioned phrases that mean something other  than the individual words mean? And, then, there's slang, which is often difficult to keep up with within your own language. [When my brother was still in high school (he's six years younger than me), he used to love to use whatever the latest slang was on me, because I never knew what he was talking about. Seriously, it was weeks before I knew what "Baby's got back" meant.] Translating just the words in those circumstances will lead to a bad translation even though the words are technically correct. This is called knowing the difference between when to "metaphrase" (translating the words literally) and "paraphrase" (translating the meaning of the phrase, creating an interpretation of what the author meant). [In other words, "she has a big butt," which I found offensive just on general principal once I knew what my brother was saying.]

You should also be familiar with the subject matter, so translating, say, The Three Musketeers by Dumas, would require you to know both about Alexandre Dumas and 19th century France and 17th century France, which is when the story is set.

All of that aside, the role of the translator is actually growing, right now, as the Internet reaches more and more of the world. Computer translation devices can do no more than translate the individual words, which can lead to a very many misunderstandings, so the demand for people who can translate web pages is on the rise. It probably doesn't require quite as much dedication as manuscript translation does and could also provide good experience for anyone wanting to get into manuscript translation.

And, now, I'm wondering how my books must read in other languages when translated solely by Amazon's computer translators...


  1. Brilliant post!

    I work in a residential mental health facility and we use interpreters for group and individual sessions, but we've also had some of our handouts translated.

    There can be some key nuances in phrases/words and how to translate them from one language to another. Throw in mental illness symptoms, and it gets even more complicated.

    Thanks for providing such an informative post.

    Lyre @ Lyre's Musings #atozchallenge

  2. Dude, this post was very cool! Fascinating actually--as I always thought the job of an interpreter would be incredibly hard, due to the need for understanding of literal and slang for both languages. Just a lot of ideas to float around in one head.

    I guess even NPR gets it wrong sometime. Your blog is very interesting to read, I feel like I'm learning something :)

  3. There is a difference between the two.
    I have a friend who is an interpreter for the hearing impaired. He's proficient in several dialects of sign language.

  4. Super post! Lots af research into this profession!
    I did some translation of English to English for a person who was writing APPs forApple devices. He didn't speak English well, and I couldn't speak Norwegian, so I fixed and reworked his English. Before that no one took the product seriously. So maybe I could be that kind of translator. I really enjoyed that. I did it for free though at the time. I guess I would have to charge something for it in order to get rich from it...

  5. So much to comment on.

    First, I like the song "Baby's Got Back," but I like the Gilbert & Sullivan version:

    Second, the slang: The kids liked a song called "Like a 24," in which the chorus is:

    "Make that [butt] roll like a 24," and I had to ask what a 24 was. Turns out it's a rim on a car. Now you know.

    Anyway, on to the meat of your post. We use interpreters all the time in court. When I did criminal defense I had a client from Thailand in juvenile court, and the judge was giving a lecture about his rights (to counsel, etc.) and the interpreter was just rolling along and speaking, and I was amazed at two things:

    1. They have the ability to listen to you and talk to someone else in real time, instantly interpreting what you are saying into another language, and

    2. They can translate American concepts like "due process" into foreign languages even when the culture has no such related concepts.

    I found it fascinating. I asked an interpreter once how he learned to do that -- the former especially -- and he said part of their training is to listen to the news while writing numbers 1 to 100 on a pad of paper, and then answer questions about what the newscaster said.

    I tried that. I can't do it. Not without a lot more practice.

    (As for how they translate things like "due process," I once heard a translator working in Hmong, amidst a whole string of Hmong words, say, clearly, "due process," so some interpreters might be better than others.)

  6. I had an Interpreter in Russia who was fluent in Russian (obviously) and English and German. Some people are just determined to be overachievers.

    I used to do French translations, but I couldn't do it anymore. The only French I know now is the rude stuff.

  7. Since my field is linguistics and intercultural communication I loved your discussion of translation v. interpretation. It was spot on and I loved reading it.

  8. You should watch Game of Thrones on HBO. There was a perfect example of translation recently with Daenerys Targaryen talking with the Master Slaver of Astapor.

  9. Well, I have a tough enough time understanding english than to get caught up in other ones... Although if I start to see signs of alzheimer's in me... I'm learning another language asap.

  10. Some days English is hard enough! I am truly amazed at those who know multiple languages and can easily translate.

  11. Great post! The world seems to be getting smaller all the time and until we all can all shove babel fish in our ears, this is the sort of thing we're all going to have to think about more.

  12. What a really interesting and intriguing post...

  13. That's what I have always thought would be good to do, translating English into English. Even recently I went through a book written by an Australian friend and came across a word which meant nothing to me and turned out to be solely used in Australia.


  14. Thanks to your post, I have two more confusing words to add to my list. Confusing words is my topic for the A to Z challenge this year.
    Great explanation of the two words.


  15. I'm sorry to say much of this was lost in translation for me. But what can I say, we all interpret things are own way. :)

  16. Amy: Wow. That's impressive. I mean, just the idea of interpreting someone that may actually be using their own personal language system boggles my mind.

    Jean: Well, thank you very much. I do try to be informative.

    Alex: I didn't know that sign language had dialects. It never even occurred to me.

    Donna: That's pretty cool! It amazes me, actually, the poor English used in the text for so many devices designed for American audiences.

    Briane: The video was hilarious, but I think I preferred when I didn't know the lyrics to that song.

    Sometimes, my kids make me feel like that. That I should be able to have a conversation with one person while also listening to another person. I've had years of practice, and I'm still no good at it.

    M.J.: I had friends in high school that had to translate a whole book in French. That was their assignment for that year.

    C.Lee: Thank you!
    And cool career. Tolkien's thing was linguistics.

    Michael: We're watching it but just way behind everyone else, because we have to wait for the DVDs.

    Rusty: Forget learning a language, just play more strategy games.

    Rebecca: Yeah, it is pretty impressive.

    TAS: I'm waiting for my babel fish. Those genetic engineers need to be focusing on that.

    ADSL: Thanks...

    Jo: Yeah, that can be a problem. It doesn't even have to be some other English speaking country. Interpreting Southern can be bad enough.

    queenofenglish: I'm glad I could help!

  17. Pk: LOL
    You get comment of the day.

  18. Translating is not for me but kudos to those who take this on.

  19. Sounds like human interpreters should be hired to oversee Amazon's translating machine!

    Chontali Kirk

  20. Sheena: I can translate pig Latin, but no one ever writes in that.

    C.: Something like that, yes.

  21. Well you've convinced me. I'm going to become a translator now. Very nice post - enjoyed learning the difference between the two

  22. Further proof that translating requires a grasp of a language: every spam message ever.

    Like NPR, I didn't realize the nuances of "interpreter" and "translator". Whichever job, I'm impressed by someone who can do it. It's more than just knowing the language. It's understanding it.

  23. It still kills me that despite intense studying, I never showed any talent with languages (other than English).

  24. J Keith: I think it would actually be pretty cool... if I knew other languages.

    Jeanne: Yeah, that's true. Which is making me think of some movie where the big climatic moment was where the guy had to "think in Russian."

    S.L.: I was great as long as I didn't have to remember the vocabulary.

  25. There are so many fields where tanslators can work! It's a pretty cool job. I'm not really interested in it, but if you can do it, you can actually make extra money in fields that you wouldn't consider translation fields, as an extra ability in the field.

    #atozchallenge, Kristen's blog:

  26. Kristen: My younger son showed a pretty strong affiliation for languages when he was younger, but we really didn't know how to take advantage of that at the time. He doesn't have enough language options at his school to encourage any real development in that area.