The empowered translator

My first guest post on this blog comes from Nick Somers, an Austria-based translator I’ve worked with on a number of occasions on projects for the Belvedere and, most recently, for an exhibition organised by the University of Applied Arts in Vienna.

When I launched this blog, the week before Easter, one of my blog posts inspired Nick to try out Ommwriter and write the following piece. I couldn’t agree more with what he says (but probably wouldn’t have been able to express it as well). Many thanks, Nick!

Who are you translating for?

I often collaborate with fellow translators: one of us translates and the other edits. As an editor I might make a suggestion for shortening a text, cutting out a cultural reference or, god forbid, expressing something in a different way than the original author.

Sometimes my colleagues will tell me that they don’t dare or have the right to make such changes, to omit bits or add anything, and would prefer to stick to what the author wrote. If you are one of those translators, you might like to stop reading at this point.

I have also worked with colleagues who say that the object of translation is merely, exclusively, to inform the reader of what the author wrote – using their exact words, images and style. If you are one of those, you probably won’t want to read on either.

If there’s anyone left and if you translate texts for public consumption (advertising, articles, speeches, tourism, Internet sites), however, you might be interested to read about a slight shift in priorities.

Putting the reader first

My contention – and I doubt there’s anything original about it – is that your “customer” as a translator is not only the author but, perhaps even more crucially, the reader.

Fundamentally, the point of any text is to communicate, to pass a message – clearly, without obfuscation. And if the message is longer than “No exit” or “Keep off the grass”, it has to retain the reader’s attention. This applies as a guiding principle not only for authors but also for translators as well.

Step 1: Put yourself in the reader’s shoes

You allocate an hour during your holidays for a visit to a museum. Interesting exhibition, you pay your money, stop at the first exhibit or painting. The inscription kicks off with an eleven-line sentence placing the object in its historical context, very erudite. You think?

Or, because you only have an hour and don’t have the time or inclination to stop at every exhibit and read the dense information – or listen to it on the audio guide for that matter – you decide to buy the catalogue. So you can read at even greater length an esoteric text written by some academic showing how many obscure Latin and Greek words and mythological references he or she knows. You think?

Or even, you pick up a brochure because you’re thinking of buying a new automatic lens grinder and are treated to a potted history of the company’s implantation in some obscure region, its innovative founder (now dead), and its devotion to quality, top materials and “solutions”. And then the technical jargon. You think?

Step 2: So what can you as a translator do?

You become empowered. You don’t let yourself be intimidated by the idea that art texts, sociology texts, medical texts “have to” sound incomprehensibly arty, sociological or medical. I’m not at all talking about dumbing down, but you should be guided by the desire to transform the text into something that sounds knowledgeable but won’t have the reader thinking after two sentences about what to cook tonight.

Have you ever embarked on a promising-looking article and then given up because it’s too complicated – or just boring? Then you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Step 3: You become even more empowered

You contact the author or the customer to point out that the copy isn’t working. The references to Bavarian dialect are all very well if you happen to know German, but they probably won’t add much to a Korean’s understanding of the text. Forget “Kaiserschmarrn” and “Palatschinken” plus explanatory translator’s note in brackets. Won’t “traditional Austrian desserts” work just as well?

Translators should not be an afterthought. We are part of the process. We are the experts in localisation. Tell your customer that the text is boring (well, perhaps not in so many words).

Many people who write texts are not skilled writers but professional something-elses. Point out the impact that you believe the text is likely to have. Ask them who they are writing for and what they hope to achieve. And make your pitch.

It’s called readability. If you have to read a sentence three times to understand it, maybe it’s not you but the sentence. Utopian? Sure: you can’t simply rewrite the text; it’s not yours. But you can tweak it, more or less. Risky? Very: you might lose the customer, have an argument on the phone and be branded as a troublemaker. But you’ll have to take my word for it that there are some people who get it and are grateful to collaborate. And doesn’t that make your job more satisfying, creative and worthwhile? Believe me, it does.

2 Responses to The empowered translator

  1. A very interesting read – thanks!

    Nice to hear that we have another outspoken translator out there. Yes, I did want to read on!

    I work in collaboration with a friend & business associate & we work in very much the same way described.

    In fact just the other day we had some very interesting feedback (if it can be called that) outlining the fact that translations had to read word for word like the original and changing sentence order was just NOT permitted …. strange because it was a legal translation between 2 completely different legal systems ….. sometimes the text has to be “adapted” to make sense.

    It is extremely refreshing to hear somebody else out there sticks up for themselves & their decisions!

  2. Pingback: Translating a website? 6 ways to make it more readable | Catherine Translates

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