All three – in that order – hold the key to becoming a world-class translator.
An interviewer, who was also a writer, once asked me how many words I’d translated before I published my first translated book for the American Institute of Physics. I imagined he expected an answer of perhaps ten thousand or so.
“About two million,” I replied.
Two million?! How is that possible?
“That’s a conservative figure, I think.”
I explained that I was young and had been dictating scientific translations from Russian into English for publication in scientific journals for almost a decade when I published my first book translation. I kept two technical typists busy full-time.
I might have added that I was also personally responsible for perhaps 1% of all US East Coast consumption of editorial red ink scrawled all over my translations.
It turned out that my translator-editor colleagues at the American Institute of Physics, Plenum Publishing, the Optical Society of America, the Congressional Research Service, the World Bank and the U.S. national labs, to name just a few, were even better than I was.
I thought of myself as a terrific translator at the time – don’t we all? I knew my subject-matter cold. I could write convincingly and clearly. I had completed tons of college coursework in translation at Georgetown and had published translations with nationally renowned Russian scholars at the Smithsonian. I’d been selected by scientific publishers from many hundreds of applicants, often the only translator chosen in a given selection round. The staff at the American Institute of Physics would always call me “Dr. Hendzel” when I called because many of the other translators on the translation program held PhDs in physics (I didn’t) and they were wary of offending somebody (I would politely correct them, but they would just as politely ignore me.)
So this editorial brutalization took some getting used to.
Twice a week I’d receive these fat packets stuffed full of hard-copy final corrections (later I’d receive red-lined electronic files). It was feedback on a massive scale, constantly, every single year, across dozens of sub-disciplines in physics, optics and engineering, and seemingly without end.
It occurred to me that this level of collaboration and correction was a lot like the scientific enterprise itself.
You learn three things from this kind of decades-long editorial mauling.
Welcome to the Commercial Translation Market
Fast forward a few years to when I jumped feet first into the commercial translation market with my company ASET.
The first of many sobering realizations you come to in the early phases of building a premier boutique translation company is that you cannot possibly do all the work yourself, even if you do dictate.
After seeking out and examining the actual translation work produced by your commercial colleagues, you soon begin to realize that something is terribly wrong.
The commercial translation market appears to be radically different from the scientific publication market in some very crucial ways.
Don’t get me wrong. Some of the work is genuinely good. This warms your heart and brings a smile to your weary face. But much of the technical, legal and even financial translations produced by some of the most visible and recognizable names in the commercial translation industry – even those with graduate translation degrees and certifications a mile long – are dramatically and bizarrely uneven.
The quality spectrum and relative distribution looked something like this:
Publishable – Good – Understandable – Technical Fiction – Embarrassing – WTF?
After you’ve carefully evaluated several hundred translation samples yourself and had thousands more assessed by your former scientific-translator colleagues you do trust, a pattern begins to emerge.
The translators whose work is most solid – technically accurate, well-researched and elegantly written – are those who have had excellent technical subject-matter training (whatever relevant field) and have been translating professionally for a minimum of ten years. A decade appeared to be a tipping point.
But that’s only a start. Far more crucial to real expertise was the way these translators worked for all those years.
The Essential Role of Collaboration
The best translators had dodged the bullet of working in total isolation. They had spent their careers working in a massively collaborative environment – either physical or virtual (sometimes both). These people had been revised. They’d been edited. They’d been re-written. Their texts had been scrutinized, disemboweled, blasted apart and re-assembled.
They’d been fine-tuned and polished and burnished and shined.
Their translations had been at risk their entire careers: At risk for acceptance or rejection or revision by their own colleagues who were right there in the trenches working with them.
They would project their translations on screens at translation conferences and stand by them. They would reflect and consult and discuss with the session attendees ways to improve them.
Often conference interpreters who also worked as translators – the ultimate experts in collaboration and active learning from each other – were, surprisingly enough, much more flexible and receptive to instruction and guidance than were (written-only) translators with subject-matter training working into their native language of English.
This rejection did not go over well with some of the translators whose work I evaluated, heavily edited and then rejected for requiring far too much intervention on every level.
“Your changes are a matter of opinion,” some sniffed (perhaps, but their translations were describing a physical world that did not actually exist).
“Here are my responses to your changes,” they would say, writing out 20-page single-spaced responses defending terms they “found in the dictionary” but made no sense in the context, to the extent that their context made any sense at all.
“Translators are creative artists and do their best work alone, like authors do,” some translators argued, often angrily and vociferously. It was pointed out to me more than once that Shakespeare worked alone (seriously). They would dispute the most minor of points and reject all feedback on principle. Most of these objections followed Sayre’s Law: “In any dispute, the intensity of the feelings is inversely proportional to the value of the issue at stake.”
“I’ve Never Had a Complaint from a Client.”
Then there were the translators who would defend their translation quality based on the specious and puzzling notion that they’d “never had a complaint from a client.”
This could not be true, first, because I was a client, and my rejection of their work based on a careful assessment was about as “complaint-y” as it gets.
Second, veterinarians never have complaints from their patients, either – nor do coroners – for perhaps the same reason that some translators don’t. Many clients cannot accurately assess translation quality – certainly monolingual clients can’t – so they say nothing at all.
Silence should not be confused with a vote of confidence.
The Exorbitant Price of Arrogance
All humans have an enormous cognitive and emotional investment in self-image. And translators are running a business, which supports their very livelihood. So these are some very sensitive grounds on which we tread.
Unfortunately, these translators had made the regrettable decision somewhere in their careers to defend their ego and self-image over all else, even (and especially) the quality of their product. This is a doomed strategy in a competitive market. It’s also an unfortunate one given the opportunities we all have to learn from colleagues through collaboration.
And even a modicum of modesty – or a realization of the limits the complexity of the world place on us – would have unwound all that defensive energy and pointed them into a much more productive – and ultimately happier – direction.