In philosophy and political science, there is a useful concept called the ideal type. It refers a theoretical example that encompasses all characteristics of that form and serves a vital role in comparison and contrast. For example, Max Weber’s definition of citizenship is vital in understanding the modern world as compared to the medieval one. Likewise, Marx and Engels define socialism in opposition to capitalism in its pure form. Clearly, conceptual understanding is enriched by use of the ideal type.
Unfortunately, in reality, no ideal type exists from the simplest elements, water, to the most complicated, systems of human interaction. In other words, everything is a hybrid from the economic system you live in, a unique mixture of socialism and capitalism, to the plumber you call in, who can fix your pipes but also needs to know how to plaster your wall. Even engineers require knowledge outside their specialization. For example, electrical engineers need to have a solid basis of mechanical engineering and programing to properly do their job. It is almost impossible for a professional to limit knowledge to only one area.
Translators are no different. By tradition, the market has divided translators into niches such as medical, legal, marketing and beauty products. Translators in these niches are characterized by thorough knowledge of the terminology and language of the genre. However, almost all documents that are defined as belonging to one category also have segments of text relating to completely different areas of knowledge. From my experience, I have had rental contracts that required me to research the names of women’s garments in the 19th century and franchise agreements that sent me checking my accounting textbooks. My wife, who specializes in medical translation including medical devices, regularly translates long sections of electronic data (for the technical specifications) and legalese in the warranty section. While “pure” texts do appear, most projects involve significant sections, at least terms of content if not quantity, of material from other fields of knowledge.
The significance for translators is that they need to know how to identify resources, develop a peer network and actively expand their knowledge base. A good translator knows how to use Google search to identify correct information. It is not only a matter of finding a term but also of understanding the context in the text and the suggested translation. Also, not all Google results are created equal, with some being a personification of sharing the ignorance. To update Ibsen in Enemy of the People, the number of Google hits does not make it correct. Often, in case of doubt or confusion, it is advisable to consult a trusted colleague with knowledge in that area. As a short-term solution, consulting is effective because the customer receives a proper translation. However, in the long term, frequent need for telephone help indicates that the translator needs to take proactive steps to expand the knowledge base into that area. Some easily accessible sources are YouTube and old-fashioned text books. Benjamin Franklin's quip about an ounce of prevention is relevant here. Ignorance is no sin but doing nothing about it is.
Also of great significance, customers need to be made aware of the actual complexity of the text. Even agencies tend to treat all texts of a similar genre and assume that every translator is also skilled at dealing with the subtexts. Too often, the result is partially successful translation, with the subtexts poorly rendered, thus creating bad vibes from the disappointing results. When dealing with end customers, it may useful to ask them if there are legal, technical or marketing sections in their work. Not only will the customer be impressed by your professionalism but the translator can escape avoidable minefields or invest more time skimming the text before accepting the project or setting the price. Simply put, not all texts of the same type, are created equal.
The world, including translation, is far from pure and often a blend of many elements. On the one hand, it complicates matters as it requires people to acquire a broad range of knowledge. On the other hand, it makes each person, situation and translation unique. Ultimately, imperfection in a certain sense can be much more interesting.
* The subject of this post was taken from a lecture at conference but, alas, I no longer remember when, where and who. Pictures help the blind.
Picture source: Image by <a href="https://pixabay.com/users/aitoff-388338/?utm_source=link-attribution&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=image&utm_content=3684196">Andrew Martin</a> from <a href="https://pixabay.com/?utm_source=link-attribution&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=image&utm_content=3684196">Pixabay</a>