Sunday, November 6, 2022

Translation specialization and the wisdom of Dr. Dolittle


[group of geese walking*]

The mantra of translation success experts in recent years has been “specialization”, i.e., generalists have no future. As with all panaceas, there is a degree of truth to that approach. The main challenge in specializing is not identifying a profitable market niche or focusing on work in that area but actually walking the walk and talking the talk. In other words, to specialize in a field requires knowledge of that field.

Mastery of a knowledge area involves the understanding of the relevant processes, vocabulary and manner of expression. The first key to accurate translation is understand what the writer is saying, which goes way beyond the actual words. Technical translators must understand the how and why of a given process, whether it is the limitations in a commercial lease or the intricacies of a DNA process. The actual words in the text may only symbolize that process and assume professional knowledge. The translator must write the same exact idea in the target language, with literal transition often distorting the meaning. To understand and express the concept, the translator must also grasp the technical terms used in the text and clearly differentiate them from similar ones. For example, judges issue both order and judgments but under different circumstances. The use of the wrong term clearly confuses the reader and raises issues about the value of the translation. Finally, every field has its manner of expressing ideas. Referred to as legalese, medical jargon or mechanic talk, birds of the same feather squawk alike. Translators that wish to communicate with or join the flock must write the lingo. Otherwise, the translation sounds like  artificial. Without knowledge of the processes, terminology and phrasing, a technical translation sounds like a translation, at best.

One question posed by aspiring specialists is how to attain this knowledge. I would answer by changing the direction of the search and ask what specialized knowledge a person’s life experience has provided. People learn about occupational subcultures, including vocation-related worlds, through their parents, formal education, work background and life experience, to name just a few ways. We absorb how professionals speak and write, approach their tasks and solve problems by being exposed to their world either through schooling, practice, passive involvement or some combination of them. Knowledge almost functions like biological osmosis. For example, my father was involved in financial public relations. As a result, I heard stock market discussions every morning at the breakfast table. My MBA formalized that subconscious learning. Thus, exposure, preferably including some academic or professional training, provides translators with the knowledge they need to specialize.

Here, I will step on the toes of some of my peers. With some exceptions, translation experience alone does not make a proficient technical translator. Specifically, if a person’s only qualification in a specific field is the number of years in it, there is no guarantee that the translation will be appropriate. In ugly terms, some translators have been producing poor work for 10 or more years without having learned anything in that time. I am not hinting at any intention to deceive customers but instead to the fact that repetition does not make something accurate. If a person uses a phrase multiple times without any negative feedback, the phrase becomes internally labeled as correct. It sounds appropriate, at least to that person. It may be that professionals would not phrase it in that that manner. In fact, translators become increasingly certain over the years that their writing is the cat’s meow. It takes great courage to ask for objective feedback and admit to having made a mistake for some ten years.

To clarify, it is possible to attain the required knowledge through online and in-person classes and even, to a certain degree, YouTube videos. Conference presentations offer additional opportunities for assessing the accuracy of technical translation as the presenters sometimes highlight common mistakes. To update what Ibsen said so strongly in Enemy of the People, the number of Google hits does not necessarily render a translation choice correct especially with the growing volume of machine translation. Continuing education reinforces the skill of all translators, great and small.

Specialization without specific knowledge at best cheats the customers and at worst can kill people. It is far better to leverage existing knowledge and then develop it in order to build a successful translation career. To recall the words of Dr. Dolittle:

If I could walk with the animals and talk with the animals
Grunt, squeak, squawk with the animals
And they could squeak and squawk and speak and talk to me

In the case of translators, if you can also write like them, specialize.

* Use picture captions to allow the blind to fully access the Internet.

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