Re-hashes of older blog posts and various guest posts I have written will appear here with a #flashbackfriday tag. I cannot promise I will always publish on a Friday, but the fricative-heavy hashtag will serve to indicate that the blog contains archived material. This blog on revision originally appeared on Nikki Graham’s blog on 30 August 2016. Fresh discussions recently in social media forums on how to find a suitable revision partner prompted me to haul this blog out of the archives.
This post cannot possibly say everything about revision and does not need to. Nikki Graham has already grouped together a number of revision-related blogs worth reading here for your convenience.
This means I am free to skip all the usual definitions and give you instead a hotch-potch of impressions and experiences which might give you some food for thought about how you approach revising your own work, how to refine your response to revisions by others of your work, and how you, perhaps, perform revisions on the work of others. I have written from the perspective of a revisor; a revisor whose own translation and revision work has come under harsh scrutiny where some revisions made and conclusions drawn have been justified, and others not. I continue to hope that insights thus gained serve to make me a better translator and a better revisor.
judging quality remains subjective in nature despite numerous attempts by humankind to enclose this dynamic, amorphous beast in a big crate
Far from being rules to follow, the considerations below are intended to prompt you to pay attention to areas where you realise you could enhance your own revision methods in order to improve and sustain the quality of the (target) texts you have a hand in.
The quality spectrum
In his TED talk on cognitive surplus, Clay Shirky made a secondary remark which caught my attention and had me pondering – certainly not for the first time – on the range of quality in our performance, hence our work, on a daily basis. He said:
There is a spectrum between mediocre work and good work, and as anybody who’s worked as an artist or a creator knows, it’s a spectrum you’re constantly struggling to get on top of. The gap is between doing anything and doing nothing.
Apart from competence – which I shall leave you to define – most translators would agree that it takes a good deal of hard work to produce indisputably good quality all the time. A host of internal and external factors conspire against our achieving this tall order. And that is before anyone else has even seen the text we have produced!
By and large, I am not given to using superlatives. When I refer to “a good translation”, I most often mean “an extremely good translation”, but am hesitant to say so because there could very easily be, and very often is, a better translation which simply has not surfaced yet. I am not alone in this view.
This brings me to an important point: judging quality remains subjective in nature despite numerous attempts by humankind to enclose this dynamic, amorphous beast in a big crate (labelled QC, QA, LQI or EN15038, EN17100, or whatever), with a packing list as long as your arm and lots of little checkboxes which are systematically ticked.
A far more erudite professional than I by the name of Gérard de Angéli wrote a detailed article in the Translation Journal in 2008 which poses the question, “Do We Really Need Translation Standards After All?” After a rigorous comparison of standards for translation services in Europe and the USA, he makes the observation that focusing too much on the quality control process and not enough on the text (the translation) itself may not be entirely desirable or, indeed, result in the quality so very much desired in the first place.
In a similar vein (or perhaps tangentially), despite our attempts and those of others to maintain a reasonable degree of objectivity when we approach the practicalities of revision, there are many instances where we fail to, or choose not to, adopt such a clinical methodology.
There are situations where the Quality Crate loses relevance because the far more nebulous, intuitive but useful adjuncts of experience and savoir-faire take precedence.
Subjectivity, I would argue, has its place in the revision spectrum, in that one has to employ judgement and discernment to keep that creature we call Quality alive. As an echo of that famous line in the film Calendar Girls, I think we need a bigger Crate.
All of these factors make the subject of revision a very tricky one, chiefly because the other factor which splays itself out on a spectrum is that of expectations. A girl at school once walked into the classroom and asked her fellows, “Does anyone have Great Expectations for me?” She did not get the response she expected.
To illustrate a point about expectations – and, at the same time, the inappropriate, tight-arsed use of the subjunctive – I shall tell you a joke in what purports to be a Yorkshire accent*:
A Yorkshire farmer owned a sow*. His neighbour had a boar. Every once in a while he took the sow in his ‘barra’ (barrow) to be covered.
Every time after natural insemination had occurred, the next door farmer would say,
*If she be took, tomorra mornin’ she’ll be eating grass. If she baint eating grass, she’ll not be took. Bring her back and they can ‘ave another go.”
The farmer took his sow back home.
The next morning at breakfast the farmer told his wife to look out the window, and asked her, “Be she eating grass or baint she eating grass?”
“She baint eating grass,” replied the farmer’s wife.
So the farmer bunged the sow back in the barrow and carted her off to his neighbour’s boar again. They had at it a good long while to make sure she were took.
The following morning the farmer had the same conversation with his wife, and made a third trip to the next door farm, now getting quite impatient at having to push the sow in the barrow all the way up the road.
On the third morning, again at breakfast, he asked his wife to look out the window.
“I can’t bear it,” he said, “Tell me quickly. Be she eating grass or baint she?”
His wife turned to him with a look of utter surprise on her face.
“Weel,” she said, “she baint eating grass —she be in the barra!”
*For ease of understanding, not all features of the stereotypical Yorkshire dialect have been graphically reproduced.
Strictly speaking, the use of ‘be’ in the above story is not in the subjunctive, with the arguable exception of ‘if she be took’. Be that as it may, please bear the above joke in mind while you cast your eye over the following random bit of text I came across while researching something a couple of weeks ago, and which I have redacted to minimise interest in its source:
The […] methods […] have been conceived in such a way that they are compatible with the [xyz], whether this be a few units for pilot [projects] or more significant numbers [for large] commercial [operations].
I don’t know which is funnier or sadder – the joke about the randy sow or the sentence above. You be the judge.
For revisors like me, before you can say ‘she be in the barra!’, the highlighted words jump out at us even if we have American sensibilities when it comes to the subjunctive.
Straight away, our eyes dart back to the source text to see what prompted such pedantry on the part of the translator, although we already have a fair idea: it is not only the start of the subordinate clause which has got our goat (pardon all the animals in this here blog), but all the other literal expressions preceding it. They have all the lightness of a ruddy great sow as she lands with a thump in the barrow.
One can argue that
The methods have been conceived in such a way that they are compatible with the [xyz], whether this be a few units for pilot projects or more significant numbers for large commercial operations.
is a perfectly good sentence.
The translator who wrote that can readily defend this sentence by saying that it can be understood, and most importantly, she (an arbitrary assignment of gender) has employed the subjunctive mood exactly as it should be in the best of all possible worlds, apologies to Voltaire and Leibniz and all that. Fair enough. Let’s accept, for the moment, that it is a passable sentence. Except that you might already have forgotten about the swathes of guff I removed for the purposes of providing an example. This abridged sentence has 33 words. The original target text was 46 words long.
Clearly, the translator and revisor are not quite on the same page. The translator’s text should be eating grass; instead, it has taken up residence in the barrow. The revisor, somehow, has to persuade the text to return to nibbling the green stuff.
It seems that the translator and the revisor do not have the same expectations of what a sentence in English should look like, and more than likely have understood the expectations of the client differently.
A revisor, however, is not a casual reader. A revisor makes it possible for other readers to be casual readers.
And that is part of the point, and part of the problem. This sentence is part of a rather long (translated) article which is already in circulation on the Internet: this is the final product. The point is — and this is conjecture on my part — that this article has not been revised. Checked and proofread, yes. Checked and proofread by a person other than the translator? Possibly. If the translation went through an agency, have all the Quality Crate boxes been ticked? I bet they have! Revised? Not really.
Casual monolingual readers of the target text place comprehension, appropriate word choice and something called ‘readability’ high on their list of things that determine the success or otherwise of a text. A revisor, however, is not a casual reader. A revisor makes it possible for other readers to be casual readers.
Revisors correct translation, terminological and typographical errors, insert omissions, punctuate, make essential stylistic changes, and so on, and ask that very important question, “Yes, but does it mean anything?” From feedback I have received on my own work over the years, I suspect that most revisors do something else, as I do, before they reach that stage in the revision process: they look at the bones — the structure — of things.
What I see is not consciously step-wise so much as occurring almost simultaneously. I am happy to reveal my thoughts purely because they will probably strike a chord with many of you. Here is that sentence again:
The methods have been conceived in such a way that they are compatible with the [xyz], whether this be a few units for pilot projects or more significant numbers for large commercial operations.
And here is my stream-of-consciousness response to those 33 words with my special revisor spectacles on:
… subject of the main clause immediately grabs onto a passive verb, blah, blah, followed by a conjunction… plus a demonstrative pronoun in the singular instead of the plural (‘this’ instead of ‘these’, referring to ‘methods’ and ‘they’)… and cherry on the cake, a verb in the anal retentive subjunctive!… ‘few’ versus ‘more significant numbers’… source text has subjunctive… yes, word for word, how quaint!… why ‘conceive’?… why is everything so, you know, productive?
Then, without changing a thing, I continue reading, because the same thought (about compatibility) may be expressed differently elsewhere in the text, and may trigger a more constructive revision than the one I am currently capable of making.
It is also possible, when dealing with other types of translations, that I would continue reading the source text on its own, to get additional impressions of my own from it, without interference from the target. There are lots of approaches. That is one I use when I need to.
Why, why, why?
Let us pause here to speculate why the translator (to whom I have arbitrarily assigned the female gender) chose to write this sentence this way.
- She always writes this way, and is convinced that this is the best she can do, since it is near-perfect anyway.
- She is afraid to depart from the source text and venture into the real world of the target language.
- She is working for peanuts and therefore is pressed for time because so many thousands of words need to be churned out every day.
- The peanut factor means she gave up long ago on revising her own work thoroughly and might not have read this sentence more than once before hitting the Send button.
- She is lazy. The work is for an agency; the revisor can fix it, if so inclined.
Something is wrong with this picture. If you are primarily revising texts like this, the chances are that you are very unhappy. How about suggesting to the agency that you translate the texts instead? There are many translators who refuse revision work because they end up asking themselves “Why, why, why?” far too often.
A while back, I was sharing my own frustrations as a revisor within that intimate space known as a chat box, and a colleague known for her competence and precision in translation had this to say:
Translator training these days seems devoted primarily to learning to use software. Translators are unable to translate without the benefit of any tools, meaning they are unable to see a text as an integrated whole, not a grid in which they only see disembodied segments. They are unable to intuit a rendering based on the context and not resort to dictionaries to piece their translations together word by word. They don’t bother to edit their translations in the final formatted form (Word, PowerPoint, etc.) and leave their mess for someone else to clean up.
My response at the time was to say that not only do I find a lack of placing the text in context worrisome, especially in work revised for agencies which insist on the use of a specific CAT tool, I also find the broken feedback loop problematic. All the Quality Crate processes in the world serve no useful purpose unless the translator has the freedom to offer some feedback on the meticulously provided feedback created as part of the agency revision process – because sometimes the translator is right, and the revisor needs to know this.
I take feedback on my work very seriously indeed. Having said that, I do not think I devote enough time to examining revision changes. In the context of work I have done for one agency in particular, where institutional uniformity of style is often at loggerheads with ‘the better translation’, it has taken over four years for me to gain perspective on all the red ink returned.
If I do not earnestly examine the feedback I get, then I cannot improve.
I do not like some of the things one particular revisor at this institution does to ‘my’ texts, although I can see the reasoning. In the early days, I used to reply occasionally, especially if, during the process of revision, an error which was not present in my original translation had been introduced. I stopped doing that about a year later when I discovered that my translator feedback on this feedback was not being forwarded by the agency to the institutional revisor. It should be noted here that the agency has never used the profusion of red ink to penalise me financially.
It is with discipline and a certain weariness that I open the bilingual feedback files from this agency, but I do it because I am aware that in order to become a better translator, I have to modify the way I think; I have to make adjustments in my thought process on the treacherous path between source text and target. If I do not earnestly examine the feedback I get, then I cannot improve.
Sometimes the agency includes in its covering e-mail a brief comment made by the revisor, which might include such dry comments as ‘Note plural noun in Segment 123’. At the beginning of this month, however I achieved a three-word breakthrough: “Allgemein gute Übersetzung.” (Generally, a good translation). Finally, a positive comment from the revisor I do not like, but whose revisions of my work I have studied for over four years. Upon opening the file to see what fabulous things I had done, I had a good old belly laugh: the text was covered in just as much red ink as it always is!
Whereas realisations on feedback from agencies can take years, collaborative feedback in translator pairs where each revises the work of the other is instantaneous – and if both parties play the game, offers the possibility of a continuous feedback loop, which no agency in my experience has ever been able to provide.
there are translators who crave feedback on their work and are either not getting any or not getting enough of it
I know that a big biography I revised last summer benefited enormously from the mere fact that the translator and I already had around 200,000 translated and revised words under our belt before we started. How do I know? Because last night I re-read two or three chapters in particular that I recall as having required extensive revision. How beautiful it was to note that I could not see where my revisions were (even though I have a memory of what they were). The collaboration between us achieved a good result: a stylistically consistent text with one voice. This kind of result can, of course be achieved on much shorter texts too.
At the other end of yet another spectrum, there are translators who crave feedback on their work and are either not getting any or not getting enough of it. Even in this age of social media, many, many translators are finding it hard to identify colleagues with the same language pair, the same or similar specialist fields, and a similar degree of competence. These are basic prerequisites for a translator pair, to which a whole lot of other criteria have to be added, such as similar work ethics and a similar sense of humour. If you have not yet found someone to match up with, keep looking, keep asking.
Pairing up with colleagues for mutual revision is, as someone recently said to me, ‘a hit and miss affair’. Even if we want it to work, sometimes it does not, or it does not work in the way that we may originally have envisaged. This does not mean that we should stop trying to find someone with whom such an arrangement would work to better advantage. There are lessons to be learnt from every experience.
by far the greater risk lies in not having someone revise your work
With any new association, there is a risk for both parties. That’s one more risk to add to the bucket-load we already have to consider as translators. From my relatively short experience in working in various collaborative pairs (to cater to my strange group of subject fields and different language pairs) over the last few years, I am firmly of the opinion that by far the greater risk lies in not having someone revise your work. I am all for a honing of my craft in a mutually supportive environment under the hyper-watchful gaze of a colleague who, in turn, is only too glad that I have ‘a good eye’. (Yes, we still joke about the way she said that.)
All the best translators I know all work with revisors. All the best translators I know would not think of working without one. All the best translators produce work of consistent good quality because they have an extra pair of eyes on the text at hand, and exchange insights and criticism in ways which most often lead to learning on both sides, and most certainly lead to better quality texts. I am talking about the kind of quality texts which have little use for the metrics applied in translation standards, because the standard of the texts produced in collaborative revision far exceeds the benchmarks set in such standards.
Here’s the thing: Not only do all the best translators have years of experience translating; they also have years of experience in honing their craft. Don’t you think it is time you did something to get to that level too?
©2016 Allison Wright
In the spirit of revision, Simon Berrill – a translator, revisor and former journalist by trade – kindly agreed to revise and comment on the above article before publication. I thank him for his insights and contribution. Other anonymous colleagues, quoted and otherwise, also helped me focus and produce a better text, for which they have my respect and gratitude. I like collaborating on blogs, by the way.