Translate Online

The intensely excellent On traduit en ligne conference (5-6 August 2021) prompted me to muse about how I might fine-tune my translation process to translate better.

It is often said these days that the COVID-19 pandemic and the rolling waves of lockdowns since March 2020 set in motion unprecedented (that word again) access online to events, talks, and information that never before entered the realm of private individuals with such ease.

Suddenly, whichever version of the world you prefer was at your fingertips. Vast oceans of books, book festivals, book clubs, workshops, and inaugural lectures in far-flung lands rapidly became the norm. All most required was free registration and the relevant Zoom link.

I attended the Edinburgh Book Festival for the first time in my life. I was there, and yet, I was not. In what is inadequately described as real life, I still don’t know how Edinburgh Castle dominates the old part of the city, for that was not part of the landscape. I did not care, because there was still so much more to explore online.

Like many newspaper subscribers, I found myself enjoying insider access to the editorial process. Imagine! To be privy in real-time to financial experts, economists, and truly excellent journalists participating in cross-continental panel discussions!

Here, in this ether — in our not-so-splendid multitudinous isolations — we had front row seats to the finest the world has to offer. And we still do.

All over the planet, people are still dying and still afraid of dying. Predictions as to when the pandemic will end are about as reliable as predictions as to when any given war would end. In the meantime, we cannot travel through physical space.

This time around, the limitation is not time, nor personal obligations, nor even the size of one’s savings account. The restrictions were caused by some tiny transmissible thing that finds it hard to survive if you wash your hands for the time taken to say roughly three Ave Marias, depending on the language and the speed at which you speak.

Liberating Constraints

All these constraints are behind what finally allowed me to attend On traduit en ligne 2021 . To borrow the words of #otel2021 instructor and presenter Laurence Cuzzolin, these were contraintes libératoires — liberating constraints.

I have no shame. At least I understand these notes scribbled during Laurence Cuzzolin’s presentation.

The opening traduel — translation slam — had François Lavallée and Marc Lambert commenting in fascinating detail on their translation choices, with probing questions from moderator Dominique Jonkers. If that weren’t enough of a mental onslaught, then consider all the excellent suggestions made and issues raised in the Zoom chat.

In effect, for two hours, attendees had three conversations going on at once: the one between Dominique, François and Marc; the one in their own heads, and the one in the Zoom chat. A minor reprieve came when Laurence Cuzzolin summarised the chat comments for the benefit of the duelling translators, and then once again, we would skitter off on a mini-thesis detour of the whys and wherefores of the issue raised.

As a kid, I used to get reprimanded for laughing in class. My amusement and delight came from liking the sounds of the words I was hearing and their many associations. Expressing joy at little aha! moments was frowned upon.

Here, in this ether, I was among kindred spirits, for I saw other people smiling with delight as two contrasting versions of each translated sentence were revealed on screen.

Why so much discussion? Well, the text was tricky. Yeah, I bet you say that to all the girls. (Try translating that, why don’t you?) The traduel text was a partial transcript taken from The New York Times, June 1 2021 of Vox founder Ezra Klein’s interview with Barack Obama. The title of the piece alone is intimidating:

Here, everyone agreed that the text was difficult. Superficially, it was not difficult to read. As texts go, it was neatly scannable by the human eye. For those who like odd metrics, it sits at Hemingway Grade 6, with only 10 of the 59 sentences deemed “very difficult to read”. This means that a twelve-year-old could read the text and understand it, theoretically.

Indiana Jones and the Choice of Pronouns

But when translators say a text is difficult, they mean it is difficult to translate. Obstacles to arriving at a well-written cohesive target text that makes sense and is “faithful to the intentions of the source text” (François Lavallée) can be likened to that part in one of the Indiana Jones movies where the hero has to decide which stone to step on.

If he steps on the wrong stone, he will fall to certain death. Stepping on the right stone gains him access to the vast cave that gets him closer to the treasure sought, the Holy Grail. Making that choice requires nerves of steel and a grittiness that goes beyond the discomfort of a dusty archeological quest.

Each successive translation choice is like choosing the right stone to step on. Nowhere in a public forum has this been more evident to me than in this traduel. I loved the articulate deep-dives into the two translators’ choices and rationale — and what they considered before choosing. To use a cliché, it was like water from the moon. Precious.

And I enjoyed this particular slam because I remember listening to that very interview. Aside from pronoun switches mid-sentence and verb tenses in the source swerving from past to present and back again where each really signified the other, not to mention obscure cultural references, there was one more layer of difficulty: conveying Obama’s personality and what his words really mean.

Forget the stepping stone. Now, the translator is walking on a tightrope fashioned out of steel guitar strings, or a knife-edge, whichever takes your fancy.

Experts in action

Obama is very good at partially deflecting a question and turning it around to make a reasonable statement that most people are bound to agree with. This is a consummate skill, and he does it better than most because he is not trying to hide anything, like many public figures, but merely attempting to appeal to the so-called greater good in everyone — and all the while his ego sits obediently in the corner on a low stool.

Weaving that aspect into a translation — and any other insight brought to light by Ezra Klein, the interviewer whose keenly honed journalistic skills are common knowledge in his corner of the globe — requires a sensibility born of knowledge and experience. And considerable talent.

It is pertinent, here, to quote Lillian Clementi, another of the excellent instructors at On traduit en ligne:

There’s a world of stuff beyond the four corners of the page or screen.

I am conscious of my lengthy description of a translation merely 837 words long, but that “world of stuff” needs to be distilled, as do so many other factors, and applied judiciously in the text during the process of translation.

Translation Fundamentals

Get this: No matter what your language pair, the fundamentals of the translation process are the same.

While I had no problem following the discussion between François Lavallée, Marc Lambert and Dominique Jonkers, there is no way I would ever attempt to translate this or any other text into French. It is one of my source languages, but by no means the one I usually translate from these days. I am, however, very familiar with the process itself, as were all the other attendees, no doubt.

So, my preparation consisted of reading through the text a couple of times, and identifying possible translation pitfalls, and jotting down the odd phrase. A cursory familiarisation, one might say. How gratifying, therefore, to hear the aspects I had spotted — and so many more besides — being thoroughly scrutinised before exploding into life in French.

During the traduel, I did the occasional back-translation into English. I know. We translators are suckers for it. That little mental exercise produced its own rewards and gave me some private insight into the dynamics at play in my own translation process.

In the Portuguese-English language pair, for example, I often find myself cutting away so much from the Portuguese when translating into English. When the point of departure is English, I find it hard to imagine how one would put those “non-existent” elements back into a Portuguese text worth reading.

This meandering response to the translation of a relatively short text also serves as a justification for the — what’s the word? Oh, yes — anger that wells up when the occasional unsolicited request lands in my inbox for my “best per word rate”. Hmm, don’t get me started.

Blissful Focus on the Text

From the best seat in the house — my office chair — however, there was not a cloud to spoil the view. On traduit en ligne was blissful precisely because it focused on what to do with a text, how to approach it and what techniques result in a better translation. Each of the presentations did this and provided countless examples.

Martin Hemmings zoomed in on the use of embedded questions in English as you barrel through compact noun clusters so prized by the stylish French.

Lillian Clementi hosted a beast of a workshop on “taming the savage sentence”. I missed most of that the first time around because Dominique Jonkers was regaling us with the delightfully good-humoured functional multiplicity of that little word “que” in French. Then he showed us how to rephrase to remove it for cleaner, tighter prose.

That was my custom-made T-shirt that is now too old to wear in public, and that’s that!

Each “Word Rescue” session provided at least one new idea or solution to frequently encountered translation difficulties.

No one spoke of marketing, pricing, or CAT tools. Whatever for? There is too much to explore — and too many gems to consider — when all eyes are directed towards the text, the source text, the target text, and nothing but the text.

These approaches are rigorous, thorough, and exactly the kind of thing we should be doing frequently. If you have a translator-revisor partnership, then you do practise these things to an extent, but mostly not with the same degree of fine intensity as within the meeting place of like minds that On traduit en ligne offered.

The overriding “don’t tell me, show me” principle carried over into the willingness of 66 attendees to upload portfolio samples to the “airtable” groaning under the weight of their work.

Here, too, I learnt a few things from true professionals about how best to present my work. I was happy that all my samples came from work completed within the last year. The same seems to be true of other work on show.

Like the presentations with their stimulating and sometimes surprising takes on how to land on the other side (in the target text) with a robust, watertight translation solution, participants’ portfolios provide ample food for thought and merit private study to gain fresh perspectives on one’s own craft.

Slam Into English

We had to wait until the afternoon of the second day for the French to English translation slam between Chris Durban and Grant Hamilton, moderated by Martin Hemmings, with Beth Hine taming the overflowing Zoom chat and providing slammers with summaries from time to time.

As with the traduel, all conference attendees received the slam text weeks in advance of the digital meet-up. We were encouraged to prepare our own translations of the slam text beforehand, and many did.

As far as my attempt is concerned, I had misgivings about ending each of the four paragraphs with the name of the person being interviewed, as it was in the source. But I left that in the hopes that someone would shed light on the problem. Chris Durban’s inventive solution is to turn some of the direct quotations into indirect speech. I grabbed that gem and thrust it into my toolbox straight away.

Growth Factors

Brutal self-examination is painful but necessary for growth. The same is true of developing a critical eye for failings in the texts that we ourselves produce.

Here’s the truth according to me: Any further tweaking I might have done on the translation I prepared before the slam would not have resulted in the succinct flow achieved by the slammers. It is also true that such tweaking would have involved at least two further rounds of critical revision and slashing, yet without the benefit of collaboration with the client or revisor input on specific points.

More to the point, extra labour on my text would not have lived up to my own tagline of “deftly crafted texts worthy of public scrutiny”!

It’s as if I fail to marry critical acuity with mental agility at least 60% of the time on this particular translation. And that is probably the case in other translations too. This was my most valuable takeaway from On traduit en ligne. 

I translated the slam text without the benefit of the brief (not supplied when the slam text was first made available), but do credit myself with having perceived the hybrid nature of the article (meant for an internal and external as well as international readership). In this case, not having the brief did not influence my translation choices too much.

This failure to bring everything together occurs after I have a “semi-final”, typo-free version in front of me. My very own danger zone. I need to introduce greater discipline into the final “cut the crap” stage of the process, and perhaps even come up with a basic checklist that addresses the types of failings I have, to force myself not to call something “done” until it is.

“Cut the crap” here means trimming the unnecessary, the superfluous, the awkward, and the wordy. It is a rigorous exercise that can result in a leaner, more communicative text that is a pleasure, rather than an effort, to read.

I feel that I am more adept at crossing the finish line with finesse and dexterity in the Portuguese-English language pair, but must concede I could push to improve there too. I also know that my skills at revising other translators’ work are sharper than they are when I revise my own.

Clearly, I still have much to integrate into the judgement — the critical eye — I bring to translations as I am translating and when refining that translation. My alter ego needs the soul of a newspaper editor, I fancy.

Slam Into Higher Gear

While I was beating myself up about falling short of the mark on the Fr-En slam text, I received payment for a 2,200-word article I had translated two or three days before the slam together with a note: “It goes without saying that it was brilliant work!” The person who sent the note is in a position to judge such things.

Yes, I do believe that it was a good translation with occasional deft touches throughout. It is true that I had given the text two additional re-workings to rid it of the unnecessary and make it more robust. One would be hard-pressed to detect that the piece was a translation. Yet, was it the best possible text?

Although my subjective opinion is that it was a better translation than my slam text effort, it could have done with further tweaking. For one, there were a few lines in the translation that could have been deleted entirely. I spotted them when I first read the source.

The source also contained a clumsy transition mid-way and looped back on itself. I had partially obscured this structural fault in my translation but could have hacked at the actual problem for longer, in the way that I hack at issues pertaining to the structural cohesion of an article when writing monolingual texts for third parties.

Bleating in the Distance

Somewhere in the distance, I can hear someone bleating, “Hang on, you’re talking about transcreation now…” No. No, I am not.

The disciplined fashioning of a translated text so that it fulfils all the functions of the original after you have a first or second draft in front of you falls squarely into the category of translation.

No matter how much creativity I employ to arrive at that point, the end result is not a transcreation; it is a translation. It is definitely not a “literal translation”. I would argue that a literal translation is no sort of translation at all in most cases.

Why, then, is all the fine-tuning and redrafting to produce a tight, clear text worthy of consideration at translation-slam level not transcreation?

Because a finely tuned translation is a textual and functional equivalent of the source text, but it is not marketing or advertising copy. That holds true even if it does perform certain marketing functions, as is the case with press releases and other content.

Claudia Benetello provides the most succinct description of transcreation I have come across:

Writing advertising or marketing copy for a specific market, starting from copy written in a source language, as if the target text had originated in the target language and culture.

Claudia Benetello, The Journal of Specialised Translation Issue 29 – January 2018, p. 41

Read her article for an in-depth comparison of translation and transcreation. You will see from my list below that transcreation does not rely on the processes I often undertake to achieve a good translation.

In translating the text for which I received the encouraging compliment, I did several things that helped me when the time came for the final critical revision stages:

  • I read several pages of the client’s website to establish tone and style
  • I read several other articles by the same author (an economist) in the source language
  • I read articles and reviews of the original authors of the concepts he was expounding upon (Lillian Clementi calls this “reading larcenously”.)
  • I read the source text, and translated it with very few bilingual look-ups; the few I did make were thorough and took quite a lot of time
  • I performed several rounds of revision after the spellcheck by the machine

Creativity is part of the before, during, and after process because all of the above steps require that I engage my imagination. Even if my linguistic skills are combined with that creativity and go way beyond changing word order and synonym swapping, what I am producing is still a translation.

Even if this text had also involved collaborative revision with a translator colleague, and collaboration with the client, it still would not qualify as transcreation. This is translation; a creative process.

Anyone who erroneously claims that transcreation is “creative translation” might as well be bleating in a distant field. I do not speak their language (if that is what the noise is) and cannot understand them making a distinction where there is none.

In broad strokes, translations are excellent, good, middling, or unsatisfactory. Good and excellent translations — the kind that On traduit en ligne encourages and helps us to strive for — are just that: translations.

Translating Better

We will not elevate our profession by giving new fancy names to existing processes. We will do that by translating better and continuing to do so. That takes effort, as usual.

What is refreshing and inspirational is that Translate Online | On traduit en ligne provides a communal space in which we can focus on excellent examples of what it means to translate better.

It is a space where we can pinpoint where our texts don’t quite make the grade. By meditating on our own failings constructively, we can map out a path of improvement and work on strengthening those weaknesses with every single translation we do.

I did not get to this point in my career by accident. I will not get to the next point by chance either. My experience of this event has shed valuable light on gaps in my thought processes and faults in my workflow. I now have concrete ideas for corrective action in this personal danger zone where I need to tread more carefully.

I am grateful for all the hard work the On traduit en ligne organisers, instructors and participants put into this successful online event. I appreciate it so very much. My clients will thank you too, eventually.

©2021 Allison Wright 

Thanks to Chris Durban for casting her eyes over the first draft of this post.

3 thoughts on “ On traduit ”

  1. Correction: credit for the term “larcenous reading” goes to David Jemielity, Senior English Translator and Head of Translations at Banque Cantonale Vaudoise in Lausanne. I regularly steal it from him (more larceny!), but always credit him when I do.
    Allison, I’m so glad you benefited from the conference. Thanks for the kind words!


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