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Tapping Into the Olympic Spirit: The Pillars of Translation

At other times we might talk about the "foundation" or the "basics" of translation, but during this year of the Greek Olympics it seems more fitting to imagine underlying structures in the shape of beautifully shaped pillars.

When we speak of translation, what are the pillars that we need to rely on, that we could not be without as translators?

Profound knowledge of the grammatical rules that govern the source and target language(s) is essential; hardly anyone (except some radical translation theorists) would dispute this. These are the analytical tools that we need to correctly disassemble a text in one language and reassemble it from scratch in another language. In fact, I sometimes wish that my main working languages-English and German-were not so (relatively) similar to each other. Perhaps then it would force my mind not to skip the complete process of disassembly and reassembly.

Lexical knowledge of source and target language and the complicated relationships between the two lexicons is another pillar that we can't do without. Even less than in the grammatical/syntactical world, we all know that there is no one-to-one relationship between source and target term and/or phrase. In my well-worn example, "cat" in English not only means a feline mammal but can also be a short form for Caterpillar machinery, a slang term for prostitutes, and (to let the proverbial cat out of the bag) a computer-assisted translation tool. (I'm still waiting for a participant in one of my workshops to jump up and tell me that an identical term is indeed used for all these lexical fields in his language!)

These two pillars are essential to our profession. However, like the dreaded machine translation-which to date has rested mostly on these two alone-things would be fairly shaky if those were our only two pillars.

The primary area that makes us as translators superior to a mechanized transferal of rules and words is the living knowledge of language that we all possess. Many would argue that native language expertise is a prerequisite for the target language (this isn't my topic, so I'll avoid delving deeper into that can of worms). Certainly we can all agree that you should not only have book knowledge of a source language, but also a previous or present exposure that enables you to understand the language's nuances-subtleties like sarcasm, hidden meanings, or alliterations in the texts that are to be disassembled.

Imagine a meeting of translators with someone proclaiming that he does not possess any of the pillars mentioned above in his chosen field of translation. I would venture to guess that the assembled translators would either see him as a fraud or would gently take him aside to strongly advise a change of profession.

Are those the three main pillars that make us who we are professionally? I can think of a variety of other supporting pillars, such as marketing, client education, and the ability to work on a team. But I would argue that these fall in the category of quantifiers (as opposed to qualifiers): they can make us more successful, and yet without them we can still be successful translators (albeit on our own and without any clients).

However, just as one of those beautiful Greek structures would have a hard time standing on three main pillars, the same is true of us as translators. The fourth pillar (and I'm sure you saw this coming) is how we actually perform the translation.

Twenty years ago, a typewriter, paper, a reliable postal service (I have no idea how American translators survived back then!), printed reference material, and a good memory were sufficient equipment for performing a translation. Today, these have morphed into their electronic equivalents: the computer keyboard and screen, email, computer-based reference materials, and computer-assisted translation tools.

Let's assume for a moment that this is indeed the fourth pillar of our "translation structure." If I came to the next local translators' Christmas party and shared that I am "terrible" with my computer, can you imagine somebody taking me aside and telling me to change my job? I think that it's far more likely for the opposite to happen: immediately a group of fellow translators would surround me, more than willing to share that they are equally handicapped and with a plethora of ready anecdotes to illustrate it.

Of course, the reason for the Christmas party scenario is that we as a profession do not accept the fact that mastery of the technology we use to produce the "fruits of our labor" is one of the cornerstones (sorry, pillars) of our professional lives.

And for those who would argue that you can easily perform translation with three of the four pillars: you're right, that's exactly what machine translation does (it just skips the third pillar rather than the fourth). But does it produce translation? Sure! Just go to http://world.altavista.com, and have the machine translation engine translate something for you (using three of the four pillars). Don't like it? I don't either.


Jost is an ATA-accredited English-to-German translator and translation consultant. A native of Hamburg, Germany, Jost earned a Ph.D. in the field of Chinese translation history and linguistics in 1996. He began working in localization and technical translation in 1997, and in 1999 co-founded International Writers' Group on the Oregon coast. In 2003 he published a computer guide for translators, and this year he launched a free computer-related newsletter for translators
(see http://www.internationalwriters.com/toolkit)

* This article will also be published in the NOTIS newsletter. NOTIS is a division of the ATA

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