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 »  Articles Overview  »  Business of Translation and Interpreting  »  An unsolvable problem of specialization

An unsolvable problem of specialization

By Arnaud HERVE | Published  09/13/2008 | Business of Translation and Interpreting | Recommendation:
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Arnaud HERVE
angielski > francuski translator

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In order to keep this article reasonably short, I chose to describe an almost mathematical abstraction. It was not possible to describe the whole universe of translation, or individual cases.

I am certain that you could find many many many translators who are not concerned by the problem, who are particular cases, who specialized successfully, etc. However, I still found it necessary to modelize a basic contradiction of the world of translation. It is also obvious that in reality other difficulties of the translation business can coexist (low prices, rush jobs...) and make things worse, but I have chosen to ignore them as well.

The problem described in this article arises from the fact that, if you are a professional translator, you receive texts from people who are also professionals in their own fields. And those texts are often not of a general nature, but highly specialized.

What I mean by "highly" specialized is that broad categorizations like legal, medical, technical... will not be sufficient. They often are sufficient but not for the specific modelization of this article. I am talking about those back-office texts, the texts that only colleagues will read. I mean that if you are an engineer in the aeronautics industry, you will not immediately understand this text about the brand new machine for the mining industry. It is not a press article about the machine, it is the experts manual of the machine.

And I also mean that those experts from the mining industry are ready to roar at you and call you a crook if you don't deliver a result as if you'd been working with them for several year. They expect you to be as good as them in their own field. Immediately. No tolerance. No training. No pity. If you make a mistake you are a crook with your mind set on ruining their lives forever. You are perfect or you are evil.

I suggest that the problem comes from our ambiguous position, half-way between two roles: 1) we are partly the client's secretary, i.e. a person who will process his documents without participating to the decision process, and in that sense it is an essential part of our duty not to participate in the decision process 2) but the mere fact that we have to master the meaning of the text before restituting it in another language also implies that we participate to the decision process at the same level as, say, an engineer who was present at the decisional meeting from which this text originates.

In a way, we could imagine our role as a civil servant from the central government, detached in a highly specific local area, like a mountain community or a remote island. As a civil servant, we are bound to apply the governmental procedures in a very strict and very formal manner, and it would be a legal offence to invent procedures of our own. But as the executive in charge of the local area, the government also demands that we decide the necessary adaptations that will make the procedures applicable in that specific area. For instance, in a remote island we will adapt the medical rules, allowing the medical staff to arrive later, or to have free lodgings, etc. In a high mountains area, we will explicitly tolerate trials to be delayed, etc.

But such a civil servant will always enjoy some sort of protection from the central government, some sort of tolerance, with a possibility of feedback, negotiation, etc. S/he will always benefit from some sort of high level schooling to master the necessary concepts, some sort of career stability to get to know who does what in which area, and will always have the time to follow the decision process prior to the written documents, to understand the intention behind the text, i.e. the spirit of the law. There will always be some sort of colleagues meetings to allow everybody to grasp the situation, some understanding. To put it shortly, such person will have a status in society.

In the translation business on the contrary, you are in the wilderness. You are like James Bond sent without preparation to areas of the planet that you know nothing about, and you acquire all imaginable professional expertise in less than an hour to face all crisis situations. Alone. But contrarily to James Bond you don't always win in the end. You must be prepared to be called a traitor by your own country, and see your secret agent credit card canceled as you are still in the direst of places.

What can you do then, as a real-life person, as a limited capacities but intent translator, to avoid delivering a translation that will not satisfy your client? And what can you do for yourself, to avoid such a situation that will bring shame on your reputation, as you observe that everybody else in all other professions avoid being caught away from his/her area of expertise, and would be perhaps more ridiculous than you in an improvised emergency mission ?

Ideally, you should simply specialize, until you become an expert in the given field as much as your client. In our case, you will just do mining industry translations, and spend your free time studying mining until you become the equivalent of a mining engineer. That would guarantee the result technically.

But commercially, that would mean sitting in front of your computer for weeks waiting for a new translation in that tiny translation field to arrive. Your client might appreciate your bulletproof results, but your client doesn't care how you survive between two translations.

In reality, you will always have to accept jobs for which you are on the edge between knowing and not knowing. In this modelization, the flow of translations in your area of splendid and useful expertise doesn't allow you to make a living. You are forced to get out of the woods. It's not your will, you are economically forced.

Another solution would be to organize workflows the other way round, to recruit engineers in that specialized mining field, and to give them translation training, just as other engineers additionally train for helicopter driving, for special missions.

Many people have tried that, but in real life the result in text processing is often appalling, many highly skilled specialists showing poor abilities with computer assisted translation. But, more importantly, you would have to find employers willing to hear their precious executives declaring every now and then: "I won't be here tomorrow boss, I have a translation". Especially if it is a translation for some other company... And, more generally, experts already have a job: they work as experts. They don't care much about translating.

Hence the person who comes from a translation training cannot really become a mining industry technical expert, and the mining industry technical expert cannot really become a decent fully available translator. Let us avoid particular cases, and accept the principle for this modelization attempt.

Perhaps many other solutions can be contemplated to resolve this contradiction. However, the globalized, delocalized, computerized free-market society of today touches in this case a limit of human nature: the necessity of "avoir un métier", which means not only to be able to do things, but to be able to do them well, superiorily well, as a professional, as an experienced person. The human reality that being a jack-of-all-trade is being a jack of no trade at all, of inferior results.

This becomes clearer only if you abandon the register of personal guilt, and switch to more objective economic judgments. There is no personal guilt in large-scale economic structures. Virtuous or lazy, when the economy doesn't allow you, you can't. There are translators who do have to accept risky jobs in emergency. And there are clients who expect their translator to be clickable like a website, to become experts immediately by plugging their heads into some sort of alien database, and to spend the rest of their year between translations getting their food in a parallel universe. Ideally, the translator should be switchable on/off, and should have no limits and delays in downloadable upgrades.

Maybe the translator should sleep like a vampire between coups, maybe, and show superpowers as soon as waking up. Gloomy...

Everybody can make bread. But to make bread well, you must live in conditions that allow you to concentrate on bread, and not spend your time in the building or the transports sectors. Society must help you, by arranging time for your apprenticeship, and making sure that afterwards you get enough money from the business to stay in the business.

That is how we have specialized doctors today, not barber-surgeons, that is why we can rely on them for decent work. All countries who really want to have dentists arrange, modify the market in order for their dentists not to spend their time raising cattle and growing vegetables for their own survival. It is not only personal talent, intentness, willingness to work. Society must help you learn, concentrate and practice. In short, become a professional.

The translation industry sometimes even take the opposite direction: if you have failed in a specialized translation while trying honestly, you will be categorized as "bad", whereas it could be easily understood that you have begun to build your expertise on the subject, that you are already an apprentice, and that you will be better next time. But the employers will not want you anymore, and will look for some other brand new guy who hopefully will have his apprenticeship already paid for by miracle.

To put it more bluntly, here is the contradiction:

1) That field is so specialized only an expert can understand it

2) That field is so rare a translator cannot live on it.

What do we do?

Or even more simply: I want to concentrate on the mining industry to deliver a perfect result. A perfect perfect perfect result. How do I do?

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