Thursday, August 18, 2011

Translate in the Catskills 2011

Ever since hearing from Corinne McKay so many good things about Translate in the Catskills, a conference focused on target language writing skills for translators, I had longed to go. Yet, I had doubts: the event was aimed, seemingly, only at translators who work from French into English or the other way round, and I was unsure how useful it would be for me. After all, I can barely understand spoken French, and though I can read it, still I was afraid any session on English into French translation would be wasted on me. I knew I would be able to follow discussions about French into English, but how applicable would they be for me, since, after all, I do not normally translate into English?

I mentioned my doubts to Corinne; she said last time there had been some people who translated neither from nor into French. She suggested I should contact Chris Durban (translator extraordinaire and the event’s organizer) to ask for details. Chris was friendly and helpful, and provided me with a list of former participants I could contact. In the end, she suggested I give it a try, and see for myself.

So I took the plunge: enrolled, and went. I am just back (after a far more complicated journey than expected – but that’s another story I may tell in a separate post). I’m very happy I took a chance on this event: I attended most of the into-English sessions, and even a few of the French ones, finding much to help improve my work. I won’t try to give a blow-by-blow of what was said during the various sessions (but if you go to Corinne’s Tweeter page, you’ll find hundreds of tweets sent in the real time from the conference); I will concentrate, instead, on the main ideas I found valuable.

  • Translators are writers

To be a good translator, you have to remember you are a writer. That means concentrating on making your target text effective. Translate accurately, of course. But that, by itself, is not enough to craft an effective, well-written target text that does not feel translated: If you only concentrate on accuracy, neglecting effectiveness, you’ll produce, in Chris Durban’s words, “a description of a text, rather than a text in its own right”.

Sometimes (or at least in certain fields) your translation may need to wander rather far from the source to achieve the desired effect in the target language. Sometimes, you’ll need to shorten, lengthen or even change your text, because often what your customer needs but cannot articulate is rather different than a run-of-the-mill translation. A translator who sees himself as a “humble servant of the source text” (Ros Schwartz’ definition of this gun-shy attitude) is unlikely to be as effective as one who makes the text her own.

In certain fields at least, use of translation memory is a hindrance – unless you find ways to ensure the target text flows well and is effective. I’ll suggest a technique to achieve this in a later article.

  • Techniques to achieve more effective translations

Use statistical analysis to see what a translated text should look like, comparing it to similar documents written originally in your target language.

To give an example presented by David Jemielity, if in translating into English CEO’s letters to shareholders you follow your source language conventions, you might refer to the company in the third person. You may even be asked by your customer to follow this path... after all, they are French (or Italian), and they are accustomed to writing of themselves this way (“Nel 2010 ACME ha fatto questo e quest’altro...”). However, if we can show our customers that CEO’s letters written originally in English are overwhelmingly in the first person (“In 2010, we did this and that at ACME...”), we may convince our customers to let us translate their letter this way, to make it more effective for them.

Similar strategies, buttressed by clear documentation, may show us other ways to improve our translation: sentence length and variety, use (or not) of the article before a company’s name, use of nominalizations, and so on.

  • Marketing ideas

Look for direct customers by taking part in their industry’s events. When you attend such events, don’t ask if they need translations. Try other tactics, such as asking questions, complimenting the speaker, letting slip in the fact you are a translator. Gently point out to someone you have met at such an event, that something in their presentation was unclear, or that it should be phrased differently in your target language, offering (for free) to suggest improvements to the text. Don’t do this, however, in an aggressive way (“gotcha!”), nor when you are asking a question during an open session.

And let’s not market against ourselves: Be careful in what you say in online fora, tweets or blogs. Translators all too easily fall into bitching mode (about bad agencies, expensive software, opaque tools, cheap wannabe translators, or whatever). Remember, however, that what you write online may come back to haunt you.

But I don’t want to give you the idea it was all work all the time: those who arrived early went for a hike to the top of one of the mountains (I guess we would call them hills in Colorado). We went out for dinner on Friday. On Saturday Ros Schwartz presented her new translation of Le Petit Prince (you’ll have to order it from the UK, though: for copyright reasons it won’t be sold in the USA). Movie night on Saturday: an exclusive showing of The Woman with the Five Elephants – an interesting documentary on Svetlana Geier, a veteran Russian-German translator, who passed away last November, after completing new translations of Dostoyevsky’s major novels.

It was interesting to see this old translator (Geier was over eighty-five, at the time) dictating her translations to an elderly typist, who clacked away on a mechanical typewriter or editing by having her translation read out loud (and commented) by an old musician (not exactly what we Trados users are accustomed to!). If you have a chance, don’t miss this film; even if you are not a translator, you’ll be fascinated by the underlying history: Geier directly witnessed Stalin’s purges (her father was tortured an imprisoned for 18 months) and the German invasion. Her knowledge of German helped her and her mother getting away from Ukraine. They ended up in Germany, where she remained, working as a translator and teaching at the university.

So, this highly regarded German translator was a native speaker of a different language. Just to show you that even one of the most cherished principles of our profession (that translators should only work into their native tongue) has its exceptions.

A big thanks to Chris Durban for organizing this energizing conference, and to all the presenters who did so much to make this a fruitful and memorable event!


  1. Very informative report, thanks Riccardo.

    I had to laugh at the line ‘Translators all too easily fall into bitching mode…’ because it reminded me of a former lecturer who is always spitting venom at everybody, especially female translators. It makes me wonder who on earth might want to work with him.

  2. Thanks Riccardo! I have been curious about Translating in the Catskills myself, but this year I decided to go to the FIT Congress instead. In your post, I particularly liked "Translators are writers too" and I agree to 100%. I love using CAT-tools but nothing beats reading a printed version of the target text as a final proof. At the FIT-congress I attended a presentation about "Plain Writing" which sort of sounds like the same thing. There is a huge movement for "Plain Writing" going on, especially in Europe and for legal and and EU-texts. More info can be found at

  3. Your article touches a critical theme in translation industry: the dilemma between faithfulness and elegance. It covers the question whether we should make the translation assimilated into the target culture as much as possible or retain the culture in the source language to make it look more accurate.
    I agree that translators are, to some extent, writers, and that the best translation is the one that does not feel translated. But it also depends on the genre of the source document. For example, in literature translation, if we are going to translate a poem, mostly, we employ indirect translation, which means we translators have to imagine and partly rewrite the target text by ourselves. However, when it comes to technical translation, e.g. if the source document is a technical manual or draft, more direct translation is applied in this case because accuracy turns more importance.

  4. Hi Ruby,

    Good writing applies to technical translation just as much as it applies to translation in other fields. A translation can be both accurate and well written: it's not an either/or proposition.

  5. i am wondering where i can find this movie... no torrent until now.

  6. I believe it's available from Netflix, for example (see this link: The Woman with the Five Elephants)


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