Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Lost in Translation

Have I told you that I have a side-line in translation work? Well, I do. I translate books and documents from Italian to English. Don't ask me to do it the other way around, I can't write decent Italian at all. I consider it an accomplishment if I write the shopping list in correct Italian! But since way before I was qualified to do it, I have been translating to make an extra buck on the side.

In the beginning it was quite a challenge and I must claim full responsibility for the damage I have done in poorly rendering completely respectable Italian texts. It's probably all my fault that that documentary film on Canosa di Puglia didn't win anything at the competition it was entered in. And God only knows what chaos I wreaked with that 500 page computer manual...its users probably have errors popping up all over the place, if not a complete system breakdown!

But, after hundreds of documents on topics that vary from agriculture to medicine, from architecture to cosmetics, from business to political science, from tourism to art criticism, I'd say I've gotten pretty good at it. My most recent project was the most challenging, but also most interesting and satisfying job of all: a book on film tourism in Apulia. As soon as it's published I'll stick a link on my sidebar here so you can run out and buy it! Not that I'm getting royalties or anything, mind you. Which brings me to the downside of translating...

The money. Or lack thereof. People don't seem to understand that it's hard work translating. They think that if you know two languages all you have to do is read the words in one language and spit them out in the other. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. If it did all those computer translation systems would solve the world's translation problems lickety-split. Instead of just being the source of great laughs for the crazy and totally inappropriate language they create. Try this for yourself on the Google Language Tools page.

Translation requires not only in-depth knowledge of the two languages, but also of the idioms, slang, and a thousand cultural references in both languages. You have to be well-read, have access to a wide range of general information, be up on current events, familiar with classical references and willing to research and study words and phrases, even ones you already know because every word can have multiple nuances depending on the context it is used in. You have to know how to express yourself in a variety of registers, or levels of language, from colloquial to formal and everything in between. And you have to know how to write well.

Clients don't usually take any of this into consideration. You know English, you know Italian, so it should be easy to translate between the two. So, they send you large quantities of work to be done...yesterday, usually! Or, in any case, in a very short period of time. Which you try to respect, sacrificing everything and everyone else in your life in the meantime. Often for mediocre to poor pay. I've learned to be selective in accepting jobs, both regarding deadline and compensation. And content...no more business translations for me, I just don't have the vocabulary, nor the interest in developing it.

I wouldn't do it at all, though, if I didn't find the process fascinating. Getting a phrase just right in the target language is one of those "ah-ha!" lught-bulb going on over your head experiences. It's like solving a puzzle and once I get started, I can't stop until I've got all the pieces in the right places. One stroke of genius after another, sentence after sentence.

9 comments:

Anait said...

Hi there! I have actually been trying to break into the translating field for months now! It seems like everyone is looking for someone with FORMAL experience, and although I am fluent in five languages, I don't really have any translating experience. Any ideas? tips? suggestions? Much appreciated :)

Mediterranean kiwi said...

i do translations both ways. i just translated 40 website pages from english to greek on remote sensing and GIS technology used in agriculture (which i know nothing about, of course). i use the google translator as a general guide, mainly so i dont have to do all the typing. of course, as you said, it does spit out a lot garbled language.

now, i'm about to start on 65 files all about how remote sensing and GIS technology can help detect and alleviate the problems of marine pollution ...

Saretta said...

Anait - it probably depends on where you live and what your languages are. When I started doing translation I got most of my clients through word of mouth, because someone who knew me needed a translation. Later I worked with an agency.

Kiwi - my compliments, as I said, I would never feel confident enough to translation into Italian, although I speak it fluently. And I know what you mean about translating something you know nothing about...that's another thing I like about this work, you learn a lot of new things. Although the agricultural stuff doesn't exactly turn me on!

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

I agree with all you say, Saretta. People just do not understand what is involved.

Valerie said...

Brava, thanks for pointing out the challenges of translating. So often, people really don't understand that it is not just word-for-word, but knowledge and writing skills to render it into nicely flowing text while maintaining the original spirit and tone. Not at all easy!

KC said...

This isn't a recent post, but I had to comment. I'm not a translator- I've never studied translating, or even Italian formally, and I believe that translations should be left to professionals.

Right before my daughter was born, my ASL doctor asked me if I would do some translations for his son who was doing his laurea in Psychology. I told him I had never studies psychology. He didn't care. He was very insistent! He wouldn't take no for an answer so I just said something like, well, we'll see. Three months after my daughter was born, his son called me to aks me to do the translations. I was exhausted from taking care of a newborn! I told him that, but he was pretty insistent too, telling me there wasn't much that needed translating. How much, I asked him. 112 pages! Of articles from Psychology journals. He seemed to have no clue that they were written in a specialized language! He was so flippant about it!

Some people just don't get it

And it was supposed to be a favor- the doctor didn't want to pay me for it!

KC said...

Please forgive the typos- my toddler started having a meltdown while I was typing, lol.

Saretta said...

Yeah, people just don't get it, do they? KC, don't ever translate anything for free! People have to understand that all work has a value. Besides 112 "pages" (and who knows how long or short they were!) would cost them hundreds and hundreds of euro, if not thousands! Hang in there with those baby melt-downs, KC!

Ippe said...

Saretta, that's a a GREAT blog post if I ever read one :)
People really don't understand what's needed for translating well, especially when the text is highly specialized. I do en>it medicine, but I wouldn't dream of translating finance or legal, because these are like Arab to me. Thanks again for the post, and I'll be back :)