Has translation changed so far?


Bauhaus film

Turning the introductory pages of Mona Baker’s classic text about translation, In Other Words, it is noteworthy to see how things have somehow changed over these years as far as translators perceive themselves and the status of their job, which is, against all odds, still a profession. On the contrary, the massive use of machine translation is turning the wheel back and leading some of us into a conundrum: quick&dirty or slow&crafty? Perhaps, it is still possible to be quick and crafty and therefore professional, reliable and qualitatively worth of note. Maybe through academic knowledge, long-life training, passion and patience.

“Despite its long history, translation has never really enjoyed the kind of recognition and respect that other professions such as medicine and engineering enjoy” Baker says. 
I’ll quote from her Introduction, with no other comments because her words are interesting enough to tell us something that we already know as translators in general.

“If translation is ever to become a profession in the full sense of the word, translators will need something other than the current mixture of intuition and practice to enable them to reflect on what they do and how they do it. They will need, above all, to acquire a sound knowledge of the raw material with which they work: to understand what language is and how it comes to function for its users.” (From: Mona Baker, In Other Words, Routledge, 1992).

However, it seems that something has changed over the years, especially the years we generally define as the age of globalisation.

First of all, new technical skills are required from translators, and not only in terms of CAT tools or MT tools used during the process of converting a text from a source language into a target language as fast and accurately as possible. As far as cultural contexts or audiences are concerned, it is well known that a translator must be someone who is not simply a “converter” but a fine connoisseur of the audience to reach, a go-between, a technically expert of language, a cultural mediator, a know-all technician of the twists and turns of what we may call, mutuating an expression from the web jargon, the “deep language”. Everybody can learn and speak a language – it is a faculty humans are born with, of course, as everybody with some means and a pc can search the internet and find or add something they like. But  only a small number of people may learn how to use the language deeply, that is, after a sound knowledge of its mechanisms and intrinsic pitfalls, they become able to distinguish the differences and the nuances and the secrets of appropriate language use, add thousands of terms to one’s memory, picking up words and using them just like a botanist is able to distinguish how a mimulus pictus* and a mimulus ringens** can live on a certain type of ground. That is to say, to obtain the ability (after many years of study and commitment) of translating – well and appropriately –  a specialised text and distinguish elements which may be very similar in meaning but very far in the specialised usage.

Today’s world, and the job market in particular, are exerting a constant pressure on translators and not only in terms of output or performance. What is required today, is more than knowing languages or being capable of coping with new technologies. The futuristic and science-fictional fear of humans dealing with machines, working as extensions of an electronic mechanism, becoming cyborgs themselves, is an old time scenario that we, as translators, have known for ages or that, as the case may be, have lived with every day (especially if we like science-fiction, like I do).

Every age has its own technology; ours has more than one and all of these technologies are intertwined; they require something completely new, especially for linguists and translators: ongoing training and refreshment of competences, constant attention to language variations, ability to cope with an ever growing mass of information whose quality is, at its best, discontinuous; an updating on the fast and furious transformations of the industry technologies to which language is related (everybody needs texts today to communicate a discovery, a newborn project, a new invention). All of these elements are connected, of course, just like things and objects caught  whirling frenzy and crazy in a storm. Linguists and translators are, unsurprisingly, in the eye of the storm and may represent the little, safe island from which to look at all those changes with the active role of observers and experimenters, engineers trying to fix a problem, sometimes, or expert divers into the deep language.

To translate this metaphorical journey into a serious description of this profession: a translator needs to be a beautiful mind with an attitude for change and knowledge and curiosity; someone who is constantly updated with the secrets that the world reveals through the language associated to it. To sum up, a discoverer of new pathways – an explorer, something of a botanist and a taxonomist. For sure, someone who cultivates a passion.

* Scientific name for the calico monkeyflower, you can find images here

** Scientific name for the Lavender monkeyflower, you can find images here



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