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39 - Pride and profession

"It was her pride to go without things that she particularly cared for"1.

The translator's job is peculiar because it is at once a peripheral and central work. Central because a translator - or in a broader sense, a cultural mediator - is essential to allow many parts of the world communicate. Peripheral because some would like her invisible, and many want her negligible, underpaid and under-acknowledged. Maybe for that reason in the professional category of translators we find - after the initial "natural" selection - only persons endowed with a strong will, persistency and resistance, a strong sense of the objective to be pursued.

It is also one of the categories in which there is more variety in the effort of participants. There are full-time translators and translators as a second or third job, there are in-house translators and stand-alone ones, those working for agencies and freelancers. Some think it as a fun job, some as makeshift.

Features shared by all good translators is curiosity, mental openness and the pleasure to often switch from one subject to another.

Translators and interpreters are voracious and omnivorous readers, people who are typically in the middle of four books at once, in several languages, fiction and nonfiction, technical and humanistic subjects, anything or everything [...] carry a wealth of different "selves" or "personalities" around inside them, ready to be reconstructed on the computer screen whenever a new text arrives. (Robinson 1997: 27)

In Robinson's opinion, the notion of a translator's professional pride is covered by three points: reliability, involvement and ethics.

As for reliability, the translator's search for the best solution is not dictated only by outside factors (client, etc) but also by personal need. To a professional is very important to find the right word and the most adequate construction to a given solution. Involvement in profession is fundamental to prevent everyday practice burnout. Hence the importance of being able to exchange ideas with colleagues, follow training courses, lectures, meetings useful to backup the translators' professional self-esteem.

Reading about translation, talking about translation with other translators, discussing problems and solutions related to linguistic transfer, user demands nonpayment, and the like, taking classes on translation, attending translator conferences - all this gives us the strong sense that we are not isolated underpaid flunkies but professionals surrounded by other professionals who share our concerns. (Robinson 1997: 30)

This need arises because one of the most visible aspects of profession is its geographic sparseness. Many non-translators say: how wonderful being a translator, you can go wherever you want, live on an island if you like, and go on working. But the risk is ever present to live "on an island", even when you work in the same town as clients and colleagues, to the point that often I hear colleagues say that sometimes they'd prefer a job at les pay yet but that offers some human exchange during the day, even if insignificant, like a couple of words about the weather or a friendly contest of who's the most tired.

And last but not least, we must consider the ethic aspect. How much can a translator legally distort the original when that is what the client wants? It is not easy to answer this question even because, as we have seen, under the total translation umbrella fall all communication processes having a prototext and a metatext. And all communication processes, involving the passage through the mental material stage more or less aconsciously manipulated to produce a metatext, imply a generous devise of individual ideology of the translator in the process.

There are then cases of contrasting ideologies of the author and the translator, as those suggested by Robinson:

What does the feminist translator do when asked to translate a blatantly sexist text? What does the liberal translator do when asked to translate neo-Nazi text? What does the environmentalist translator do when asked to translate an advertising campaign for an environmentally irresponsible chemical company? (Robinson 1997: 31)

I feel the answer is: she does what she can. Clearly, it ultimately depends on how much the translator can live without the job that she is offered. In countries where democracy is or was missing, for example, clearly translators - and authors as well - had to come to terms every day with their ethic consciousness. You will remember the unit in which I spoke of the translation handbook by Fyodorov with a chapter on Marx, Engels and Lenin as translation researchers, obviously a chapter dictated by the need to publish a book offering a sop to obtuse censors and to pay the bills, maybe with a little wrestling with one's conscience, but, at least, living and satiated. In apparently freer societies economic constructs can be just as terrible.

What is important is to consider that translators are not invisible and, if they are, they can't stand it any longer; their ideologies, covert and overt, play a very important role in translations and, to be able to feel at peace with themselves, need to be at peace with their professional pride. To be able to serenely solve the oxymoron that the original that however is a copy, and the copy that however is an original, they need to leave their mark on their work commensurate to their role, responding to their deontological criteria.

As far as productivity is concerned, the four factors emphasized by Robinson are:

  1. typing speed
  2. level of difficulty of the text
  3. personal preferences and style
  4. working stress, general mental state.

Of course the order of importance in which these factors must be placed depends on the single individuals and single moments in their lives. I personally experienced the bad effects of mourning on my ability to control the quality of my work.

Not for all translators speed and productivity are high priority. Of course, there are people who translate for fun, but they cam depend on their family or spouse or another profession (university for example), who therefore translate for fun only texts that they love, and for them to loose such a diversion doing a speedy translation would be nearly sacrilegious. According to data reported by Robinson, a professional translator's productivity varies between 10.000 and 100.000 characters per day (usually, as an average, to obtain the number of characters when a total is expressed in words you have to multiply by seven, and hence to obtain the number of translation pages you have to divide by 1500 or 2000 according to the working environment: other private clients or publishing houses. Clearly, if you work on technical texts that repeat a lot of their content all the time with the aid of a translation memory that proposes pre-translated sentences 90%, that need only to be edited with one or two words, translating 100.000 characters per day is not impossible, even if it can be bestializing and very tiring. Moreover, the translator's mental training can greatly improve a lot speed, as Robinson explains very well in this passage:

The more you translate, the more well-trodden synaptic pathways are laid in your brain from the source to the target language, so that the translating of certain source-language structures begins to work like a macro on the computer: zip, the target-language equivalent practically leaps through your fingers to the screen. (Robinson 1997: 37-38)


Bibliographical references

CANETTI ELIAS Die gerettete Zunge. - Die Fackel im Ohr. - Das Augenspiel, M√ľnchen, Carl Hanser Verlag, 1995, ISBN 3-446-18062-1.

CANETTI ELIAS The Tongue Set Free. Remembrance of a European Childhood, translated by Joachim Neugroschel, in The Memoirs of Elias Canetti, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999, ISBN 0-374-19950-7, p. 1-286.

ROBINSON DOUGLAS Becoming a Translator. An Accelerated Course, London and New York, Routledge, 1997, ISBN 0-415-14861-8

1 Canetti 1999: 198.