Als Dolmetscher unterwegs

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Wines of Bordeaux - IAPTI Translation conference

TRAFFIC POLICE OFFICER: Sir, would you mind taking an alcohol test?
DRIVER: Thank you! What drinks do you have on the menu, officer?


When thousands over thousands of people (including myself) hear of Bordeaux, the very first idea that comes to their mind is wine.

Those who associate Bordeaux with translation might be a few dozens, perhaps a hundred-plus people, but there are some. As a participant in the IAPTI's Third International conference that was held last September in Bordeaux (and was absolutely great!), I surely belong to this numerically insignificant group. Yet I have no idea how many in these two statistical sets, if asked about the ideal conference venue, would come to think of Bordeaux.

I started thinking of the largely untapped potential of this region for conferences yet to come after I went to La Winery, a few days after the conference closed. Set in a lovely location some 25 kilometers from Bordeaux, La Winery is a modern oenology tourism center for those who are eager to learn about viticulture, do some wine tasting and, hopefully, buy wine. La Winery houses a showroom, sales areas, conference and seminar rooms, all in cool modern premises of wood, concrete and glass, surrounded by a green park with ponds and orange and maroon chaise-longue chairs.

La Winery in Bordeaux - Translators Conference 2015

I drove to La Winery in the evening. The sunset glow flooded the road and made the scenery look like a beautiful French val. Unfortunately for me, when I think val I automatically think of the German Wahl, as in Qual der Wahl, rather than of gently sloping hills and curvy roads. Because Qual de Wahl, the German for agony of choice, describes pretty accurately how I feel in a French wine shop-cum-exhibition boasting “1001 wines from all over the world”: having a hard time to choose.

I am sure, though, that the difficulty applies to both sides: the huge variety makes it hard both for a customer to identify the “right” product and for wine producers to make their products shine among hundreds of other, similar specimens. The park around La Winery covers more than 20 hectares, but both for customers, and especially for producers, it might still feel like a cluttered space.

Or so I imagine. A participant of a professional conference would relate to a professional in another area rather than to a consumer client, no matter how important the client’s perspective may be, for every industry or field. A customer visiting La Winery can choose from hundreds of wines, all fine Bordeaux vintages. If you are a winemaker, I wonder how you feel in this giant showcase, alongside your competitors and colleagues. How do you make your product stand out?

Translators tend to stick together, all the more so in virtual places. "In a profession where so many of us are self-employed, I believe it is critical to have a forum where ideas can be exchanged," as my colleague Lisa Simpson wrote the other day on her blog. The problem is that too many translators cling to their sheltered concepts and don’t step outside their comfort zone.

Bordeaux Translators and Interpreters in La Winery

There is no arguing that, for many of us, it would be much more profitable and maybe healthier to hang out on different forums, above all those of our clients, provided there are such, both with a view to find new business prospects and hone our specialty knowledge and skills. Perhaps it would make things easier to bring together a whole lot of translators in a dialogue meeting with experts from a completely different domain. Unusual as such an out-of-the-box dialogue can be, isn't it likely to open new perspectives and perceptions?

It is true that translation and the wine business don’t have much in common. B2B and B2C don’t mix together well, but I don’t think that is so relevant.

Mondovino, a highly-acclaimed 2004 documentary about the impact of globalization, industrialization and corporatization on single-estate, quality-driven, boutique-type wineries, has a message that is meaningful to any freelance business. But regardless all the parallels, controversies and ideological debates, I am simply curious to learn more from other industries. When in Bordeaux, it might just as well be the wine business.

Do winemakers flock together in online communities to say things about wine merchants they would otherwise keep to themselves (it happens to translators in regard to translation agencies, for example)? Do winemakers (or any other professionals, save novice translators) seriously think that lumping together in a blogging community would increase their SEO visibility and help them get more translation jobs? Do winemakers outsource to other winemakers? Does Mouton Rotschild ask them to sign NDAs?

But seriously, I think even a strictly B2B, ultra-specialized technical or legal translator can learn a few new insights from someone from a quite different domain, in terms of market approach and customer focus. Or value propositions and mastering your skills.

For some reason I believe that viniculturalists have definitely something to share e.g. on the topic of Deep Work. And hearing them talk about quality, productivity and “focused success in a distracted world” can be quite an inspiring experience, provided the talk is held in a feel-good environment, rather than via a CPD webinar.

La Winery Interior in Bordeaux

I thought it was a great idea to have a wine tasting at the IAPTI pre-conference party. After visiting La Winery I started thinking that it would have been perhaps an even better idea to have a Bordeaux winemaker (or any other wine business professional) among the conference presenters.

Lisa is right. “In a profession where so many of us are self-employed”, online forums are critical. But sometimes, online places "for translators only" strike me not only as essentially monocultural places of disagreements (with the world outside in general or other fellow translators), but also places of repetitive discussions, as topics reproduce themselves over time. Cross-pollination or, in plain terms, listening to someone outside your field might be a welcome antidote to a tunnel vision and inbred ideas. A different monoculture has its benefits, especially when it helps reframe problems and connect non-obvious dots.

Bordeaux looks like a monoculture to outsiders only. It doesn’t matter. You can swap Bordeaux with any other seemingly monocultural space. Luxemburg, for instance, could make a perfect conference venue, if translators get a chance to talk to, say, a few open-minded investment bankers. Though a niche conference for financial translators on the Isle of Islay would have its benefits, too.

Jokes aside, and whatever you choose, there are places (or terroirs, as they might call them in Bordeaux) you’d never associate with the translation business. “The more you look the more you discover”. Since it is exactly such places that are worth a look.

Bordeau La Winery Chaise-Longues Outside

P.S. The Wine of Bordeaux retro-style ad campaign hinges on a combination of wine bottle silhouettes and unlikely environments, e.g. a wine bottle forming the tube of a telescope pointed up at a night sky. I find the idea quite cool.

Warsaw Nowy Swiat

For starters, let me state that the title above has nothing much to do with the young people in the pictures below. I took the pictures on the two evenings after conference sessions of TM-Europe Warsaw 2012 on the Nowy Świat and Foksal (named after London’s Vauxhall) streets where nightlife and the elbow to elbow human flow never end until the very small hours of the morning. As much as the conference was about the future of translation and, as highlighted in the passionate appeal of Kevin Lossner, about a future generation of translators (if there is one to come), it is more on these streets that the future is shaped than on any conference venue. Considering “the widespread sense of doom about the future of translation” at the conference, as Kevin put it, and the vibrant hustle and bustle outside, I couldn’t help thinking of “The Feast in Time of Plague”, an adage well known to all Russians since it became the title of one of the four Small Tragedies by Russia’s great poet Alexander Pushkin.

Soon after the conference, thanks to a tweet by the Russian translator Sergey Rybkin, I came across the new blog of Katya Filatova, another young and talented Russian language professional. (By the way, the young Russians know how to take the bull by the horns and not mince words when titling their blogs – Sergey’s blog is called “Russian Translation”, Katya’s (in Russian) “From English into Russian”. Search robots, make no mistake and don’t miss the message!)

It takes very little time to realize that Katya is obviously a really good, probably exceptionally good, talented, serious, professional translator. In her blog, she shares her thoughts about working as a freelance translator, negotiating with clients, first-time conference interpreting, the Russian translation market, e.g. prices for Sochi (where staging Olympic games obviously produced a huge demand for translating and interpreting services, but also a high supply of extremely low-paid, semiprofessional jobs). I immediately liked both what and how she writes (she has brilliant writing skills in Russian and a charming, good-humored attitude which shines through her posts). My gut feeling tells me that Katya belongs to this rare species of translators who are not only really good at this business but also well aware of what it is all about. In another words, those who do know what they do.

Warsaw - Mindnight - NEW

Katya’s specialty are “outward publications” or “for-publication translations” in the terminology of Chris Durban (by the way, Russian readers can get Chris Durban’s Getting It Right now available also in Russian here). These are corporate reports, press-releases, company brochures, marketing and advertising materials. Content which needs to be conveyed at its persuasive best. Unassumingly, Katya defines her specialty as “завлекаловка” (Russian for “enticing come-ons”). For this genre, Google Translate would be devastating. Just the same as myriads of run-of-the-mill translators (especially in Russia, where they tend to blindly follow the original, perhaps simply due to the lack of time – at the current local rates, they simply have to run the hamster wheel and be “highly productive”). To cater for the market of “for-publication translations”, you have to be a talented individual, with great writing – a translator’s and a copywriter’s – skills. You also need to understand human psychology, both of your customer and your customer’s audience. It is the translation market that I have been working (and enjoying working) for since many years. It may be wishful thinking, but I believe that this market is far less likely to succumb to the doom and gloom of bulk providers relying heavily on machine translation tools, on one hand, and easily replaceable, underpaid, semiprofessional suppliers who, similar to machine tools, tend to adhere to the source text as much as possible, on the other hand.

Judging from her blog, Katya understands very well what it means to be creative and how to adapt the content to better achieve the audience. I think she realizes that the client, who orders a translation, actually doesn’t look for a translation, but rather for communication materials in another language, localised to the needs and cultural background of the respective target audience. (I wonder if Katya has coined a better term than “transcreation” which I dislike: those who know not what they do, still worse, prospective clients, might think I specialize in translating some obscure esoteric nonsense, if I’d say my area of competence is transcreation.)

There were some comments in Katya’s blog which provided the motivation for this post. Particularly those regarding the matter of quality caught my attention. Recollecting her experience when working with project managers of translation agencies from abroad, Katya mentioned specifically the quality of response. For a project manager from abroad, a translator who provides poor translation quality but is always available (i.e. has a quick response), is more preferable in comparison to a better, quality-wise, but slower – in terms of reaction – alternative “vendor” (another word I dislike). But, to paraphrase the author of several blog comments on Katya’s website, if we speak about quality of translation in the narrow sense, irrespective of other project components (time, cost, customer relationship management), how can a project manager tell a good translation from a crappy one? Imagine a project manager cannot read the language, has no time, in the worst case, simply doesn’t care. Imagine a talented translator-transcreator spending days or hours of research, creativity and effort on the work to be submitted to the attention of an inattentive and ignorant PM (project manager)? Imagine an artist presenting his/her masterpiece to a blind commissioner?

For one thing, I believe that a really good, congenial project manager can tell a good translation from a bad one. I have little experience in outsourcing translation jobs for, say, Hungarian, but even in this case, without understanding a word of the Hungarian translation, I could judge to a certain extent whether the job was done properly. I remember a Hungarian translation (my own part was the Russian one, but I was also to handle several other East European languages) where I was fretting about the blank space between the numeral, the Celsius degree symbol and the letter “C”. In contrast to the original German document, the blank space in the Hungarian translation constantly shifted place: 37°C, 37° C, 37 °C. It may be pedantic, hairsplitting or paranoid, but I got my doubts about the consistency and accuracy of the whole Hungarian manual.

Warsaw - Nowy Swiat 27 - Backyard

There are other details which are indicative even if you don’t know the language. I won’t go into all of them, but segmentation may serve as a nice example. I am a human translator. At least, I don’t need to fill in a Captcha code on my own blog to prove that. And, as a human translator, in contrast to some Quality Assurance Modules of some Computer-Aided Translation Tools, I don’t like it when the target text is segmented exactly like the source text. I know that different languages have different syntax rules and preferences. I know that sometimes you can express a subtle nuance of the original text only in the next sentence or even paragraph of your translation. I may even add a sentence or two or make some minor shifts in the sentence structure if it would help stop my translation from reading like a translation. If it would help me to produce – semantically and functionally – a full-fledged equivalent of the original content I am working on. So, when I see a translation which syntactically never deviates from the source text, I grow suspicious.

Theoretically, there are ways and means to tell a good translation from a bad one, even if your project manager doesn’t know the language. But the truth is – like really good translators, really good project managers are very few. And, for some reason, the good ones are prone to change their employers pretty often and eventually drop off the radar. Again, there are others, who know not what they do. (For that matter, comments on Katya’s blog may be true. A project manager, similar to a translator, might be an endangered occupation, but a careless, easily replaceable project manager also endangers the existence of good translators and debases the idea of translation quality.)

But what is this post about? Is it about the gloom and doom of the future of translation, see above? Is it about ignorant and negligent project managers from bulk translation companies who know not what they do? No, it’s rather the opposite. At TM-Europe 2012 in Warsaw, Peter Reynolds projected on the screen a compilation of quotes from Miguel Llorens (mostly on the subject of machine translation), the late translator who was expected to speak at the conference, but, sadly, passed away only a few weeks earlier. A slide stuck in my head:

Miguels Llorens - Hamster Wheel

I don’t want this hamster wheel to stand for the future of our industry. I prefer to see human faces you can put a name to. I think it is worthwhile to write about and give credit to talented individuals like Katya Filatova or Sergey Rybkin. “Anonymity kills” (Chris Durban). I’d rather we discover names and faces when we “pull the curtains” of the translation industry. Somehow, it shows more what this “industry” is about, that is humans, not products or machines (and certainly not the anonymous product managers from translation agencies who know not what they do, for that matter…). I think it also helps to lift the gloom off this industry. The night streets in Warsaw might look bleak if you only see the faceless crowd. They are different as soon as you spot a few nice, friendly faces. It is these faces that make the streets less doomed and gloomy. In Warsaw, Germany, Russia, and everywhere else.

Warsaw - Coca-Cola

 

Translator's Note - Italy, Bergamo, Torquato Tasso

Morning cappuccino at Caffè del Tasso on Bergamo’s Piazza Vecchia

What do a great Italian poet (1544-1595) and a great (actually, the great, as it was the only one) Soviet news agency (1925-1992) have in common? Their origin! I don’t mean the Origin as in my previous blog post, although translating for TASS (you guessed it right, that is how this only news agency was called) might have had something in common with Translating for Bob, in a metaphorical sense. No, I mean their origin verbatim. That is, their names are derived from the same word. So the answer is “both have the same name”, and if you, to quote another great poet of that period, ask “What’s in a name?”, the answer is that both names mean practically the same.

But before I go on with this riddle, I’d rather begin from the start.

This August I went hiking in Lombardy, North Italy. An one hour drive from Bergamo, the province’s capital, will bring you to Camerata Cornello, all along the beautiful Brembana valley. From here you can go hiking to higher altitudes (up to 2,000 meters) and away from the civilization. I was lucky enough to arrive at Camerata Cornello just before noon, closing time of the local municipal office. I saw the sign Pro Loco (a local tourism promotion organization) on the building which also housed the municipal office and the town school (you have to be multitasking in a village of some 600 inhabitants). Here I was hoping to get a map of sentieri (hiking paths). Unfortunately, the Pro Loco office turned out to be closed or dissolved altogether, but the three men in the mayor’s office (maybe one of them was the mayor himself, I don’t know), despite their hurry to get things done before going to lunch, did their best to provide me with all the available information they had. In fact, they gave me every English-language publication they happened to find in their office and the carta dei sentieri.

Als Dolmetscher unterwegs - auch in Italien - Wanderwege Bergamo

Among flyers and brochures was a 200 page, scientific-looking volume entitled “I Tasso e l’Europa”, a product of the 1st International Convention “The Tasso Scholars. Between Sorrento and Bergamo“ held in Camerata Cornello in May 2012. Too heavy for the backpack and generally not of much use for my immediate hiking tour, it was a touching gift nevertheless, and I made a mental note to read or at least leaf through it whenever the occasion would come up. So I did the next days. The place and the book got me interested.

Article on translation errors - Anmerkungen des Übersetzers

“I Tasso e l’Europa” is a compilation of conference papers on the role of these two, Sorrento and Bergamo, and other locations in the life of Torquato Tasso (1544-1595). It was in Camerata Cornello where the illustrious, but fugitive Tasso family found shelter among the political turbulences of that time. The Tassos settled in Cornello dei Tasso, a small, medieval village, which is still accessible only on foot. It took me some 20 minutes to reach Cornello dei Tasso from Camerata, but, although only a tiny cluster of stone houses, made up for the whole trip.

Cornello des Tasso - Als Dolmetscher Unterwegs

Cornello dei Tasso

The Cornello episode in the life of the poet’s family is dealt with in the article “Bergamo, City of the Tassos” by Mons. Daniele Rota. The article also sheds light on the linguistic aspects of some proper names. In particular, it goes into much detail about the name “Tasso” itself. This is where the “breaking news” occurs. According to Mons. Daniele Rota, the persecuted exiles from Milano “drew inspiration from the name of the plant” (Taxus) which was also known as the tree of death and was believed to be dangerous to sleep under. “The assumption of this new surname… reveals itself within a few decades to be of a prophetic, magical efficiency. This name, which was adopted furtively by Milanese exiles in Bergamo, has become a common word… to describe everyday behavior and phenomena which have since become universally known… For example, the term “taxes” (tasse) is still used today to indicate a contribution due to the state that is responsible for public services. Financial institutions determine the banking “rate” (tasso). People use taxis as a mode of fast transport. In Russia, breaking news is delivered by the Tass Agency” (p. 168).

Oh my, breaking news indeed! I don’t have the authority to deny any logical (or historical) connection between the tree of death and taxi as a “mode of fast transport”, but a quick Google check would have revealed to the author that Tass Agency is a simple abbreviation meaning Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union, in Russian: Телеграфное Агентство Советского Союза (ТАСС). Sorry to disappoint you, Mons. Daniele Rota, but it was called Tass not to “indicate a contribution due to the state that is responsible for public services” and certainly not because of any breaking news it used to deliver.

So Volksetymologie lives on. Etymological fallacies, common misconceptions, and straight dope are still to be found even in today’s scholarly work and scientific publications. Does it qualify as news? There was no conspiracy between the medieval, mighty and mysterious Milano fugitives and the sinister masterminds of Soviet propaganda, but it would have made a nice story (se non è vero, è ben trovato, like they say in Italian). From now on, I am going to think of Tasso any time I happen to hear some breaking news in Russian. I will probably be reminded of the Italian poet also when sitting in a plane taxiing on the runway or maybe, occasionally, even seeing a taxi on the street.

It would have been a nice news story if the English translator of the article had made a quick Google check when rendering the “Tass as deliverer of breaking news” passage. Unfortunately, not every translator “vets the sources”, like they say in espionage novels, although I am used to believe that translators, in the rule, are more meticulous and thorough than the authors whose works they translate. Well, some are meticulous and some are not. In this particular case, the English translator obviously didn’t go to great lengths to check on the accuracy of the information he was translating.

No breaking news. I didn’t go far from Cornello dei Tasso either. Another footpath brought me to Oneta, the birthplace of Harlequin. I never realized it was not just a clown, a character from Commedia dell’Arte or a ballet enemy of Stravinsky’s Petrushka, but another grand Italian family (if you still believe the scholars). From Oneta I went back to Cornello and further on into the mountains. My initial plan was to reach Cespedosio (altitude 1,100 m) and go back to Camerata. But I didn’t have the time. It took me a couple of hours to go up the serpentine road to Brembella and then it was already getting dark. I had to go back, to my Smart parked near the municipal office (rented from AutoEuropa, I promised to mention this car rental company and their bargain prices…).

It was a very nice hike nevertheless. On the way, I was listening to the audio edition of Farther Away, a collection of essays, reviews and speeches by Jonathan Franzen. These are overwhelming stories. I think it was “The Chinese Puffin”, the longest one, which I was listening to on the way back to Camerata. And later on in the car, the whole way back to Bergamo, home of the Tassi.

Italien - Blog eines russischen Übersetzers - Translator's note

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