Tower of Babel 2011? Translating as Editorial Service
Although some pieces of the methodology of making books have been and continue to be in near-constant states of "improvement" (read: flux), others have changed their basic procedures very little over the past half-century. One such is translating text from one language into another. Certainly, word processors streamline the mechanical aspects, and researching terms and concepts may require less footwork than during the pre-Internet era. But I'll go out on a limb and say that technology hasn't offered much in the way of time or effort savings to translators—the good ones, at least.
Considering the skills and talents required to translate text from one language into another so that it is at once accurate and true to the author's tone and style, how could this be otherwise? It's quite a leap from a computer triumphing at Jeopardy! to its understanding, then conveying, the subtleties of writing in a totally different tongue. Maybe—probably—someday. But not yet.
Granted, as editorial-services providers go, translators command high fees. For example, a recent quote for a translation from Chinese into English of 55 pages of captions (ca. 65 words each) and two pages of solid text (±570 words total) came in just north of $6,800 (after the discount we were offered).
Who cares? Anyone for whom writing, language, and communication remains important, I hope.
In a discussion with a potential client whose company was in the process of "going global," we talked about translation options for their project longer than any other topic. Surprisingly, the hard part was convincing their team that simply "plugging" text into Google Translate might be fine for a word or phrase. But the notion that this was a "work around" that would cut back on the sizable translation fees for the 40,000-word manuscript? Well, we told them, at least they could use the end product for a party game.
To convince them, we used a simple test. I copied a sentence selected more or less at random from correspondence—
We thank you and your colleagues for helping make our town such a congenial place in which to own a business and to work.
—and had Google translate it into French. (It could have been any language, but this is the one with which those gathered had greatest familiarity.) Here's the result:
Nous tenons à remercier vous et vos collègues pour les aider faire de notre ville un endroit agréable pour propriétaire d'une entreprise et le travail.
Next, using the same tool, the French version was translated back into English, et voilà:
We thank you and your colleagues to help make our city a pleasant place to own a business and work.
Zut, alors! Grammar aside, the meaning is, at best, vague, and at worst has changed! What if the original excerpt had been idiomatic? Or larded with technical terms? Our startled client was quickly convinced and agreed to include human translators' fees in the budget.
Conversely, I can think of at least one occasion when such cyber-fisted work, had it been available at the time, might actually have seemed preferable. For a major exhibition catalogue that originated in Italian, I hired two doctoral candidates in art history. Their fields of specialization meshed nicely with the book's subject, and both of them were almost finished with their respective dissertations at Harvard. What could go wrong?
Quite a lot, it turned out. This team decided that the author—a world-renowned authority on her subject—was "wrong." That's the exact, and only, word they used. So they set about translating the text in such a way that it became what they considered "right."
Fortunately, I'd also hired a copyeditor who was semifluent in Italian, and she alerted me to "some difficulties with the translation." The dynamic duo was just shy of half-way through their reinvention, and following a lot of back and forth, threats of legal action, and the highest of dudgeon, they agreed to cease and desist in exchange for half the fee. The project was turned over to a native-speaking Italian art history enthusiast (sans Ph.D.), who edited Italian-language material for a living. She worked closely with our copyeditor, and we ended up with an excellent manuscript.
Her all-too-generous assessment of her forerunners' work? "This is very creative approach to Italian—just not any Italian that I ever know."
Photo by Dewi Randles (Flickr name: fractalthoughts)