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Pretending to be a source-language reader and target-language writer

Another important aspect of abductive "pretense" in the translator's work is the

process of pretending to be first a source-language reader, understanding the source

text as a reader for whom it was intended, and then a target-language writer,

addressing a target-language readership in some effective way that accords with the

expectations of the translation commissioner.

How do you know what the source text means, or how it is supposed to work?

You rely on your skill in the language; you check dictionaries and other reference

books; you ask experts; you contact the agency and/or client; if the author is

available, you ask her or him what s/he meant by this or that word or phrase. But

the results of this research are often inconclusive or unsatisfactory; and at some

point you have to decide to proceed as if you already had all the information you need to do a professional job. In other words, you pretend to be a competent sourcelanguage

reader. It is only a partial pretense; it is not exactly an "imposture" You

are in fact a pretty good source-language reader. But you know that there are

problems with your understanding of this particular text; you know that you don't

know quite enough; so you do your best, making educated guesses (abductions)

regarding words or phrases that no one has been able to help you with, and present

your translation as a finished, competent, successful translation.

How do you know who your target-language readers will be, what they expect,

or how to satisfy their expectations? In some (relatively rare) cases, translators do

know exactly who their target-language readers will be; more common, but still

by no means the rule, are situations in which translators are told to translate for

a certain class or group or type of readers, such as "EU officials," or "the German

end-user," or "an international conference for immunologists." Conference, court,

community, medical, and other interpreters typically see their audience and may even

interact with them, so that the recipients' assumptions and expectations become

increasingly clear throughout the course of an interpretation. But no writer ever

has fully adequate information about his or her readers, no speaker about his or her

listeners; this is as true of translators and interpreters as it is of people who write

and speak without a "source text" in another language. At some point translators or

interpreters too will have to make certain assumptions about the people they

are addressing — certain abductive leaps regarding the most appropriate style or

register to use, whether in any given case to use this or that word or phrase. Once

again, translators or interpreters will be forced to pretend to know more than they

could ever humanly know — simply in order to go on, to proceed, to do their job

as professionally as possible.

Pretending to belong to a language-use community

Anthony Pym (1992a: 121-5) makes a persuasive argument against the widespread

assumption that "specialist" texts are typically more difficult than "general" texts,

and that students in translation programs should therefore first be given "general"

texts to practice on, in order to work up the more difficult "specialist" texts later

in their training. As Pym sets up his argument, it revolves around what he calls the

sociocultural "embeddedness" or "belonging" of a text, meaning the social networks

in which its various words, phrases, styles, registers, and so on are typically used.

He shows that the more "embedded" a text is in broad social networks of the

source culture, the harder it will be to translate, because (1) it will be harder for

the translator to have or gain reliable information about how the various people in

those networks understand the words or phrases or styles (etc.), (2) the chances are

greater that no similar social networks exist in the target culture, and (3) it will be

harder for the translator to judge how target-language readers will respond to

whatever equivalent s/he invents. Jean Delisle, for example, openly recommends the use of such ["general"] texts

in the teaching of translators, since "initial training in the use of language is

made unnecessarily complicated by specialised terminology" . . . This sounds

quite reasonable. But in saying this, Delisle falsely assumes that "general texts"

are automatically free of terminology problems, as if magazine articles,

publicity material and public speeches were not the genres most susceptible to

embeddedness, textually bringing together numerous socially continuous and

overlapping contexts in their creation of complex belonging. A specialised text

may well present terminological problems — the translator might have to use

dictionaries or talk with specialists before confidently transcoding the English

"tomography" as French "tomographic" or Spanish "tomografia" —, but this is

surely far less difficult than going through the context analysis by which Delisle

himself takes seven pages or so to explain why, in a newspaper report on breast

removal, the expression "sense of loss" — superbly embedded in English — cannot

be translated (for whom? why?) as "sentiment de perte" . . . No truly technical

terms are as complex as this most vaguely "general" of examples! The extreme

difficulty of such texts involves negotiation of the nuances collected from the

numerous situations in which an expression like "sense of loss" can be used and

which, for reasons which escape purely linguistic logic, have never assumed the

same contiguity with respect to "sentiment de perte".

(Pym 1992a: 123)

Pym argues that highly specialized technical texts are typically embedded in an

international community of scientists, engineers, physicians, lawyers, and the like,

who attend international conferences and read books in other languages and so have

usually eliminated from their discourse the kind of contextual vagueness that is

hardest to translate. As Pym's "tomography" example shows, too, international

precision tends to be maintained in specialist groups through the use of Greek, Latin,

French, and English terms that change only slightly as they move from one phonetic

system to another. "General" texts, on the other hand, are grounded in less closely

regulated everyday usage, the way people talk in a wide variety of ordinary contexts,

which requires far more social knowledge than specialized texts — far more knowledge

of how people talk to each other in their different social groupings, at home, at

work, at the store, etc. Even slang and jargon, Pym would say, are easier to translate

than this "general" discourse — all you have to do to translate slang or jargon is find

an expert in it and ask your questions. (What makes that type of translation difficult

is that experts are sometimes hard to find.) With a "general" text, everybody's an

expert - but all the experts disagree, because they've used the words or phrases in

different situations, different contexts, and can never quite sort out in their own

minds just what it means with this or that group.

But Pym's take on "specialized" texts, and specialist groups, is in some cases a bit

simplistic. The key to successful "specialized" translation is not just knowing that "tomography" is tomographic in French and tomografia in Spanish — i.e., not just finding

equivalents for the words - but first reading and then writing like a member of the

social groups that write and talk that way. To understand a medical text in one

language one must read like a doctor or a nurse or a hospital administrator (or

whatever) in that language; to translate it effectively into another language one must

write like a doctor (or whatever) in that other language. And however "international"

these specialists typically are, they are also real people who interact with their peers

in intensely local and socially embedded ways as well. The meanings of words and

phrases may be more carefully defined in specialist discourse; but the specific way

in which those words and phrases are strung together to make a specialized text

will vary significantly with the group using them; and the effective professional

translator will have to "pretend" to be a member of that group in order to render

them plausibly into the target language.

Two examples. I was asked to translate a list of eighty chemical terms from

English into Finnish — no context, no sentences, just eighty words. All of them

were Latinate, precisely the sort of term that Pym quite rightly says is quite easy

to translate, since it usually requires little more than adjusting spellings to the other

language's phonetic system: tomography, tomographie, tomografia. And it was, as

Pym predicts, a very easy job; but because I was translating into Finnish, which is

not my native language, I faxed my translation to a friend in Finland who has a Ph.D.

in chemistry. She made a few corrections and sent it back. Reading through her

return fax, I noticed that she had introduced some inconsistencies into the translation

of -ethylene. In some compounds, it was translated -etyleeni; in others, -eteeni.

Concerned about this, I called her and asked; she said that usage in that area is

currently in transition in the Finnish chemist community, and the inconsistencies

reflect that transition. My guess is, in fact, that another member of that community

might have construed the transition differently, and given me a slightly different

version of the inconsistencies, using both -etyleeni and -eteeni but in different

compounds. No matter how international the social network, usage will always be

shaped by the local community.

And more recently: I was asked to translate some instructions for a pharmaceutical

product from English into Finnish, and couldn't find or think of a Finnish

translation for "flip-off seal," so I got on-line and asked three or four translators

I know in Finland who do a lot of medical texts. They gave me three substantially

different answers, all three duly checked with doctor friends. The most interesting

variation was in the terms they offered for "seal": suoja "protection, cover," hattu

"hat," and sinetti "seal." I would not have thought that sinetti, which does mean most

kinds of seal (but not the animal), would have been used for a medicine vial's tamper

protection; but a doctor friend assured my translator friend that it was. Hattu "hat"

is clearly colloquial; Finns use the word in casual conversation to describe anything

that vaguely resembles a hat when they don't know the correct term, or when the

correct term would sound too technical. This is a good reminder that even specialists

belong to more than one community; and even within the specialist community they

often maintain two or more registers, one technical and "official," one or more slangy

and informal. Suoja "protection, cover" is the most neutral of the three; it is in fact

the one I ended up using, partly because my own (foreign) intuition was opposed

to sinetti — but mainly because the suoja reply was the only one that came in before

my deadline.

Lesson 1: the more social networks or communities or groups you're grounded

in, and the more grounded in each you are, the better able you will be to "pretend"

to be a reader-member of the source-text community and a writer-member of the

target-text community.

Lesson 2: the less grounded you are in the communities themselves, the more

important it is to be grounded in the translator community, or to have other friends

who either know what you need to know or can connect you with people who do.

Even so, to "pretend" to be a doctor or an engineer when you have never been either

you must be able to sort out conflicting "expert" advice and pick the rendition that

seems to fit your context best — which in turn requires some grounding in the social

networks where the terms are "natively" used.

Lesson 3: in the professional world of deadlines, the translator's goal can never

be the perfect translation, or even the best possible translation; it can only be the

best possible translation at this point in time. If a translator friend talks to a doctor

friend and provides you with a plausible-sounding term or phrase before your

deadline, you don't wait around hoping that a better alternative might arrive some

time in the next few days. You deliver your translation on time and feel pleased that

it's done. Of course, if another friend sends you an alternative after the deadline

and you suddenly realize that this is the right way to say it and you and your other

friend were totally wrong before, you phone the agency or client and, if it is still

possible, have them make the change.