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What experience?

Experience of the world is of course essential for all humans. Without experience

of other people speaking we would never learn language. Without experience of

other people interacting we would never learn our society's behavioral norms.

Without experience of written texts and visual media we would never learn about

the world beyond our immediate environment.

Without experience of the world — if in fact such a thing is even imaginable — we

would never learn anything. Experience of the world is an integral and ongoing part

of our being in the world. Without it, we could hardly be said to exist at all.

The real question is, then, not whether experience of the world is indispensable for

the translator's work, but what kind of experience of the world is indispensable

for the translator's work.

Is it enough to have profound and extensive experiences of one or more foreign

languages? If so, is it enough to have been exposed to that language or those languages

in books and classrooms, or is experience of the culture or cultures in which it is

natively spoken essential? How important is rich experience of one's mother

tongue(s)? And how rich? Is it essential to be exposed to people who speak it in

different regions, social classes, and professions? Or is it enough to have read in it

widely and attentively?

Alternatively, is extensive experience of a certain subject matter enough, if the

translator has a rudimentary working knowledge of at least one foreign language?

If so, does that experience need to be hands-on practical experience of the field,

experience of the objects and the people who handle them and the way those people

speak about the objects? Or is it enough to have experience of books, articles, and

coursework on that subject matter?

At a radical extreme that will make professional translators uncomfortable, could

it even be sufficient, in certain cases, for the translator to have fleeting and superficial

experience of the foreign language and the subject matter but a rich and complex

experience with dictionaries? Or, in a slightly less extreme example, would it be

enough for a competent professional translator from Spanish and Portuguese to have

heard a little Italian and own a good Italian dictionary in order to translate a fairly

easy and routine text from the Italian?

One answer to all of these questions is: "Yes, in certain cases." A solid experiential

grounding in a language can get you through even a difficult specialized text when

you have little or no experience of the subject matter; and a good solid experiential

grounding in a subject matter can sometimes get you through a difficult text in that

field written in a foreign language with which you have little experience. Sometimes

knowledge of similar languages and a dictionary can get you through a fairly simple

text that you can hardly read at all.

While the ability to compensate for failings in some areas with strengths in others

is an important professional skill, however, asking the questions this way is ultimately

misleading. While in specific cases a certain level or type of experience (and competence)

may be "enough" or "essential," few translators have the luxury of knowing

in advance just what will be required to do the job at hand. Thus the translator's key

to accumulating experience of the world is not so much what may be "enough" or

"essential" for specific translation jobs as it is simply experiencing as much of

everything as possible. The more experience of the world, the better; also, the more

of the world one experiences, the better.

A good translator is someone who has never quite experienced enough to do her

or his job well; just one more language, one more degree, one more year abroad,

fifty or sixty more books, and s/he'11 be ready to start doing the job properly. But

that day never comes; not because the translator is incompetent or inexperienced,

not because the translator's work is substandard, but because a good translator

always wants to know more, always wants to have experienced more, never feels

quite satisfied with the job s/he just completed. Expectations stay forever a step or

three in front of reality, and keep the translator forever restlessly in search of more


Experience of the world sometimes confirms the translator's habits. There are

regularities to social life that make some aspects of our existence predictable. A visit

to a city we've visited many times before will confirm many of our memories about

that city: a favorite hotel, a favorite restaurant or cafe, a favorite park, areas to avoid,

etc. Every attempt to communicate in a foreign language that we know well will

similarly confirm many of our memories of that language: familiar words mean more

or less the same things that we remember them meaning before, syntactic structures

work the same, common phrases are used in situations similar to the ones in which

we've encountered them before.

But experience holds constant surprises for us as well. We turn the corner and

find that a favorite hotel or restaurant has been torn down, or has changed owners

and taken on an entirely new look. Familiar words and phrases are used in unfamiliar

ways, so that we wonder how we ever believed ourselves fluent in the language.

If nothing ever stayed the same, obviously, we would find it impossible to

function. No one would ever be in a position to give anyone else directions, since

nothing would stay the same long enough for anyone to "know" where it was or

what it was like. Communication would be impossible.

But if nothing ever changed, our habits would become straitjackets. We would

lock into a certain rigid set of worldly experiences and our expectations and

predictions based on those experiences, and stop learning. Most of us try to just do

that in as many areas of our lives as possible, to become "creatures of habit" (a phrase

that is not usually taken as an insult), and so to control our environments in some

small way.

But only the extremely insecure crave this "habitual" control over their whole

lives; and only the extremely wealthy can afford to achieve anything even approximating

that control in reality. The rest of us, fortunately, are forced past our

habits in a thousand little ways every day, and so forced to rethink, regroup,

shift our understandings and expectations to accord with the new experiences and

slowly, sometimes painfully, begin to rebuild broken habits around the changed


As we've seen, the translator's habits make it possible to translate faster, more

reliably, and more enjoyably; but when those habits are not broken, twisted,

massaged, and reshaped by fresh experience, the enjoyment begins to seep out and

speed and reliability stagnate into mechanical tedium. (Player pianos can play fast

pieces rapidly and reliably, and for a while it can be enjoyable to listen to their

playing; but how long would you enjoy being one?)

In Chapters 6—10 we will be considering a sequence of worldly experiences —

people, professions, languages, social networks, cultures — and their significance

for translators. In each case we will be exploring the relevant experience in terms

of Charles Sanders Peirce's triad of abduction, induction, and deduction: intuitive

leaps, pattern-building, and the application of general rules or laws or theories. In

the rest of this chapter, then, let us examine each of those in turn, asking what role

each plays in a translator's engagement with the world.

Intuitive leaps (abduction)