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A new look at terminology

One of the most important aspects of the translator's job is the management of

terminology: being exposed to it, evaluating its correctness or appropriateness in

specific contexts, storing and retrieving it. The focal nature of terminology for

translation has made terminology studies one of the key subdisciplines within the

broader field of translation studies; learning specialized terminology is one of

the main emphases in any course on legal, medical, commercial, or other technical

translation; and "How do you say X, Y, and Z in language B?" is the most commonly

asked question in on-line translator discussion groups like Lantra-L.

But terminology studies as they are traditionally conceived are typically grounded

methodologically in the neglect of one essential point: that terminology is most

easily learned (i.e., stored in memory so as to facilitate later recall) in context — in

actual use-situations, in which the people who use such terms in their daily lives are

talking or writing to each other. Not that terminologists ignore or discount this fact;

its importance is, on the contrary, widely recognized in terminology studies.

But the subdiscipline's very focus on terms as opposed to, say, people, or highly

contextualized conversations, or workplaces, reflects its fundamental assumption

that terminology is a stable objective reality that exists in some systematic way "in

language" and is only secondarily "used" by people — often used in confusing and

contradictory wavs, in fact, which is what makes the imagination of a pure or stable

"primary" state so attractive.

Faking it (abduction)

Translators are fakers. Pretenders. Impostors.

Translators and interpreters make a living pretending to be (or at least to speak

or write as if they were) licensed practitioners of professions that they have typically

never practiced. In this sense they are like actors, "getting into character" in order

to convince third parties ("audiences," the users of translations) that they are, well,

not exactly real doctors and lawyers and technicians, but enough like them to

warrant the willing suspension of disbelief. "Expert behaviour," as Paul Kussmaul

(1995: 33) puts it, "is acquired role playing."

And how do they do it? Some translators and interpreters actually have the

professional experience that they are called upon to "fake." This makes the "pretense"

much easier to achieve, of course; and the more experience of this sort you have,

the better. As I have mentioned before, translation has been called the profession of

second choice; if your first choice was something radically different, you are in an

excellent position to specialize in the translation of texts written by practitioners

of your previous profession. Other people choose translation simultaneously with

another profession, and may even feel guilty about their inability to choose between

them; they too have an enormous advantage over other translators working in the

same field, because of their "insider" command of terminology.

Most translators and interpreters, however, are not so lucky. Most of us have to

pretend with little or no on-the-job experience on which to base the pretense. Some

solve this problem by specializing in a given field — medical translations, legal

translations, etc., some even in such narrow fields as patents, or insurance claims

— and either taking coursework in that field or reading in it widely, in both languages.

Interpreters hired for a weekend or a week or a month in a given field will study up

on that field in advance. Gradually, over the years, these translators and interpreters

become so expert at pretending to be practitioners of a profession they've never

practiced that third parties ask them for medical or legal (or whatever) advice. (More

on this under induction, below.)

But most of us just fake it, working on no job experience and perhaps a little

reading in the field, but never quite enough. An agency calls you with a medical

report translation; you've done technical translations for them before, they like and

trust you, you like and trust them, they have been an excellent source of income

to you in the past, and you want to help them in whatever way you can; they are

desperate to have this translated as quickly as possible. You know little or nothing

about medical terminology. What do you do? You accept the job, do your best to

fake it, and then have the translation checked by a doctor, or by a friend who is better

at faking it than you are.

Just what is involved, then, in "faking it" — in translating abductively by pretending

to be a professional with very little actual experience or knowledge on which to

base your pretense? The first step is imagination: what would it be like to be a

doctor? What would it be like to be the doctor who wrote this? How would you see

the world? How would you think and feel about yourself? What kind of person

would you be? Professional habits are tied up in what the French sociologist Pierre

Bourdieu (1986) calls a "habitus," a whole pattern of life-structuring activities,

attitudes, and feelings. What would your "habitus" be if you were not a translator

but a doctor?

And more narrowly: would you have actually written the report, or dictated it?

Does the report feel dictated? What difference would it make whether it was written

or dictated? If the report is concise and precise, and you imagine the doctor leaning

back in a chair with a dictaphone, tired from being up all night, rubbing her or his

eyes with one hand — how then does the report come out sounding so balanced,

so calmly competent, even so terse? Is it because the doctor has dictated so many

medical reports that they come out automatically, almost subliminally, the doctor's

professional "habit" giving the specific findings of an examination a highly formulaic

form that requires little or no thought? What would that feel like? How does the

translator's professional "habit" resemble the doctor's? Are there enough experiential

parallels or convergences between them that the translator can imagine himself or

herself in that chair, dictating the medical report in the target language?

Once again, it should go without saying that the translator who is not sure how

a real doctor would sound in the target language is obligated to have the product of

this imaginative process checked by someone who is sure. This sort of abductive

translation inevitably involves making mistakes. Without first-hand knowledge of

the professions or workplaces from which the text has been taken, it is impossible

for the translator to avoid bad choices among the various terminological alternatives

in a dictionary entry.

But note two things. First, by projecting herself or himself "abductively" into a

profession or a workplace, the translator gains an intuitive guide to individual wordchoices.

This guide is, of course, never wholly reliable — it is, after all, based on

guesswork, imaginative projections, not (much) actual experience — but it is better

than nothing. Some translators would dispute this, saying that no guess is better than

a bad one, and if all you can do is make bad guesses you shouldn't have accepted the

job at all — perhaps shouldn't even be a translator at all. But everyone has to start

somewhere; no one, not even the best translator, is ever perfectly proficient on

every job s/he does; all translation contains an element of guesswork. The translator

who never guessed, who refused even in a first rough draft to write down anything

about which s/he; was not absolutely certain, would rarely finish a job. There are

some texts that are so easy that no guesswork is involved; perhaps in some areas of

specialization such texts even eventually become the norm. But most translators

have to guess at (and later check and/or have checked) some words in almost every

text they translate.

Second, it is always better to guess in a pattern, guided by a principle (even if

only an imagined one), than to guess at random. The style or tone produced by a

series of abductive guesses based on an imaginative projection may be wrong, but

at least it will most likely be recognizable, and thus easier for a checker to fix. The

translator who, like an actor or a novelist, pretends to be a practitioner in the field

of the source text will probably impart to the finished translation a tonal or rhetorical

coherence that will make it read more naturally — even if it is "off."

The rule of thumb for the abductive translation of specialized texts, therefore,

might go like this: projecting yourself imaginatively into the professional activities

or habitus of the source author will guide your individual choice of words, phrases,

and ultimately register in a more coherent fashion than a focus on "terminology" or

register.