Anthony Pym


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To localize and humanize... On academics and translation

Anthony Pym 2001

Written for Language International, August 2001.


Chris Durban’s otherwise excellent booklet Translation: Getting it Right (ITI: 2001) states at one point, in juicy big letters: “TEACHERS & ACADEMICS: AT YOUR PERIL”. The text explains: 

For many companies faced with foreign-language texts, the first stop is the language department of the local school or university. While this may—sometimes—work for inbound translation (i.e., when you want to find out what the other guys are up to), it is extremely risky for promotional texts.

Fair enough, teaching a foreign language is not the same thing as producing what Durban idealizes as “a smooth, stylish translation”. Then again, wait a minute, why should academics not know about such things? Who said academics just teach foreign languages? Why should there be perfect professionals on one side and questionable teachers all on the other? And where, after all, did this suspiciously self-serving division of labour come from in the first place?

The strategy is widespread. It underlies a book due to come out soon from St Jerome Publishing, where Emma Wagner, a practising translator and translation manager at the European Commission, begins as follows: 

Translation theory? Spare us...’ That’s the reaction to be expected from most practising translators. Messages from the ivory tower tend not to penetrate as far as the wordface. (The wordface is the place where we translators work – think of a miner at the coalface.)

Academics, you see, only know nebulous theories. They are up in the air, while the real language workers, like miners, are underground facing the grim realities of words. 

It happened again, a few months ago, when a literary translator attending a conference gestured toward books on theory and exclaimed, “Have any of these people actually translated?; They don’t know what it’s really like!”. Us and them; the workers and the pretenders. Those that can, do, those that can’t...

And yet, most of us poor nebulous academic teachers have translated and do translate. And not just impractical literary texts. When the literary complainer had finished gesticulating, I went through the books in front of us and explained exactly who the people were. This one here does lots of theory but has translated texts for tourist agencies and recently co-translated a scandalous New Testament. The linguist over there has translated half a dozen books on everything from third-world economics to the physics of explosives. The man with the big ideas here has been doing commercial translations for twenty years. The feminist over there has had to translate anything and everything, from three languages, to supplement her academic salary. The writer on interpreting is also a professional interpreter. And so on. Okay, I cheated a little: these were books in one of the series I edit; they were authors I had chosen; but they were still there to be chosen. 

For one reason or another, teachers and academics can and do translate, often due to financial pressure, occasionally for real pleasure, but also because we are living in a world where all professions feed into each other. Language professionals become academics (to see people rather than computer screens); academics become language professionals (to earn real money when the career links misconnect). More, we have published Emma Wagner, the critical professional, in the series of translation theories, and the literary translator who complained about theorists was, if I am not mistaken, employed as a full-time academic. All language-learning programmes include some teaching of translation. We could go on with the argument and look at the names espousing technological professionalism in Language International: Bob Clark is also at Leeds University; half the Contributing Editors are full-time academics and damn good theorists. No, the battle-lines are not at all clear. They have never been clear. For their part, many translators can claim, with Luther: “Are they doctors? Me too! Are they learned? Me too! [...] Do they write books? Me too!, Ich auch!”. 

Half my argument here is that we are all in much the same social space. Whether localizers, project managers, translators, teachers, theorists or researchers, we are all working in the overlaps of cultures. We are in intercultures, all concerned with improving relations between cultures. That general task requires language-learning, intercultural competence, translation, localization, language technology, terminology, and a good deal of critical thought, from people who have the time and training to think. To that end, we are all involved in increasing degrees of multitasking, multiple job holding, and dog-leg career paths. And we should all be subject to the ideals of cross-professional cooperation, which I will save for another day. 

My more practical purpose here is to defend the place of academics within this space. Academics are not different simply because we know no better. Agreed, when we are academics (which is clearly not all the time, and not for a whole lifetime), we can be a very peculiar breed. Yet if we sometimes resist the clarity of common sense and market imperatives, there may be good reasons why. I would like to suggest a few of those reasons. It seems to me that, in relation to the technocrats of our age, academics are different in that they socially localize the consequences of technology (yes, localize), and their wider timeframe may help humanize those same consequences (yes, humanize). Let’s see why. 

Language International has many stories where the main characters are technology developers, language service providers, the occasional client, and vague allusions to wealth (usually just one or two steps away). Just about everything happens on the technology/market interface thus formed. If academics enter the scene, it is as trainers who should, in an ideal world, represent that interface in their classes. We should be preparing students for the professional world they are about to enter. Fine. Consider, though, all the other characters that the academic has to negotiate with: 

Incoming students have numerous preconceptions and demands that would have nothing to do with market realities if they were not themselves a market reality. With declining demographic growth in post-industrial economies, training institutions of all kinds have to compete to attract students. This is sometimes no problem. Yet it is not always easy to explain the niceties of localization and the language industry to 18-year-olds (and their parents) who secretly want to be interpreters at the UN. 

University administrators do not want to be told that the professional market has no place for large groups of students who want to be UN interpreters and have shaky foreign languages. If the masses want to learn translation, no matter at what level, then the administrative prerogative is to teach them translation, of no matter what kind. Student numbers count for more than the final market.

Teachers of languages other than English are facing chronic under-employment as the world’s lingua franca makes its domination complete. They need students. And the training of translators, which requires more than one language, is one way of providing those students. 

Governments, were they at all rational, might have a real interest in this way of maintaining a society’s stock of foreign-language competence. Yet even when more electoral than rational, they are more likely to favour training policies supported by student and teaching groups than by short-term market trends with arcane terminology. 

Other academic disciplines are caught in the same perverse dynamics, trying to justify their existence through various displays of jargon and science. At some points linguistics flaunts it rigour and longevity to sideline translation-minded academics into irrelevance (there are too many variables!). At others, literary theorists in search of full classes invent cultural approaches that increasingly claim to help train language professionals. This might explain why a lot of theory seems to have nothing to do with actual translation practice: it is basically concerned with the politics of academic practice. 



Now, if you put all those characters together and get them to act out their stories, the result is going to be quite perverse when seen from the perspective of market demands. Money and efficiency, which are everything in technology, are only relative requirements for us academics. Class sizes and tenure may count for more, as might language learning. And people, especially other academics, are our main counterparts; we are constantly protecting our hides and fostering our ideals. In many cases academics are using translator training as an excuse for language teaching or cultural critique. And all those cases are very particular to local circumstances. That is why we seem so out of touch. And that is why, when technologies and economics apparently modify free markets in a matter of months, academic institutions might take as long as a generation to represent the change. 

Can one really defend such a situation? I think so. 

First, consider that academic institutions are at the primary service of their societies, not of markets. They are often in contact with a wider range of social segments and generations than are language technologists, and those segments form quite specific locales. Academics deal with groups of people that live together. What they do thus frequently involves applying knowledge to specific local concerns and interests: these particular students, those particular parents, against those particular other teachers, and under this particular administrative policy. While the language technician thinks the world should all be moving in the one way, the academic has to negotiate with people to find ways in which things can be moved just here and now. Perhaps paradoxically (given the ideologies of ‘universities’), academics are involved in creating what anthropologists call ‘local knowledge’. In that sense, after all the initial resistance and buffer ideologies, we cannot help but localize the consequences of technology. 

Second, consider the wide timeframes in which academics carry out negotiations. Our revolutions take decades to work through (we still get excited by what Derrida published in 1967). What we lose in response time, we gain in long-term perspective. This gives us space in which to think about what is happening to our languages and cultures, about where we want our societies to head. Are we really ready to sacrifice diversified foreign-language teaching in favour of technical speed? Do we all look forward to a world in which translators only work on fragmentary updates? Do we want to read all our texts with a Find function? Are we generally disposed to sacrifice the linearity of text deictics? Do we really want natural-language strings to be separated from the source codes, such that translators are separated from the biggish money of localization? Do these problems not reverberate across the sounding-board of history? Or are we all brand new and completely alone? Most important, do we really want to spend our life looking at computer screens rather than at flesh-and-blood people? In that sense, and in all those senses, academics may yet use their critical distance to help humanize our technologies. 

To localize and humanize, as well as to train. Those are not bad aims. Yet they are lost whenever we write academics off as language teachers who know nothing about the language professions (‘at your peril’, indeed). Or when we think theory’s only function is to help translators translate better (as if no other social group were being addressed). Or when the only purpose of training is to represent the market (as if students will never need ideas about how to make the market work for people). If the technicians thought more about why they would secretly like to become academics—one day—, about why we really do share the same space, then might we have a more stable ground for cooperation. 

Last update August 2001  

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