| 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
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
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.
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:
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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