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Contacts between universities and the EU translation services
Posted on Thursday, September 20 @ 04:24:52 EDT
Topic: Translation Education

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Introduction

When I applied to speak at this conference, I had a fairly innocuous plan. I was going to be polite about academics and translation studies scholars. I was going to say diplomatic things about ways of bridging the gap between academe and the reality of translation. And I shall do that, in the second part of my talk.


But I also want to say some things that are not so polite. If there is a gap between academe and translators, it is partly due to the hostility that some academics direct at us - especially at translators in the EU institutions.
I'd like to quote some articles published in the British national press in April this year. In the first, published in The Guardian, a widely read and generally pro-European British daily, a research professor at Copenhagen Business School accused my colleagues of being "ineffective":
"Countries applying for EU membership have probably assumed that their languages will have the same rights as other official languages. This is most unlikely, since the present interpretation and translation services are ineffective and will be even more unworkable when new states join the EU." (Phillipson 2001).
Dr Phillipson has got his facts wrong. The countries applying for EU membership will have exactly the same language rights as the present Member States. He could have checked this by reading the Treaty on European Union or the information we have put on our website (http://europa.eu.int/comm/translation). Instead, when challenged, he admitted that he had no first-hand knowledge of our operation but had based his article on secondary sources: articles in scholarly journals, conference proceedings etc. In an article printed in the same newspaper the next day, Juliane House, professor of applied linguistics at Hamburg University, went even further and claimed that we are not only "ineffective", but part of a powerful conspiracy: "The language policy in the European Union is both ineffective and hypocritical, and its ideas of linguistic equality and multilingualism are costly and cumbersome illusions.
Why have these illusions been kept up for so long? First, because the French [...] cannot accept the decline of their own linguistic power. Second, because the politically correct ideologies of some sociolinguists constantly fuel opposition against the idea of English as a European lingua franca. And third, because powerful translators' lobbies fight for their raison d'être." (House 2001)
Professor House concludes that "the use of English as a lingua franca would be infinitely better" . (House 2001)
This is the sort of argument we expect to hear from penny-pinching British politicians, not from hitherto respected linguists. Translation will always be necessary in the European Union, because a policy of "English-only" would be undemocratic. The European Union is about communication with ordinary people, not just politicians and bureaucrats. To communicate with ordinary people, we need to speak their language. According to these two authors, translation is not only superfluous, but those of us who attempt to explain why the European Union must produce documents in many languages are just part of a conspiracy. What is it, I wonder, that drives these academics to treat us honest translation folk with such hostility?

Reasons for the gap

Translators have to get used to being criticised. Maybe "coping with criticism" should be included in the curricula of translator training courses! One way of coping is to try to analyse the motivation of the critics. For example, in an attempt to come to terms with this sort of criticism we might - perhaps quite wrongly - assume that it is based on one of three motivations:
1. fear
2. contempt
3. envy.
I'll go through these briefly, as we perceive them, and invite you to comment.

1. Fear

Why should academics be afraid of practitioners? Could it be because they are afraid we will spoil their theories? Rather like the biologists in The Water Babies, the Victorian children's story by Charles Kingsley. The story tells how a little boy, who has been forced to work as a chimney sweep, is transformed into a "water-baby": a species of human creature that can live under water, like a fish, in a beautiful, clean, underwater world where he swims around doing good works. The author tells us that water-babies do in fact exist, but that biologists won't admit it, because it doesn't fit in with their theories about the sustainability of human life under water:
"And this is why they say that no one has ever yet seen a water-baby. For my part, I believe that the [biologists] get dozens of them when they are out dredging: but they say nothing about them, and throw them overboard again, for fear of spoiling their theories." (Kingsley 1994:105)
A bit far-fetched, you may think. But let me give an example of a recent translation theorist's view which displays the same kind of fear. In his book Translation and Language, Peter Fawcett describes some research on translation strategies which shows that experienced professional translators use different strategies from those employed by students and trainees.
He writes: "This research would suggest that trainee translators and experienced translators behave rather differently. What is not yet known is how they get from one to the other. One way of finding out might be to pursue Brian Harris's proposal (1992) to go even further back down the translation chain and explore what he calls natural translation, which is translation done in daily life by bilingual children with no training as translators." (Fawcett 1997:143).
No. If you want to find out how translators get from being trainees to being experienced, the answer is not to look at bilingual children. The answer is to study professional translators themselves. Yet this obvious solution is not even suggested. Why? What stops theorists from studying professional translators? Could it be fear that they will spoil their theories, maybe? Or could it be the next attitude ... contempt?

2. Contempt

It would be natural for academics to feel contempt for practising translators. Most of us are their former students, after all. Students - those irritating people who demand to be taught something, and who get in the way of academic research and publications and trips to conferences like this one. We understand entirely. That is the way we feel about our clients and the texts they ask us to translate.
Seriously, though, there is some evidence of contempt, at least for non-literary translators. George Steiner speaks of the "division running through the history and practice of translation" distinguishing between "the translation of common matter - private, commercial, clerical, ephemeral - and the re-creative transfer from one literary, philosophic or religious text to another" (Steiner, 1992:264). The material most professional translators deal with is not in Steiner's "literary, philosophic or religious" category, but it is not "private, commercial, clerical or ephemeral" either. What we deal with is "legal, technical and political", but they don't seem to feature at all in his list. If they did, I suspect they would be classed as "common matter".
Before you dismiss the contempt scenario as paranoia, ask yourself how you would react if a respected colleague told you they were going to give up academic research or teaching and become a full-time translator. Would your first reaction be "what a waste"? This is a reaction I have seen occasionally. For example, when Finland joined the European Union and we were recruiting Finnish translators, we received several anguished comments from university professors complaining that we were luring budding scholars away from translation studies research - by recruiting them as translators! Surely, though: the best way to study translation is to do it.

3. Envy

Another possible attitude - we are clutching at straws here - is envy. Good translators are well paid, not just in the European institutions, but in localisation companies and in the freelance world too. Top freelances have an enviable freedom to choose their clients and work wherever they want (in the garden or on the beach if they feel like it!) - and we staff translators, who don't have that freedom, do at least have job security. So however galling this may be, the people who train translators should stop projecting an image of translators starving in garrets, having to compete with machines, scraping a living... Of course, incompetent translators will suffer in this way, but good translators won't. The job has its miseries and humiliations, but poverty is not one of them.

Bridging the gap

So after this brief tour of reasons why academics might prefer to avoid translators, let's move on to the more positive part of my paper, in which I shall outline some ways in which the European Union institutions try to narrow the gap between academe and the translation profession.

1. Direct contacts

The first and best way to narrow the gap is by direct contacts, and some opportunities are being missed here. Every translator is the product of a university, and almost every one maintains informal contacts with their alma mater. But there are very few formal contacts. There never seems to be any formal follow-up, to see if a student's academic training was appropriate to the world of work. Professional translators are rarely invited to give feedback to their former teachers; it is even more rare for them to be invited to teach students occasionally.
Existing practice to encourage contacts:
- Opportunities for practical training in the EU translation services for students: We have various schemes whereby students and recent graduates can work with us on paid traineeships and unpaid placements. The most complete information is given on the European Parliament's website (http://www.europarl.eu.int/stages/default_en.htm), but the Commission and all EU institutions have similar openings for work experience.
- Lectures and talks by translators: Some experienced translators have arranged to help on translation courses in universities near to Brussels and Luxembourg. Further afield, the European Commission's Translation Service has small field stations (Antennes) in the following cities, and the translators there are happy to visit universities and speak to students: Athens, Berlin, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Lisbon, Madrid, Milan, Stockholm, Vienna. The contact details are on our website http://europa.eu.int/comm/translation.
- "Visiting translator scheme" allowing practising EU translators to teach at universities: The European Commission has instituted a scheme, which was originally suggested by a Finnish university, whereby universities can invite an experienced EU translator to spend 6 weeks in the university teaching and receiving training. So far the following host universities have been involved:
Year Host university Translator's mother tongue
1997 Tampere, Finland German
1998 Tampere, Finland German
1999 Helsinki, Finland French
2000 Helsinki, Finland English
2001 Tarragona, Spain English
2001 Prague, Czech Rep. English
2001 Madrid, Spain French
2001 Thessaloniki, Greece French
- We not only give lectures, but we listen to them. We arrange frequent lectures for inhouse staff, and we invite academic specialists from all over Europe to speak to translators. Since 1999 we have had an annual "Theory meets Practice" lecture series; we invite two academics to give lectures and we take them on a guided tour of our services so they can find out about the reality. The details are on our website http://europa.eu.int/comm/translation/theory.
- A new and promising area of contact is the design and production of short, purposebuilt courses for experienced professional translators in universities. For example, in October this year the University of Surrey, in the UK, is laying on a special one-week course in editing for 15 English translators from the Commission. The course was designed with our input and to meet our specific needs.

2. Conjecture versus research

To the detached observer of translation studies, such as myself, it is strange to see how much anguished academic debate is still based on conjecture rather than observation. The European institutions provide an ideal pool of guinea pigs or research subjects for such observations. Between them, the EU institutions have about 2000 in-house translators, and we have access to another 2000 freelance translators. So instead of arguing about whether professional translators need to have translation diplomas, why not just conduct some research into the university backgrounds of practising translators? If, like Peter Fawcett, whom I mentioned earlier, you want to find out how translators evolve from being trainees to being experienced, just come and ask us! There are many areas where we need help, and the research findings would be of great interest to us, especially in the area of working methods (comparing voice input with typing, studying revision and quality control techniques, comparing the production speed of post-editing machine translation with human translation, comparing practice in the EU institutions and localisation companies, and so on).
Existing research:
In the 70s and 80s there were occasional projects on working with machine translation, but the results were inconclusive and there have been no recent studies to speak of. Large-scale studies would be particularly interesting and easy to set up in the EU institutions, although we would naturally prefer it if they did not disrupt normal production, which is always our main priority. But often we are too close to the trees to be able to see the wood - and that is where research can help us!

3. Misguided criticism

It sometimes seems that the main area of academic "contact" with the EU translation services is criticism of our translations by academics. Sometimes criticisms are based on misunderstandings of the situation in the EU institutions.
Existing cases:
The most common error is assuming that a badly written English text is a translation. This is very rarely the case. It is much more likely to be an original, written by a nonnative speaker. All our translators are native speakers. Our translations may not be perfect, but they are never ungrammatical.
A related mistake is blaming translators for Eurospeak and corruption of their mother tongue. In fact the worst crimes against language are perpetrated by politicians and journalists producing their own amateur off-the-cuff translations, heavily influenced by English or French. By contrast, translators see themselves as guardians of their native language and try to resist interference. An expert study has demonstrated this in the case of Danish (Karker 1997). Sometimes the politicians' Anglicisms and Gallicisms do creep into the language: the Gallicism "democratic deficit" has caught on in English, and several European languages have started to use calques of the English word "governance".

4. Gaps in translator training

In my department at the European Commission there are over 200 translators, trained in nearly all the Member States of the EU. I make it a habit to ask them if their university training was relevant and if there were things they wish they had been taught. None of them complains about lack of training in computer applications and translation tools, because that is provided in-house anyway. Instead, they sometimes say they wish they had been given special tuition in the skills listed below.
Gaps in training before recruitment:
- how to write in the target language (their mother tongue)
- how to recognise and reproduce different registers and defend their choices
- how to ask the right questions and defend their right to ask
- how to interact with clients (need for "people skills" as well as text skills).
These are partly confidence-building and assertiveness skills.
Gaps in training after recruitment:
To us professionals, it seems unrealistic to expect students in their early twenties to be effective immediately as translators. It takes several years to acquire the necessary foreign language skills, writing skills and world knowledge.
That is why I suggest that universities could perhaps develop post-experience training modules for practising translators, to correct some bad habits and to reinforce the other skills needed. The English editing course at Surrey University, which I mentioned earlier, in one example. Another beneficial effect of such courses would naturally be to encourage communication between universities and the translation profession. We're all in the business of communication, so let's find ways to communicate with each other. Finally, I'd like to put in a shameless plug for a new book that will tell you all you need to know about the EU translation services: "Translating for the European Union Institutions" by Emma Wagner, Svend Bech and Jesús M. Martínez, soon to be published in the St Jerome series "Translation Practices Explained".


Author: Emma Wagner, Translation Service, European Commission


References
Fawcett, Peter (1997) Translation and Language, Manchester: St Jerome
Harris, Brian (1992) 'Natural Translation: A Reply to Hans P. Krings', Target 4(1):97-103
House, Juliane (2001)The language policy in the European Union, Guardian Weekly, 19
April 2001 http://www.guardian.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,4172670,00.html
Karker, Allan (1997) Mishandler EF det danske sprog?
http://europa.eu.int/comm/translation/theory/karker.htm
Kingsley, Charles (1994 edition - first published 1863) The Water Babies,
Harmondsworth: Penguin
Phillipson, Robert (2001) In Brussels some languages are more equal than others, The
Guardian, 18 April 2001
http://www.guardian.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,4171529,00.html
Steiner, George (1992) After Babel, Oxford: Oxford University Press




 
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