Why should we include “writing about a technical subject, intended to convey specific information to a specific audience for a specific purpose” (Markel 1988) in a translation curriculum? The reasons seem to be simple and obvious. Technical Writing and Academic Writing, which in my opinion both correspond to the above definition, widen translation students’ professional horizon. It allows them to become acquainted with the characteristics of a number of new genres and equips them with the necessary skills to produce texts corresponding to these genres. By designing a number of assignments in which they have to decide what is really important in a text and what is not, writing instruction can be formed in such a way that students concentrate on the notion of the importance of information.
Introduction to scholarly communication is also a great benefit. Activities and documents related to organizing a conference, publishing scholarly papers, etc. are novelty for the majority of students. On the other hand, translators may very well be engaged in such activities as often they are in a given workplace the only persons equipped with substantial language skills. (At least this is the situation in Hungary.) Encounters with new texts also develop the student’s vocabulary in the target language.
Benefits are especially visible if we speak about an important genre: abstracting. Palmer and Uso enumerate the benefits of abstracting in connection with teaching English as a second language. I believe that these benefits are also valid if we teach abstracting to students of translation (who by the way often regard their training as an enhanced form of language learning). The benefits of abstracting are in turn mostly applicable to the entire spectrum of writing instruction.
By teaching our students how to write abstracts we will enhance their reading and writing ability, engaging them in an activity that is communicative and in which students apply knowledge previously acquired. (Uso and Palmer 1998).
Abstracting not only employs decoding and encoding and develops critical reading skills, but it enhances the understanding of basic rhetorical principles. As some texts are not perfect, students will discover flawed patterns while abstracting (Guinn 1979).
The case of Professional Documentation
Professional Documentation (PD) is a course designed to make students of translation acquainted with those written genres of linguistic (interlingual) mediation, that are not translation, but which a translator may be required to write. PD is part of the technical translation curriculum at the Technical University of Budapest. This program contains courses preparing future translators for jobs that go beyond the boundaries of pure translation.
The education of translators began at TUB in 1990. First there was a course in English translation only. German translation was introduced in 1991, French and Russian in 1993. The total administrative, subject, and examination system framework of the three-year training has been established. Curricula as well as syllabuses have become standardized according to the same principles applying to the courses in all four languages.
Despite standardization, there are differences in available teaching materials in different languages, and the languages themselves require different approaches to PD. That is why the description below will be limited to PD for students of English translation.
Translators are trained in a 6-semester post-graduate course. Applicants for the program have to take an entry examination. Ten subjects are taught in the entire course, and the classes take eight to ten hours a week per semester. These time limits are imposed by the fact that the course can only be taken as a minor or supplementary degree course so as to allow students to complete it simultaneously with their major professional training course.
The only 6-semester course is English language. Even written translation begins only in the second semester. Among other subjects the students have courses in their native Hungarian language, the cultural and economic background of the target (foreign) language, stylistics and terminology of technical language.
PD begins in the fifth semester and it is a 1-hour course through the sixth semester. It is taught in the same semesters as Technical Style and Terminology, which provides linguistic background knowledge for technical translation and interpretation as well as other types of linguistic transfer activity. In the third year there is Negotiation Practice, which is the oral counterpart of PD, dealing with oral transfer other than interpretation.
From the preceding courses Contrastive and Functional Grammar has to be mentioned. Introduced in the second year of the training, it summarizes and consolidates the grammar skills related to Hungarian and the foreign language on the basis of universal semantic functions.
Due to the recent trends of student mobility and the increase in the diversity of essential professional skills, students and graduates of other universities are now also admitted to these courses. As a consequence, there is a great variety of interests and professional experience within each student group, which has to be taken into consideration in order to make the training effective (Szollosy Sebestyén and Szucs 1996).
The main topics covered in the course are the following.
The concept and content of Professional Documentation
Instructions and manuals
Scholarly and professional societies
The scientific paper
The latter topic assumes special importance as at TUB the state examination, which concludes the education of technical translators includes abstract writing as we consider abstracting to be an important skill. Thus, an abstract of a technical article in English has to be prepared in Hungarian.
In PD the most typical working method is to analyze English texts in Hungarian and then produce similar documents in English or in Hungarian depending on the genre. The main emphasis is on the content of the documents and good style in Hungarian as in the majority of cases students’ documents are written in Hungarian.
The very first class begins with a discussion with students about the content of PD. Even though this is a short discussion, many students have a good idea of the content of the course.
In the final two years we try to give more attention to the problems of writing instructions and manuals. This is the “most technical” topic that is often mentioned in the discussion about the content of PD. Text and exercises in Markel’s textbook (Markel 1988) are put to good use here. Students analyze efficiency of instructions given in the book (especially in exercise 2 on page 237). They write simple instructions choosing from a list given in exercise 1, but they perform this latter exercise in Hungarian.. The students most frequently choose the following topics:
how to load film into a 35-mm camera
how to change a bicycle tire
how to parallel-park a car.
The problem of documents related to the functioning of learned societies is closely connected to the topic of instructions. Namely we analyze a “How to Start” type booklet prepared by a professional society that is very close to a short manual though it has different aims. After a classroom discussion the students are required to make an adapted translation of this text. They have to leave out everything that is untypical for Hungary and they can rewrite part of the information contained in the original according to the different situation. Nonetheless, this exercise is the one that requires the students to make the most use of their translating skills.
For this exercise we use a booklet of the American Society of Indexers “How to start indexing.” Our students may not be interested in becoming indexers, even though subject specialists with language (translation) skills often do become abstractors and indexers. Nonetheless we are not interested in the profession itself but in the way the professional society delivers its message. “How to start indexing” is a short, easy-to-understand text that fulfills its function of providing information about the profession. On the other hand it contains information on training courses and gives advice on charging for the work done. Both are different in Hungary, thus the students have to adapt their text to the reality in our country. For example, training courses related to indexing have differing names from those in the United States and can be attended not only in library schools but at the National Széchényi Library.
The nature of PD often lends itself to the use of role-playing, which is not direct oral role-playing, but writing imaginary documents.
One example of role-playing is the “Call for Papers” exercise. The students become acquainted with a good example of this genre, then they have to write one for any fictitious conference, seminar, etc. This exercise results in a Call for Papers written in English. Writing is preceded by a short discussion of the importance of conferences and the main organizational steps that have to be taken. Examining a Call for Papers gives one an opportunity to explain what a plenary session, a round-table, etc. are. The main goal is not translation, but to be able to produce a Call for Papers in English. Nonetheless, we identify the Hungarian equivalents of the technical terms used in this field.
One good example of real-life texts used for this exercise is the Call for Papers issued for the Fifth Congress of the International Association for Semiotic Studies held in Berkeley, CA. This Call for Papers is good example of this genre, which—on the other hand—shows a number of features that would not be characteristic in other environments. Participants, for example, could make use of a special accommodation package, as the conference was held on a university campus. There was another special feature in this document as well. Beside the usual submission of abstracts, a condensed form of abstracts had to be produced to allow for the large number of papers to be presented in written form at the conference. This feature is less typical at a number of other conferences.
Thus, on the one hand, this document represents a possible model for a Call for Papers. On the other hand, it directs the students’ attention to the fact that any similar model should be adapted to local circumstances.
It is the first time during the course that the students come across the word “abstract.” At this stage we do not explain in detail, what an abstract is, but remind them that it will play an important role in our course and will be dealt with extensively.
Report writing is learned using a workbook that the students can fill in on their own. This workbook has been designed for students of the De Montfort University, Great Britain. Its main objectives are to enable students to “recognise and understand the report format as distinct from essays and other written styles” and to design and organize a good report structure (Hilton 1995).
Reports are in many regards similar in their structure to scientific papers, so the knowledge acquired with the former can be transferred to the latter. To get a better understanding of the requirements of a scientific paper we examine a number of instructions for authors taken from different scientific journals.
Even though they are referred to by different names in different journals, these are instructions. The students—as mentioned earlier—have already learned how to prepare them. This time we use them in “the opposite direction,” as a basis for the discovery of structural patterns in scholarly papers.
The students will learn that a typical scientific article shows a structure that corresponds to one of the varieties of the “Introduction—Methods—Results—Discussion—Conclusions (IMRD/IMRC)” scheme. They have to know that this is less typical in the case of social sciences and humanities, popular science articles, magazine articles, etc. To strengthen their knowledge, the students have to take a scientific paper in English of their choice and label its main formal and structural elements. In addition to this, they have to write a short paper corresponding to the IMRD structure on any real or imaginary topic in Hungarian (or, if they wish, in English).
The knowledge of an article’s structure is useful as well when we begin to deal with abstracting. Students know that most documents contain background information, as well as descriptions of well-known techniques, equipment, processes and results, which should be omitted in the abstract.
Abstracting classes begin with reading a short passage, taken from the Career Guide of Neufeld and Cornog as a kind of motivation and confrontation with reality. This passage explains that abstracting is a series of small challenges: no two are alike, yet the writing must be consistent, accurate and finished on time. The abstractor should also enjoy the challenge of reducing the work to its essentials. A creative, detective-like skill is needed to find the main points in a wordy, poorly written article (Neufeld and Cornog 1983).
It is important to explain English terminology, even if students write the abstracts in Hungarian. Students must know that there is a conceptual difference between “summaries” and abstracts and that informative abstracts are often called “descriptive.”
Nonetheless terminology does not need to be overemphasized. We dedicate the most attention to writing informative abstracts. It is widely recognized that it is relatively easy to write indicative abstracts, while it is very hard to produce informative ones (Manning 1990).
Students are already familiar with the notion of the abstract in different contexts. They see that at a congress an abstract is required before a paper is accepted. They have to know that this is a pre-text (“unfinished,” “promissory”) text, that will be elaborated into a full text (Gläser 1995).
The topics we deal with in the classes on abstracting are the following:
The notion of the abstract
The functions abstracts have to fulfill
Types of abstracts
The abstracting process and its rules
Alongside with the well-known features of informative abstracts we direct the students' attention to the fact that informative abstracts concentrate on what the original says, retaining in condensed form the inherent thinking of the original (Guinn 1979), while indicative abstracts always contain some kind of (often implicit) reference to the original (Kuhlen 1984). This means that the informative abstract is created in a way that it is hardly different from an original text. Similarity is even more evident if we disregard in the abstract the identification of the source, the (optional) signature, or initials of the abstractor, etc., which show its secondary nature.
The students learn that translating the author’s abstracts found in the original does not produce in most cases a satisfactory abstract in the target language.
Exercises include looking for topic sentences in texts, analyzing text structures and the headings of scientific articles along with other types of texts. We analyze the appropriate theoretical passages of technical writing textbooks (Damerst and Bell 1990, Lannon 1990, Rutherford 1991). The students have to read these texts critically, compare them to each other and to the short lecture they receive on the main issues of abstracting.
We use the textbooks not only for acquiring theoretical knowledge, but to do some exercises before we begin to write informative abstracts (which is the most important activity in the abstracting part of PD).
This can be illustrated using the example of Lannon’s book (pp. 140-150). After analyzing the theoretical part, we examine the checklist that highlights a number of important steps of the abstracting process. We do not only use the checklist. Lannon’s book provides a detailed example of summarizing a text. This exercise shows the steps taken and tools used during the summary process and has proved very useful for our students. We imagine that our work is to produce a newsletter summary on the topic of municipal trash incinerators. We follow up in groups by examining the result of deleting questionable points, including key findings, etc. We examine how all these appear in the final draft and the trimmed-down version of the abstract.
We discuss here how important it is to give attention to cultural differences when abstracting into a different language. Hungarian readers for example may be familiar with the problems and lawsuits resulting from the use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Most probably they do not know what happened at Love Canal, while the name of Seveso sounds to them fairly familiar. All this has to be taken into account when selecting the best possible dioxin-related example.
The revision checklist at the end of this chapter shows an obvious difference between intralingual and interlingual abstracting. The question “Is it written in correct English?” is senseless if the target language is Hungarian.
The abstract produced in this exercise is meant for a relatively wide and nonprofessional audience, while the main aim of the abstracting classes of course is to teach how to write abstracts for professionals. We direct the students’ attention to this difference and to the fact that the varied needs of different audiences will play an important role in our course.
After using textbooks, we go to “real texts.” One of the most problematic parts of the classes is to determine the intended audience of the abstract (or any other text) to be prepared. Much flexibility is needed here.
For example, the students are allowed to write longer abstracts or abstracts that contain more details from the original. This is possible if they can define their intended readers and can argue that a longer explanation is necessary for a less professionally-oriented readership.
It is also difficult to find actual scientific texts that would show the above typical structure and would be understandable to all students. Thus, we use different texts and when they do not correspond to the IMRD/IMRC structure, we make the students aware of that. Also we can use the texts selected for the abstract-writing exercise for the examinations in previous years.
The most important activity, i.e. abstract-writing itself, is done both with the teacher’s assistance and independently. Independent writing and group work are followed by analyses of the work done and discussion of possible alternatives, mistakes, and their correction.
The abstracting exercises are graded using the following criteria:
Is there enough important information included in the abstract?
Are unnecessary details included?
Are there any misunderstandings in the abstract?
What is the level of abstraction?
How well is it worded in Hungarian?
In the beginning we mentioned that we focus very much on scholarly communication. For this reason a brief discussion on the importance and the nature of scientific literature precedes the classes dealing with its different genres. This discussion includes a snapshot on the use of the Internet and its possible influence on the future of writing.
By Tibor Koltay, PhD
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D. M. Guinn, Composing an Abstract: a Practical Heuristic. College Composition and Communication 30:4, pp. 380-383, 1979.
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