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Translation

Translation professionals like myself are chatty folks, and we love to wax profound about the future and what it holds for our profession – usually while secretly planning to be retired on a beach somewhere before that future comes to pass. Until recently one of our favourite subjects to speak about was Computer Assisted Translation and the coming Armageddon of The Robots taking all of our jobs. Now that the robot apocalypse seems to be further off than ever, we’ve got to find something else to sound smart about (and believe me, sounding smart is harder than it seems).

The funny thing about life, I think, is that while I feel more or less the same way I felt ten years ago – an ache or twinge here there aside. In other words, I don’t wake up and think, gosh, I’ve evolved and matured and grown as a person and a professional! No, I feel basically like the same man who started down this road of translation services all those years ago. The only difference is experience and confidence, really.

One thing you keep running into when you work in translation is the near-infinite niches within language. If you think of a language as a box, there are just endless smaller boxes inside of it, within which are small pools of language with specific sub-rules. For example, one small box inside of language is for the legal world, and contains a lot of specialised vocabulary and terms you won’t find in any other box. Another is the slang of a specific geographic region that is totally unlike the slang of other regions.

I’ve sometimes heard translation professionals like me likened to compilers in computer software. A compiler in computer programming takes the ‘high-level’ language – a language that is very abstracted from the inner workings of the computer, like BASIC or C++ – and translates it into machine code. This is because machine code is very tedious and difficult to work in directly, comprising filling registers with values that then affect logic gates. Rather than learn how to speak to a machine, programmers instead learn an abstract code that works like a constrained language, making it easier for them to work.

In my more whimsical moments I like to imagine the worlds of interpreting and translation as if they were in the universe depicted in the old Hollywood musical West Side Story: Two gangs of dancing, singing combatants who burst into choreographed fights when they meet.

Globalisation is nothing new – in some ways even the smallest small business is a global concern these days. I know I’ve personally used Google and the Internet to track down oddball items that are only sold in small shops in distant locations – I once found a wool cap my Mum fancied in a movie in Australia and called them and made arrangements – painfully and slowly – to ship it to me. This store had made no effort to market itself around the world, but people still found it.

Oh boy, literature. Second only to poetry in its difficulty for your brave and adventurous translation professional, literature both modern and classic is a hornet’s nest of bizarre decisions stemming from its artistic nature. After all, fiction doesn’t require straightforward communication, and many authors will bury symbolic details throughout the work. This means that you can be a very skilled language translation expert and understand every sentence of a work of literature and still walk away with only a feeble understanding of the work. That’s not just a problem in other languages, either – you can read a work in your native tongue and come away with just a superficial understanding of it, after all. I’ve read Ulysses by James Joyce several times and still don’t think I’ve gotten more than a surface comprehension from my efforts.

What do translation professionals do? Why, we translate, of course. And while much of the work we do is paid for by companies and quite dull – advertising work, or legal work – most of us have a few passion projects. For myself, every time I read a good book I want to share it with the world, but publishers are often very reluctant to translate books unless they’ve attained a certain sales threshold. And while I can understand that it might not make sense to hire a language translation pro like me to translate a book that didn’t even sell that well in its home country, it doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be an enthusiastic, if small, reception to such a project.

The humble dictionary doesn’t get a lot of attention. It’s taken for granted – and has been for a long time, though the modern age of the spellcheck and autocheck tools has made many people feel like they don’t need the crusty old dictionary any longer. Even a translation services professional like me, a woman who as a girl used to read the dictionary for pleasure now largely writes his casual works without a dictionary. If I’m just typing up a post or a letter or an email, frankly I let spellcheck watch my back. It’s very freeing.

Marketing is always a challenge to any business, from the largest multinational corporation to the smallest freelance translation services professional like myself. Marketing is frustrating and confusing because it’s almost impossible to truly master it, or even understand what works and what doesn’t in this world. Why is some marketing effective for some businesses, but the same template doesn’t work for you? Why did it work so well last year and fall so flat this year? Is it true that every single one of my competitors seems to be handling their marketing better than I am?

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