Universities and translators

At the Words to Deeds Conference it struck me how many academics are writing about legal translation nowadays, and the texts they sometimes deal with are more what I think of as real-world translation texts, rather than bilingual Canadian statutes, for example. These texts sometimes even have the names of the parties blacked out, just the way I used to use real divorce documents with blacked-out names with my students in 1982 (before legal translation was a thing).

I chose a table workshop entitled Managing conceptual differences across legal systems. Our discussion made me think of Juliette’s mantra Building Bridges Between Academia and Practice, which I see has now been extended to include & Between Translation, Interpreting, and Legal Practitioners. Academics actually need non-university legal translators, and non-university legal translators would like to see their research. But maybe academics are mainly interested in building up their list of publications, and those publications appear online on sites which are very expensive to access – unless your university provides them. So that is my first problem about building bridges: what is the toll charge?

The day before the conference I was looking at the speakers’ bios and I found an article, just published online and downloadable free of charge, by Dr. Paulina E. Wilson, one of the speakers and heading our table. This is where I got it: Interjural incommensurability in criminal law. I just skimmed it – I don’t do Polish – and found it clear, comprehensible and containing a nice diagram of the definition of going equipped in English law. Now as some of us agreed on the table, it would be great to have access to all the material on comparative law being produced with translation in mind. Because a difficult legal translation requires more hours of research than a client is likely to pay, we are keen to at least see the work done by others. I could imagine collecting a database of articles, not even book chapters necessarily, that I could mine when I needed it. But there is a paywall around a lot of academic research.

Is there a list somewhere of all the sites which charge high fees for downloading? I am sure I’m being naive, because copyright and research funding require materials to be protected. But then what bridges are we going to build?

4 thoughts on “Universities and translators

    • I don’t know enough about the university situation (financing and copyright) to comment on that. Of course I would prefer there not to be a charge.

  1. Hi Margaret. Very nice to meet you last weekend! It was great to be able to put a face and person to the blog!

    Building bridges between academia and translators is a fantastic idea. We need them, and they need us. At least if we all want to get better.

    In practice, I think the bridge building must occur by us delving into the literature, either as self-study or part of a formal qualification, usually at a university. Even going to conferences like this one. We can learn a lot from academia. At least that was my experience when I studied translation theory after having been a translator for a while. However, the tough part is to stay in touch with the literature. I must admit, I’ve paid very little attention to it since I finished my degree. Of course, as you point out, it would be great if we could access more of the literature. So some of the bridge building needs to entail tearing down the pay walls, or maybe just creating a few catflaps in them!

    However, the main thing academics should do to build the bridge from their side of the river is to engage in our world, the real world of translation. This will keep their research useful. They need us (and our world) to keep from floating off on esoteric and possibly useless tangents. And the best way for them to engage in our world is to do some real-world translating (i.e., for clients and for money) from time to time.

    Indeed, most of the academics I talked at this conference did seem to do some translating. This was heartening to hear. One I talked to seemed to do more than me when he gets the chance. I bet his research is bang on target! However, you did hear comments from the academics that show they need to engage more with the our world.

    For instance, one presenter drew a conclusion I’ve heard from academics before that I think is untrue. He suggested that the ideal translation situation was for a linguist to work with a lawyer (maybe even two lawyers, one from each legal system) in the translation process. But this is neither practical nor good enough. You need to fit all the competence in one person — in that legal translator–practitioner talked about at the conference. So, if we want to be good legal translators, linguist-translators have to learn about the law, and lawyer-linguists have to learn how to translate. Of course, expert review will always help, but the translator must be good enough in the first place to produce an excellent translation on his own.

    Anyway, I really enjoyed the conference. In particular, meeting so many people. It was very well organised, too.


  2. I must admit I don’t find much time to read even the materials I’ve got. I see that the universities need us as we need them, perhaps now that I get the impression more is being written about ‘real’ translation rather than bilingual legislation, which I think is usually drafting by lawyers.

    Some years ago I experienced German universities in two ways: on the one hand their language departments would get lots of requests for translations, which were often farmed out to students with no experience and for low pay. Although I think we may waste time trying to fight the market, that kind of thing annoys me. The language forum on CompuServe, FLEFO, was run by two ageing academics, who once started a thread saying that postgraduate students were ‘hungry’, and totally overlooking the fact that their forum was populated by professional translators who took a different view. – But I digress.

    The other aspect of German universities was that a couple of those who really did teach translation had academics who were heavily involved in developing CAT tools, MultiTerm and so on, and who did do a lot of ‘real’ translation using CAT, probably very well, who held seminars and had a strong effect on the market. But what worked well for technical texts was a bit more difficult to apply to legal texts and also difficult to apply to translation agencies and groups of translators who were trying to use the technology to communicate but had not got the experience. I suppose I am saying that what worked well ‘in the laboratory’ was a lot more difficult outside it.

    I agree with you that a translator and two lawyers is not going to work. I have been approached by a lawyer before with the same line: ‘I’ll do the law and you do the translating’. It doesn’t work that way. Or one is offered the job of revising an academic legal text that has been amateurishly translated into English by a German lawyer and then as the translator one is to polish it, of course at a lower fee because it has already been translated. In fact, there is so much academic work done in ‘English’ at German universities nowadays that I think it’s a big problem. Students are supposed to write their own theses, and presumably the lecturers are no more capable of written English than the students.

    Yes, it was really good to meet people, and the organization was fantastic. I would have liked some written materials though! Would have helped when the sun fell on the slides and the high ceilings swallowed the voices. I have never been to a conference with such good food and so few materials (perhaps that’s why I liked it).

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