The translator’s lot is not a happy one

May I have a word about … the translator’s unhappy lot. An article in The Guardian by Jonathan Bouquet – thanks to Paul Appleyard for linking it on Twitter. And pointing out that the comments are probably the most interesting bit!

I’d never given much thought to the travails of translators, but a recent email from a reader changed all that.
It kicks off: “In addition, for Designated Window Personnel, purchases or sales of Company Securities made pursuant to, and in compliance with, a written plan that meets the requirements of Rule 10b5-1 under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, as amended (a “Trading Plan”), may be made without restriction to any particular period provided that (i) the Trading Plan was established in good faith, in compliance with the requirements of Rule 10b5-1…”
I think you get the drift. The sentence continues for another 245 words. And the translator’s lament? He had to render this brain shredder into Welsh.

My first reaction is that this is the kind of legalese the equivalent of which in German I deal with all the time. And the translator into Welsh may be a generalist who is not used to legal texts.

Of course, translators between German and English often specialize, but someone who translates solely between English and Welsh may be obliged to take a wide range of topics, if they are trying to make a living. I feel sorry for interpreters too – constantly performing at high speed on a variety of topics they will not have time to absorb.

The rest of the article segues into a consideration of business jargon, as if that were the same thing!

To quote one comment (weetam):

The basic problem isn’t the turgid text to translate. What happened is that a generic translator was trying to translate a highly specialist text. 
This translator didn’t “have to” translate it into Welsh, but was rather offered work that he/she should have turned down and then accepted it anyway. 
There are specialist translators who deal with this kind of stuff day-in, day-out and can translate something like this in their sleep. Building up those skills takes many years of training and experience, which makes specialist legal translators more expensive. This translator then turns up and undercuts these high rates, and then pretends it’s someone else’s fault if he/she can’t do the job. 
Get the picture? Welcome to our world!

Some of the comments give advice on how to handle difficult subject-matter. One reports that with contract language you just take it bit by bit, whereas translating a description of a staircase was harder, with all the unfamiliar technical language. Another writes:

The challenge with translations, whether it be legal text or medical disclaimers, is that the translator accepting the assignment is a trained linguist and in most cases not expert in the subject he/she has to translate. 
I have had an assignment/project once where a complete material master (parts) of a blast furnace need to be translated. I can share with you that I never realized how many different type screws, nuts, bolts and ball bearers there were all with there own unique technical description. 

I suppose I’m not a trained linguist. I sell myself on the basis that I am a qualified solicitor. But I learnt about law and legal translation by finding myself teaching it, and attending the classes of colleagues who were German lawyers, and as for deciphering really complex German, reading lots of secondary literature when I did my Ph.D. on German literature was a big help, and so perhaps was doing A Level Latin. And that’s what I love about legal translation – deciphering sentences and intentions. Most people who see the kind of language I like to translate would react like Jonathan Bouquet and his ‘travails’. Travail as work, not travails as suffering.

P.S. I forgot to add, what was in my mind, that researching unfamiliar areas takes a long time, and the translator needs to have an idea of whether the pay for this is worth it.

1 thought on “The translator’s lot is not a happy one

  1. Great to see you back, Margaret!
    I wonder what the complainer would have made of the German legislation I translated earlier this year (I posted about this on LinkedIn). I had one German sentence, admittedly with plenty of commas, semi-colons, and indents, with about 4,500 words. And several others with between 1,200 and 1,850 words. In cases like this, there’s no point in looking to the end, à la Mark Twain, to find the main verb. It will be hidden away in some seemingly innocuous nested clause half-way across the next page, and bracketed by other verb phrases just to confuse things further.

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