Brian Harris on Native Translation
Brian Harris is the founder of Unprofessional Translation, a blog about "native translation" and "natural translation," terms which Mr. Harris uses to describe untrained and self-taught translators.
What follows is our conversation with Mr. Harris about different types of translators and the effects of formal translation study.
Q: Your blog is about "natural translation" and "native translation," terms you use for translation by people without formal translation training. What inspired you to give your blog this particular focus?
A: I started to get interested in it as a line of research nearly 40 years ago when I observed that young children around me in Montreal and Ottawa were translating orally. Up till that time I’d held the typical views of a professional translator and translation teacher. But then I noticed more and more translating that was being done by untrained translators, until I came to the view – as I’ve said in the blog – that “translation is not the reserved occupation of a skilled, highly educated or professional caste. It’s a universal ability and activity of everyday people.”
In contrast to this reality, 99% of the academic writings about translation and a great majority even of the non-academic ones are about skilled ‘expert’ translating and translators. Somebody has to speak up for the rest.
"Translation is not the reserved occupation of a skilled, highly educated or professional caste. It’s a universal ability and activity of everyday people." Q: On your blog, you've made the following distinction between "natural translation" and "native translation" -- "native translators" have taught themselves the same skills and norms that are taught through formal translation training, whereas "natural translators" have a less sophisticated approach. Could you describe or give examples of some of the skills and conventions that are taught through translation training programs or which skilled "native translators" have taught themselves, distinguishing them from "natural translators?"
- Brian Harris on Native Translation
A: Natural translators are the ones who’ve had no training at all and little exposure to other people’s translations. The clearest examples are the young children of bilingual families who translate spontaneously from the age of about three. (Incidentally, they include the hearing children of deaf parents who are bilingual in spoken language and sign language.) However, they may be older; for example, poorly educated immigrants who are learning the language of their new country.
I did say somewhere that native translators ‘teach themselves’, but it’s a bit misleading to put it that way because it suggests purposeful activity. Rather they pick up or absorb behavior and skills unconsciously from their cultural environment and just take them for granted. The translation specialist who coined the term native translation, Gideon Toury of Tel Aviv University, chose it because, as he said, native translation is learned the way people learn their native language.
Here are just a couple of examples of the conventions and skills that native translators acquire.
- Completeness. Natural translators who come up against something that they can’t translate or don’t want to translate may simply skip it. Imagine a professional translator who indulged in that kind of behavior! Native translators may sometimes do it, but at least they know they shouldn’t.
- Style conformity. The natural translator is concerned above all with content, with conveying information and opinion. The notion that a translation should also convey the style of the original – whether it be the authorial style of piece of literature or the legalese of a piece of legislation – is a sophisticated one.
Q: In what situations, or for what kinds of texts -- if any -- would you recommend that translation buyers look for a formally trained "expert translator”?
A: Again, just a couple of examples. And yes, in these cases I definitely do recommend the use of an expert translator, whatever the cost.
- Legal documents, and indeed all documents that have potential legal implications or consequences. So this includes not only overtly legal texts such as contracts or property titles but also other documents like machinery operating instructions where there’s an implied legal and moral responsibility to give correct information. (Because of this responsibility, some professional translators, at any rate in North America, now carry legal liability insurance.)
- Image-sensitive texts. This means texts that are intended to convey a favorable image of their issuers, especially businesses. Here the language in the translation becomes extremely important, and the translator should be a native speaker of it or have native speaker proficiency. The translator should also be sensitive to cultural differences (e.g. no sexist language if it’s for Canada). All this is too much to expect from a natural or beginner native translator.
"For [translation of] audiovisual, medical, pharmaceutical, legal, literary, defense, etc., documents there are specialists even among the professionals. It’s like choosing a doctor: you want somebody qualified, but do you need a family physician or a consultant?""Q: Could you offer any additional advice to translation buyers on how to choose a translator?
- Brian Harris on Native Translation
- Do your potential translators have professional qualifications or experience? If so, for general topics all well and good. But for anything technical, check whether they’re experienced at translating that kind of text. For audiovisual, medical, pharmaceutical, legal, literary, defense, etc., documents there are specialists even among the professionals. It’s like choosing a doctor: you want somebody qualified, but do you need a family physician or a consultant?
On the other hand, don’t pay for more than you need. The minutes of the last meeting of your child’s parent-teacher association can probably be translated adequately by a native translator at minimal cost.
- If in doubt, ask for samples of previous work. That’s what the translation agencies do. If the translations are into your own language, judge whether they are understandable without effort and whether the grammar and vocabulary are correct. If they’re into a language you don’t know, try to find a native speaker of that language to give you an opinion.
Q: Do you see any down side to formal translation training? Do you think the conventions taught through translation programs can be limiting in any negative ways?
A: When I started in translation studies 40 years ago, very few translators – or interpreters for that matter – had been through formal training. There simply wasn’t any, or only very little of it. But by 1997 I’d published a directory of translation schools and programs with about 200 entries. Now I maintain a computer file of 500 of them worldwide and I know it’s incomplete. So your question is more and more relevant.
I can really only write about training programs of the sort I’ve been involved in myself, which were university undergraduate and MA level ones. I’ve also been able to observe the Government of Canada’s training at close quarters. Speaking very generally, I would say that they have a down side for certain kinds of translation for which they’re not intended. They tend to produce translators who are uncreative and nitpicking and whose style lacks sparkle. Let me illustrate with a true story:
Some years ago, when I was still teaching at the University of Ottawa, there was a national commission on the arts in Canada. Soon after its first report came out, I received a phone call from its Secretary.
“We’ve just issued our first report. It was written in French and it’s been translated into English. We’re very unhappy with it. We sent it to the government translation bureau for the translation, and now we’re stuck with it. But we have to do better for the next report.”
“So what’s wrong with it?” I asked. “They have good translators at the translation bureau.”
“But it comes over as so dull,” he moaned. ”We’re addressing the arts community. We have to give them something lively and attractive to read or they’ll quickly conclude that we’re dull too. Can you find us another translator?”
I thought about it, and in the end I sent him one of our graduate students, somebody who had not been through the undergraduate training program but had come to us as a native translator to do a thesis on literary translation.
Interview on Native Translation - Next Steps
Did you enjoy this interview on native translation? You might also enjoy our interview with linguist Lynne Murphy about the differences between American and British English.
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