Friday, July 3, 2009

Added value in academic translation

[The following post is based on a short lecture I gave at my BNI chapter meeting this week].

Some translators are only willing to translate the text they are given, as is. If any changes are required, they expect the author to make the changes in advance, in the original text, or afterwards, in the translation. They don't want to make too much of an effort, and have a minimalist definition of their duty.

My policy is different. Once I accept an academic translation, I consider it my role to do my best to ensure that the text is published to the author's satisfaction. I collaborate with the author to make the text publishable, with each of us contributing our own skills and expertise. My skills extend beyond just knowing two languages. I see myself as an intelligent reader, capable of understanding the research I translate (obviously, if I don't understand it, I don't accept the job), and I also have some experience with the requirements of publishers and journals. The author's skills are related to the research subject and the awareness of what is most important in the text.

One major task I sometimes undertake is editing the text. Many translators are willing to do what is known as "linguistic" or "stylistic" editing of work in their target language. Here I am referring to something more demanding - actual content editing of a text.

A book I translated about four years ago started out as a Ph.D. dissertation. It was accepted for publication by an academic publisher, but the author knew it would require some editing, apart from being translated from Hebrew to English. I read the dissertation, understood the main points being made, and realized that one of the main problems it would have as a book was the emphasis on secondary literature. Students have to prove that they have read the previous research in their field, and have to build on it, agree or disagree with opinions and methodology, adopt or disprove conclusions, of previous researchers. This sort of writing took up the first two chapters of the dissertation. The author and I discussed what to do with this section, and decided to rearrange the material, selecting only the most important previous research, the parts relevant to the later discussion. These would be rearranged into a chapter entitled "Methodology and Terminology". I was given complete freedom to decide what to include and where to place it. I did this editing while translating, building up the new chapter as I went along. This work led to the author recognizing me as the Editor of the book, with my name on the inside title page, which is more than the usual recognition translators receive, at the end of the Acknowledgements.

A more common type of added value is adapting the text to the formal requirements of the publisher or journal. There are style guides or instructions for authors, and when the translator knows in advance to which publisher or journal the book or article will be submitted, this makes the work much easier.

Among these formal requirements: the length of the text; the method of referring to other work (footnotes, end notes, references in parentheses in the text); the form of bibliographical references; the use of US or UK English (which goes well beyond spelling differences); most now require gender-neutral language, which can be challenging when translating from Hebrew, where such neutrality is more difficult and less socially required; and much more.

When preparing a book as a "camera-ready copy", it is also necessary to adjust the size of the printed area, the font size, the indentations and the headers to the exact measurements required by the publisher, and other such adjustments related to the final appearance of the printed page.

Some of the work I have mentioned is intelligent and interesting (especially the editing), while other aspects are mechanical and boring. However, even the boring aspects get easier with practice, and providing an all-inclusive service does impress customers and create return business.

My advice to academic translators is to consider whether they are willing to offer such services, and if so, to price them appropriately. Some simple things are easy to do during the translating itself and don't take up much more time (especially for those who know how to use their word processor's full range of features), while other jobs are more complex. If seeing the end product in print is a good motivator for you, the extra effort may be worth it.

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