Author: Karen

Cartoon depicting two old gentlemen surveying empty booksheves, that contain only a few electronic reading devices.

Why Translators had Bigger Biceps 30 Years Ago…

How the digital age has revolutionised translation research

 Cartoon of two gentlemen observing an almost empty bookcase, in which there are only three electronic reading devices.

A recent “big” birthday set me thinking about how much the translation industry has changed in the almost three decades since I emerged one sunny July afternoon from the Assembly Halls in Edinburgh, clutching a document (encased in a red cardboard tube) which proclaimed me to be a trained and tested translator.

I was fortunate to secure my first professional post almost immediately – as a junior translator for an endearingly eccentric translation company based in a rambling mansion in deepest Sussex. The in-house translation team was comprised of a cosmopolitan bunch of linguists: a Scottish girl (Yours Truly), two chivalrous Englishmen, a spirited Spanish lady, an elegant Italian lady, a gentle German Mädchen and a trio of flamboyant French linguists.

As a newbie language professional 30 years ago, I quickly discovered that the company’s in-house “library” was the centre of my new universe. Then, as now, research was critical to the production of terminologically correct translation. Fortunately, the company provided us with an in-house library for research purposes – an utterly heavenly room (for a bibliophile) lined with groaning bookshelves.

Being called upon to translate texts on a wide variety of weird and wonderful topics, I would make frequent trips to that fact-filled repository – often lugging half a dozen weighty tomes back to my work station, where I would pore over them in pursuit of particularly obscure terms.

There was no concept of “online” research in those distant, yet not-really-so-distant, days. The occasional mention of a mysterious electronic communication system called “Telecom Gold” seemed to excite the techy gurus in the office, but we translators paid little attention to it. We were far too busy buried in our dictionaries and encyclopaedias or queuing up beside the chuntering telex machine either to pick up the telegrams awaiting our translationary expertise or to send the fruits of our linguistic labours off to waiting clients all round the world.

When I became a freelance translator several years later, I rapidly realised just how much I had relied on that munificently stocked multilingual library for my research. Specialist dictionaries were expensive – especially for young professionals starting out on their own – so initially freelancers had to restrict themselves to purchasing a few select dictionaries covering the subjects that they handled most often. This meant that we each tended to have our own “pet” dictionaries, the “breeds” of which varied depending on our individual areas of expertise.

Ever the hoarder, I am still in possession of my first three specialist dictionaries, even though they are now decades out of date (not a problem that afflicts today’s easily updated online dictionaries).

The three books in question are like old friends: the intimidatingly titled yet fabulously informative Ernst Wörterbuch der industriellen Technik; its French alter ego, the Ernst Dictionnaire de la Technique Industrielle (in those days I translated a lot of technical materials about heavy industrial gas turbines, zip manufacturing and plastic packaging); and the appropriately green six-language Haensch-Haberkamp agricultural dictionary, which was my pride and joy.

It was also an essential tool, given that I was doing a lot of work for the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (now DEFRA), so I needed to know my bovine somatotropins from my bovine spongiform encephalopathy – as you do…

When I think now about how long it used to take me to track down fiendishly tricky technical terms that defied even the most erudite of dictionaries and compare that often frustrating and protracted experience with the push-button ease of modern-day online research, it’s tempting to wish that I’d been born 30 years later. I still remember perching heavy dictionaries on my “bump” while I was pregnant and worrying slightly that the bambino would be born with a dictionary-shaped dent in his or her head!

So modern-day research methods definitely have their benefits – such as obviating the need for Popeye-esque biceps to cart colossal compendiums to and from one’s desk. However, it’s important to bear in mind that the ready and rapid supply of online information does – in spite of its undeniable advantages and attractions – present a few problems of its own.

Of these, undoubtedly the most significant is the reliability of information sources. Faced with myriad offerings (often a choice of a dozen options for translating a single word or phrase), modern-day translators have to be extremely selective in their research and to know which language and reference websites to trust.

Such knowledge is generally gleaned as a result of years of (hopefully not too bitter!) experience – as well as through discussion with other freelance colleagues who work in the same subject areas and language combinations. Email, Skype, Facebook, Twitter, Facetime and the likes have revolutionised the facility and speed with which translation professionals around the world can liaise and cooperate, which is a good thing for translators and clients alike.

This veritable explosion of digital communication options has also ensured that clients can submit source documents to a translator and receive their completed translation back again in a fraction of the time it took previously. Gone are the days when I had to accost the poor postman each day to check whether a promised source text had arrived from a client so that I could count the words individually by hand (yes, really!) and ring the client with a quote.

Nowadays a Word document can tell us its own word count faster than we can say “arithmetic”, allowing a quote to be calculated and submitted in a matter of minutes. How things have changed…

I’m delighted to say that I’m still in touch – albeit occasionally in some cases – with almost all of the multilingual in-house team with whom I worked in those good old bad old days. Looking back at our experience of researching translations then, it seems like another world away – what’s hard to believe that it was just 30 short years ago.

Article from Ryanair in-flaght magazine, italian language

Lost In Translation

Lost in translation – when there simply is no “mot juste”…

Article from Ryanair in-flaght magazine, italian language

On a recent Ryanair flight to Beauvais airport, Paris – there to spend an all-too-brief weekend with two of my offspring – I happened across an article in the in-flight magazine that caught my eager linguist’s eye. It was a single page on which there were around 70 words.

Six of the words in question were Italian ones, and even though I don’t personally speak Italian, it transpired that I didn’t need to – for the definitions which accompanied them reminded me why cultural awareness is such an important issue when it comes to translation.

The focus of the article was “words that don’t exist in English”. Of course, having worked in the world of translation, I’m only too painfully aware of foreign words which have no direct equivalents in English. Indeed they have (both literally and metaphorically) caused me umpteen headaches over the years.

So here, for your didactic delectation and delight (courtesy of Ryanair!) are the Italian words for which there is no one-word equivalent in our native tongue…

BELLONE – A hunk who’s rather pleased with himself.

SPREZZATURA – The effortless technique of a great artist.

MELINA – Two players on the same team kicking the ball back and forth to kill time.

BAFFONA – An attractive moustached woman.

SLAPPARE – To eat everything even to the point of licking the plate.

OTTOBRATA – a picnic in October

Looking at this list, it’s easy to see that vocabulary evolves to suit the needs of the local people. Italian food is so fabulous that it was no surprise to find that the Italians have a term for licking the plate clean.  Ditto the concept of a picnic in October – certainly, up here in Scotland we probably don’t require a term for this, given that it isn’t a scenario we’d envisage too often (or at least not without packing thermal underwear).  And as for the term “bellone”, well, I couldn’t possibly comment as to whether the Brits might require a term for that…

modern english lesson cartoon

Is Grammar a Goner?

Is Grammar a Goner?

modern english lesson cartoon

When the cartoon to the left appeared on my Facebook page recently, I promptly shared it, as I suspected it would appeal to several friends who, like me, are fascinated by matters grammatical and orthographical.

Responses to the cartoon ranged from a teenager’s desperate “Oh gosh, please no” to an adult’s philosophical “If language isn’t a living thing, then what is it?” to another adult’s firm “Yes, it’s organic, but it doesn’t have to be a free-for-all either, or the rate of change will get out of hand. We sticks-in-the-mud serve a useful purpose in trying to slow the process down just a little.”

Evidently the importance – or lack of importance – of grammar has the capacity to polarise people, so it is perhaps unsurprising that the issue rears its head in the press reasonably often. Indeed, scarcely a week goes by without an article in some paper or online forum bemoaning the state of the English written language, denigrating the decline in standards of spoken language, and forecasting a time when we will be reduced to the grunting and babbling favoured by our Neanderthal forebears.

One of the most recent grammar-related furores was provoked by Oxford Professor Simon Horobin, who questioned if apostrophes were really necessary any more. In response to his query, The Telegraph newspaper online invited readers to vote for other grammatical rules they’d like to see banned.

So is grammar worth holding on to? Or is it doomed to oblivion in the not-too-distant future? Personally, I hope not – and not just because I’m an editor and proofreader (who could well become extinct if grammar, including apostrophe usage, were to fall by the wayside!). Being a linguist as well as a writer, I genuinely fear that the act of removing basic grammar rules from our language one by one could have the same effect as systematically removing the foundation stones from a building – at some point in the future that building is likely to come clattering down. And at current rate of progress, by then there might be no one with any knowledge of grammar left to rebuild it…

Building Language

The importance of building language on secure foundations.

Occasionally, my writing background sees me called upon to tutor Higher English pupils, and I have to confess to feeling ever so slightly nervous about the lack of grammatical knowledge demonstrated by many of these youngsters. It appears that during the early years of secondary school they forget virtually every last grammar rule diligently drummed into them by their primary school teachers. Not even 50% of the 14 to 16-year-olds I’ve worked with recently were confident what a noun, pronoun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition or conjunction was at their first lesson. In fact, the majority could not correctly identify more than a couple of these terms.

Given that these elements are fundamental to an appreciation of how language fits together, it was scarcely surprising that these teenagers were finding it hard to write insightfully about the relative merits of the texts they were being asked to criticise. If you don’t know the correct way to construct a sentence properly yourself, it’s not going to be easy to de-construct it for the purpose of analysing how proficient the writer has been at his or her craft.

Lack of grammar is only one aspect of the fundamental malaise that is striking at the very heart of (native and modern) language learning. A dearth (needless to say, not one of last year’s tutees knew what that meant) of vocabulary also hinders young people in achieving good results in a subject that is, after all, their mother tongue. Unfortunately, this issue is hardly likely to be resolved in a matter of days or even weeks, especially when many teenagers communicate via Twitter. This micro-version of social media has turned the paring of sentences and chopping of words (necessary to achieve the mandatory 140 characters) into an art form. I should clarify that Twitter is not all bad, of course; after all, it does involve careful selection of words and creative use of language. However, it most certainly discourages the use of high-register, polysyllabic words which can greatly enhance the quality of formal written texts.

The problem with improving vocabulary is that it is a lengthy and ongoing process – like fitness, it has to be worked at, and it has to be worked at regularly. For some strange reason, we humans tend to assume that while it’s necessary to sit and learn new words if we want to master a foreign language such as French or Spanish, new English words on the other hand will somehow drop from the skies into our waiting minds without the least effort on our part… Unfortunately, of course, it doesn’t quite work like that! Even now, at the grand old age of nearly 50, I openly confess to following the Oxford English dictionary’s Word of the Day on Twitter and having the Wordsmith A.Word.A.Day emailed to my inbox. Moreover, I hope to be doing so for many years to come.

Some of my tutees – especially (and this is in no way intended as a sexist remark) the boys – readily admit to reading nothing other than what they “have to” read for school. With this in mind, I encourage (all right, I nag!) all my pupils to read anything and everything – books, poetry, instruction manuals for gadgets, plays, newspaper headlines, controversial columns in magazines, sports reports, signs on buses, menus, adverts, etc.

Why is that worth doing, you might ask (and many 16-year-old boys certainly do…), especially if you have no intention of using English again when you leave school? Stop right there! That is precisely the point I’m making. Can you really claim that you are never going to use English again when you leave school? Not ever…?

Of course you can’t, because the truth is that no matter which career path you end up following, you will almost certainly be asked to produce an essay, a report or a presentation at some point. Through observing other people’s writing and identifying what is done badly or well by others, we can all learn how to write better ourselves. Analysing the grammar, the style, the tone of voice and the different literary devices used by another writer trains our brains to be sensitive to what makes a piece of writing successful. Once you have you have learned to identify the factors that make a piece of writing more effective and more interesting for the reader (in this case, you!), the easier it will be for you to apply this knowledge to your own writing.

If, however, despite your best attempts to grapple with the minutiae of English grammar and syntax, you still approach writing presentations, reports or promotional materials with a feeling of impending doom and despair, have no fear: that’s why professional copywriters were invented!

Beware the dangling modifier

Inglourious Grammar

Putting the fun into pedantry.

As any pedant will tell you, grammar is a serious business – and, though it pains me to say so, often viewed by others as a very dull business. In fact, the very mention of the word has the power to send the most severe insomniac straight to the Land of Nod. However, with a bit of creativity, there are always ways of livening up a potentially dreary subject, and the film makers at College Humor did precisely that a few years ago when they made a mini-spoof (a whole three minutes) based on the film Inglourious Basterds and featuring a “grammar Nazi”.

Without giving too much away, the punchline requires the viewer to be familiar with an issue of syntax (sentence structure) that catches out even the most experienced writers at times. So before you watch the film, here’s a quick heads-up on the dreaded “dangling participle…”

Normally we use an adjective to describe a noun or pronoun. For example, we say, “John is tired.” However, we also modify nouns using whole phrases, which we place before the said noun or pronoun, e.g. “Tired and footsore, John stumbled down the path.” This is correct, as the modifier describes the subject of the sentence, “John”. However, it would not be correct to say, “Tired and footsore, the path seemed to John to go on forever.” Here, the writer is saying that the path is tired and footsore, rather than John. In this case, the modifier is said to be “dangling” – hanging about at the start of the sentence, not quite sure where it fits in.

Here are another few examples of dangling modifiers, just to get your eye in…

“Barking and snarling, John was bitten by the dog.”

Now John might well have been snarling after the dog bit him, but the writer actually meant the modifier “barking and snarling” to apply to the dog and not John. Yet as the word “John” follows immediately after the modifier in this sentence, technically it applies to him.

“Laughing loudly, I could hear Jim at the other side of the room.”

Here, the writer wanted to imply that Jim was laughing so loudly that the speaker could hear him from the other side of the room. However, what he actually wrote implies that the speaker himself is doing the laughing, and not Jim, as the modifier “laughing loudly” is placed directly before the pronoun “I”.

OK, so now that you can spot a dangling modifier at 100 paces, enjoy the film!

Thanks to US outfit College Humor for this extremely creative grammar teaching tool!