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.