Monday, August 31, 2009

Employment, History

He had been a precocious child. An intellectual. At twelve, he had translated the poems of T.S. Eliot into English, after some vandals had broken into the library and translated them into French.

(Woody Allen, Without Feathers)

Been born to Bologna 3 January 1952. Married, daughter has one. Graduated in psycology, she is journalist professional from 1979. National secretary of the Forehead of the Youth in 1977, is elect deputy for before turns the 26 June 1983.

(Excerpt from the biography of Gianfranco Fini, then deputy Prime Minister of Italy, briefly published in 2001 on the website of the Italian Government)

Some time in the next few months it will be twenty years since I completed my first paid translation. I picked up those initial jobs rather casually, as a time filler during the interminable hours spent in an office where I was supposed to answer a phone that never rang. Ironically enough, the material I was given to translate concerned early cell phone protocols and preluded to a technology that would make asking a school leaver to man the phones of an otherwise deserted office entirely redundant.

The mobile office had yet to be invented, and my place of employment hadn’t switched to the then primitive version of Windows either, so I worked in WordStar for DOS. Here’s a screenshot, but please be warned that if you are old enough to have used it, clicking to enlarge might be triggering.

Wordstar was a ‘what you see ain’t what you get’ type of word processor, meaning that you had to tag the portions of the text that were to appear in, say, a bold typeface and then, just like that, they wouldn’t look bold on the screen at all, but rather you’d have to keep track of the tags and make sure they were all open and closed in all the right places, or the printout would look all funny. Then at the end you got to save your efforts onto one of these bad boys.

This 5¼-inch floppy disk could easily pack as much as 1.2 MB of data.
It seems like such a primitive setup, doesn't it? Still, it was electronic writing, and you could revise whole paragraphs on the fly without leaving a trace of how poorly you might have expressed yourself in draft form. Outside of school assignments, I have never experienced the act of translation when words couldn’t be recombined at will in that manner. To me, it’s just part of how things have always worked, but for professional writers and translators the transition must have been quite dramatic at the time of its occurrence. I have in fact just learned from Wikipedia that William F. Buckley Jr. loved WordStar so much that he kept installing it on new machines until long after it had become obsolete, and once had this to say: “I’m told there are better programs, but I’m also told there are better alphabets.”

Did you know that banana bunches are sometimes wrapped in bags for protection? Image by Fairsing, from Wikipedia.

I’ve been a translator for nigh on twenty years, and besides the obvious aspects of the job - the writing discipline, what it can teach you about communication, culture and language - I’ve enjoyed it for the insight it has given me into other professions. This is something I have very much in common with my father, the interest in tools of various trades but also and primarily in how people organise in order to carry out certain tasks, the intricacies of which you’re unlikely to discover as an outsider. Translating a company’s internal documents, or the contracts that regulate certain arrangements, or the manuals for this or that working procedure, will go some way towards satisfying those particular curiosities.

Often these documents are written at a time of transition, when a new system is being put in place, and remind me of the history and trends of my own profession. In those early days of sitting in front of Wordstar in a lonely office, I researched my translations through technical encyclopaedias and dictionaries, or by asking experts in the relevant field who happened to be available to my employers, and I delivered my work in the form of printed documents. Then came better word processing, automatic spellcheckers, the delivery of electronic files, the World Wide Web and computer assisted translation - each of them an incremental step in what has been a radical transformation of the industry.

Translating a text about, say, the cultivation of bananas, may still entail the same linguistic skills and fundamental understanding of how to produce a text in the target language that is as close as possible in content, style and feel to the source; but the manner in which these texts are exchanged, and the ways in which the translations themselves are researched and produced, have changed enormously. The initial stages of this transformation, with the perfecting of electronic word processors, could be said (although not by me) to have done little more than make us faster and possibly a little less error prone. But the second phase, which began when the Web reached critical mass in the mid- to late nineties, has had effects that are rather more dramatic.

In my capacity of freelance translator, I work with clients in different parts of the world who sometimes work in turn for other clients in other parts of the world, all from the relative comfort of wherever I happen to be at the time. This means that I can take my job with me when I go to Italy, which is a significant advantage in terms of my ability to remain connected with my family back there; but even that is really not nearly as significant as the fact that I can be a full-time Italian translator living in New Zealand in the first place.

As a professional group we have been scattered around the globe, and are now competing with one another globally. At the same time, and contrary to some early predictions, the Web hasn’t accepted English as its lingua franca, quite the opposite: the credibility of many businesses and organisations has been staked on their ability to offer accomplished and appropriately localised multilingual translations, an aspect of globalisation that is sometimes overlooked. Even open source software and independent media organisations often rely on the efforts of volunteer translators, and the ability to operate in several languages is considered integral to their philosophy - it’s one of several ways in which people on the Web are working to counteract the tendency towards cultural homogeneity inherent in the medium. More and more, the token gestures that were common earlier in the history of the Web are either frowned upon or laughed at, as was the case when the second Berlusconi government published the biographies of its Ministers in a crude Babelfish translation that had to be taken down in a matter of hours (but not before several of us had saved them on our computers, thankfully - that stuff was pure gold).

The geographical scattering is aided by the fact that one no longer needs to reside in the country where a language is spoken in order to access the finest expertise in that language. I took with me three very large dictionaries and a small encyclopaedia when I moved to New Zealand ten years ago, but all of these exist now on disk; more importantly, technical vocabulary that used to require days of research can now in most cases be located by means of a well constructed Google search or, if you're still stumped, by asking other translators or experts in the relevant field who can be easily reached online and are invariably more than happy to assist. With all that help so readily available, having to go a bit further out of my way to nail down the exact Italian word for an obscure piece of machinery or procedure or naturally occurring phenomenon remains, I'll nerdily admit, the source of a professional buzz followed at times by embarrassing smackdown-style exclamations.

So far, so relatively obvious - translating is hardly the sole profession to have gone through these kinds of changes. But some of you might not be familiar with the concept of computer-assisted translation, and the impact it's had on our work. I'll refer in particular to an aspect that is of obvious relevance here, namely translation memory software.

Translation memories are files that store the text entered by a translator against the relevant segments of the source document. Here's what a step in that process might look like.

Created in Wordfast.
The next time that in the course of your work you encounter that exact sentence, or one similar to it, the software will automatically insert your previous translation in the target segment, with a percentage and a colour code indicating how closely it matches the old source. Then you can amend as needed or simply validate the proposed segment and move on to the next bit of text.

Translation memories have been around for a while, but their emergence as a key tool of the trade dates back to the late Nineties. It was at that time that I started using Wordfast, following the recommendation of a colleague, and between then and now I have entered something in the vicinity of three million words in my database. The Woody Allen example above is actually not a very good one in that literary translations are not an area where you're going to find translation memories very useful. But think of technical documents, legal contracts and in general any text that has a large degree of repetition and where consistency of terminology is key. Think also of the needs of an organisation working on a large project that has to be split amongst several translators. This is how we do it, and the benefits in terms of productivity are very significant.

And how do I feel about this?

If you know me or have been following this blog at all you'll know that I'm prone to criticise the semantic slippages that allow the word memory to be applied to something other than the human capacity to remember things, and in ways that obscure what constitutes knowledge and value in favour of the much more easily quantifiable and less problematic category of information. Saying for instance that the Library of Congress contains X terabytes of information is a sure way to get my facial muscles to twitch. But in the case of translation memories and, worse still, my own translation memories, I find it very hard not to concede the point.

Too many times I've approached a text that looked completely new to me only to discover via this other 'memory' of mine that I had translated a nearly identical one five years earlier; too many times I've seen those results pop up in rapid succession, and have yet been unable to recognise anything other than the writing style and idiosyncrasies that I'm not even to supposed to allow to seep into my work; too many times I've seen my computer translate entire chunks of documents thanks to its superior knowledge of my past work. Too many times I have experienced all of these things not to recognise the extent in which not just my past translations - after all, that would be no different from saving on file or committing to paper any old piece of writing - but the method, the style, the approach I bring to my work have been successfully externalised and replicated. It is a form of memory, in that from a collection of words and symbols you can make out meaningful connections, recognise a form of autonomous intelligence. Mine, and yet not mine.

Most soberingly of all, the entire database - the three million words of translation and the glossaries I've compiled over a decade - occupies a mere 160 megabytes. This means that, should I stick with translating until the day I retire, all of my precious words, the definitive memory of my working life, would still most likely fit onto one of these:

Serves me right, I reckon.