Translator Profile
 No. 1, Volume 2 
January 1998

Johannes Tan can be reached at


Jul 97 Issue
Oct 97 Issue
The Reader’s Page
Translator Profiles
In Search of Context and Perspective
by Johannes Tan
Translation in the Media
The Onionskin—
Promoting Good Translation Practice

by Chris Durban
Engineering Translations
Building Bridges
by Alex Greenland
Translation and Typesetting
by Gabe Bokor
  Translation Aid Software Reviews
Review of Atril’s Déjà Vu 2
by Michael Benis
Translation Aid Software
Four Translation Memory Programs Reviewed
by Suzanne Falcone
Science & Technology
A Translator’s Guide to Organic Chemical Nomenclature X
by Chester E. Claff, Jr., Ph.D.
Banking and Finance
Financial Statements
by Danilo Nogueira
  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor
Letters to the Editor
Call for Papers
Translation Journal

In Search of Context and Perspective

by Johannes Tan

Johannes Tan, English ‹-› Indonesian Translator and Cross-cultural Analyst, lives in Aloha, Oregon, USA, with his wife Melanie and daughter Arielle.

In “The Next Generation,” Stereo Review, November 1997, columnist Ken Pohlmann wrote that since his dad was a college professor, the last thing he wanted to be when he was growing up was ... a college professor (page 48). That seems to be the universal truth about the rebellious youth. Since my late father was an in-house translator and my mother has been a translator/language instructor, the idea of being a translator when I grew up was anything but. Translation, at least in my perception then, was merely clerical work performed by nerds buried behind stacks of dog-eared dictionaries, frantically striking a rusted manual typewriter like crazy.
   Crazy, it seemed to me, as the job of a typical translator in Indonesia in the early 1970’s consisted of deadly boring birth certificates, dismal autopsy reports, run-of-the-mill transcripts or diplomas, and film subtitles with suffocating space limitations. Okay, I lied about the autopsy reports ;-) but give me a break—life should be more exciting and fulfilling. My childhood dream had always been to be a photographer with adventurous travel assignments to exciting and faraway places.


In photography one freezes the precious moment; in translation one preserves the character and integrity of the source document.
  In photography, it’s not enough merely to look; one has to “see” beyond the viewfinder. In translation, it’s not enough merely to read; one has to fully comprehend what is implied between the lines.
   In photography the most important thing is not clicking the shutter release button and memorizing the correct F stop; it’s the preparatory steps. In translation, the most important thing is not striking the keyboard and memorizing a glossary; it’s the pre-translation process.


As it turned out, a photography assignment never materialized, but the first translation assignment came unexpectedly in 1973. The editor of an automotive magazine requested me to translate articles from American and British automotive magazines as well as abstracts from technical journals into Indonesian. Wishfully thinking and foolishly rationalizing that the opportunity might subsequently lead to invitations to exciting road tests on fancy cars—which, in turn, might impress the girls in the neighborhood—I took the bait. Of course the invitation never came and, one by one, the girls went away with other guys. The first assignment however, led to the next. Since at that time the only available English-Indonesian technical dictionary was not even good as a door-stop, I was forced to work indirectly with several English-Dutch and Dutch-Indonesian technical dictionaries and encyclopedias. Self-editing meant the masochistic act of mercilessly mutilating a hard day’s work and then starting from scratch with a manual Olivetti.
  In the Mesozoic era of file transfer, delivery was by a Vespa scooter’s zigzag ride through the bustling streets of Jakarta. Actually it worked better than delivery by CompuServe or FTP, as the “uploading,” “downloading” and “collecting” were performed simultaneously: While I was submitting a translated article or two, the editor would hand me the next assignments and then immediately walk me to Accounts Payable to collect the honorarium. Although initially I thought “it” was merely temporary to earn some pocket money, over time I gradually came to enjoy the challenges and opportunities to learn about many new issues in the automotive industry, such as—that was 1973—the benefits of wearing a seatbelt!


A good photograph should speak for itself without a caption. It should be the ultimate achievement in technical and artistic proficiency of a photographer. A good translation should speak for itself without unsolicited footnotes and parentheses. It should be the ultimate achievement in linguistic and stylistic proficiency of a translator.
   Photography is not simply clicking the shutter release button. It’s a continuous process to master the art of seeing. Translation is not simply converting words into another language. It’s a continuous process to master the art of communication.


One year after the first automotive article was published, I was hired by an advertising agency where I learned more about editing, proofreading and packaging raw text into publication-grade documents. The initial job description was to translate technical user manuals and marketing materials, but soon included copywriting and handling the day-to-day advertising campaign of a blue-chip photography account with a household name. For someone with an interest in photography it was like getting a bigger sandbox with new toys: from brainstorming a product’s USPs to conceptualizing creative strategies, from copywriting ads to scouting photogenic models, from hunting locations to directing photo sessions.
   Although working with photo models on the go was quite an adrenaline pumping and testosterone producing affair, advertising work soon became too routine. In the course of time, the “been-there-done-that” syndrome was unavoidable. On the other hand, the “boring” translation work pushed to the back burner surprisingly never failed to provide some intellectual satisfaction, if not revealing layers upon layers of the Unknown. Translation is an acquired taste. Even now, after doing it for almost twenty-five years, I’m still not sure what is actually more enlightening: translating itself or constantly being reminded how little I know. As J.F.K. once said: “The greater our knowledge increases the more our ignorance unfolds.”
   Translation has never failed to stimulate my insatiable curiosity and enthusiasm to research or consult the experts. There is nothing like finding the right information in the right source at the right time. No two assignments are alike. There are not many occupations which give one the opportunity to know more about chromatography, power transmission systems, scuba diving, pulp bleaching processes, interstitial cystitis and asset-backed securities—in a typical workday or two.
   Indeed a translator should never accept any assignment for which he or she is not fully qualified—therefore the importance of critically previewing an assignment before accepting or declining it. The learning process should always be at the expense of the translator, not at that of the hapless client or innocent end-users. However, this point should not be an excuse to let monomania and tunnel vision block professional and personal development. A professional translator has to continually learn many new things with the wonder and curiosity of a child; and simultaneously has to unlearn counter-productive habits.
   In some cases, it is not a matter of the subject matter—it is a matter of mind over matter. In fact, all the fun is in discovering the unexpected interdisciplinary thread between unrelated subject areas—or subject matters which are worlds apart—to attain broader context, insight and perspective. Just as one can apply Sir Isaac Newton’s laws of motion to improve one’s tennis strokes or Robert Pirsig’s Zen to understand the art of motorcycle maintenance, one can apply the principles of photography to improve one’s translation skills—or vice versa. Photography is the conversion of reality into virtuality. Translation is the conversion of information from one language into another. Both are versatile tools in communication art.


There are snapshooters who flaunt expensive cameras and instantly think they are “photographers.” There are bilingual fellows who flaunt expensive hardware and software and instantly think they are “translators.”
   Just as a top-of-the-line view camera won’t turn a snapshooter into an Ansel Adams, or a Stradivarius won’t turn a fiddler into a Jascha Heifetz, the best dictionary collection or state-of-the-art software won’t turn a bilingual fellow into a translator.


By the way, as of 1997, Mr. Pohlmann has been a faculty member for more than twenty years. At least there is consolation in knowing that I’m not the lone betrayer of that youthful spirit of rebellion.

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Updated 12/24/97