Volume 16, No. 3 
July 2011

Dan Lufkin


Front Page

  Translation Journal
Translator Profile

The Deliberate Translator

by Dan Lufkin

hen Gabe asked me to contribute to the TJ's Translator Profile column, of course the first thing I did was to go burrowing back into my files and dig out the text for The Accidental Translator from the April 1994 issue of the now defunct Sci-Tech Translation Journal, where I made my debut in this exalted company. What I remembered as a neat, witty essay about getting started turns out to have been 45 column-inches of rambling down life's highway about how I happened to pick up enough vocabulary in German and Scandinavian to get started as a part-time translator.

Now that I've put another 17 years on the clock as a full-time freelancer, I can see that just recounting the trajectory I took during the 40 years or so that got me to 1994 didn't actually offer the reader much that would be beneficial to know. Let me just pretend, then, that in 1994 I was in roughly the same position that a new graduate of a translation program would be in nowadays. And then let's see whether anything I've learned since I hung out my shingle would be interesting or useful, preferably both, to a reader of the Translation Journal.

Along with keeping in touch with your source languages, I'd like to recommend keeping in touch with the subject of language in general.
Back then there were still quite a few translators who worked mostly with a typewriter on paper. I worked that way too until my day job brought me into contact with personal computers. In the mid-80s, when I was translating navigation notices that were very repetitive, I realized that if I could come up with a word processing system that I could depend upon, the dog-work part of translation would become enormously easier. I wanted to have tight control over every aspect of the system so I built a small computer from a kit, bought a basic Epson printer, picked up (and wrote) some word-processing software and started working 100% by computer. Even though the system was primitive by today's standards, it improved my output by about a factor of four and paid for itself (about $6000) in a matter of months. It would have been hard to justify the investment if I had been dependent on translation alone for a living, but I realized that the computer and an efficient approach to production could make freelance translation a workable business rather than a hobby.

Once I had figured out what a reasonable per-word fee was, I printed up my rate sheet and decided to concentrate on improving my income by improving my words-per-hour efficiency while keeping my fee constant. For me the biggest bottleneck was getting the translation into the computer in the first place. I tried various keyboards and finally settled on the Kinesis split keyboard, which also had such a good effect on my hands and wrists that I still use it. I experimented with various copy holders to keep the source text up in front of my eyes where I could read it easily. In those days I still got a fair amount of incoming material via fax so I tried various ways to improve the reading quality of the fax output.

All of this gave me some improvement in working speed but the real breakthrough came when speech-recognition software became good enough to be practical. Dragon Naturally Speaking was one of several software packages on the market at that time and I started with version 3. I was already used to dictating translation to some extent because my wife, who is an editor and writer by trade, often used to transcribe material that I dictated on a regular office Dictaphone tape recorder. I found that there was a certain amount of technique to dictating efficiently and that Dragon responded well to improvement in the quality of the microphone and sound board. Nowadays I'm working with version 11 of Dragon and getting well over 1000 words per hour into the computer with an accuracy of better than 99%. Of course, there are some catches; Dragon hardly ever makes a spelling mistake, but it sometimes gets mixed up with homonyms. Luckily, it's very easy to go back and make a correction.

Dictation also lends itself to some ready improvements in efficiency. I've found that being able to have the source material right up on the display along with the translation not only improves speed but also helps eliminate skipping a sentence or two here and there. About 90% of my work arrives as a PDF file, sometimes scanned, sometimes generated from Word or Acrobat. For anything more than a couple of pages, I print out the file on canary paper (to keep it separate from other material) and save it for reference. Then I run the PDF file through an optical character recognition program and convert it to a text file that I can work on within Word. Sometimes you can produce a text file directly from the PDF file in the Adobe reader. I use OmniPage (version 18 coming up) but there are other good programs on the market. I open the text file in Word and proceed to dictate, deleting source text as I go along. That makes it hard to skip anything in the text and you can proofread the dictated material as you progress without taking your eyes off the screen. If you want to refer to something that you have deleted previously, you have the PDF printout right there on your desk. This approach also works well with documents that arrive via fax, although that really doesn't happen very often any more.

At first computer-aided translation seemed like another good approach. I tried Trados at an early stage but found that it didn't work well with dictation and that I actually sacrificed speed and compromised accuracy when I abandoned straightforward dictation. I have to admit that I haven't tried WordFast or any of the other second-generation CAT programs. Most of my work involves a fairly limited, but exotic, vocabulary in medicine and organic chemistry, where Dragon hardly ever makes a mistake on a long word but CAT programs come up with a great many fuzzy matches, which have to be sorted out by hand. I follow Jost Zetzsche's work closely and perhaps one of these days I'll give CAT another try.

I think that most translators have had some experience with the task of reading aloud a source-language document in their native language. For most translators, if you are reasonably fluent in the source language, you can read out loud this way about as fast as you can read in your native language to begin with. I've given enough Dragon workshops to translators to realize that this is by no means true of every single translator. I think the same consideration applies to simultaneous interpreting; some people do it without any problem, some people become hopelessly confused trying to keep the languages separate. In my case, the connection between my eyeballs and my tongue seems to be more direct than the connection between my eyeballs and my fingers.

At the practical level, there is a difference between languages. The Scandinavian languages, where word order and syntax are generally pretty parallel to that of English, are quite easy. With German and Dutch, on the other hand, where you sometimes have to stand around and wait a while for the verb to come by, you have to get used to working with your eyes a sentence or two ahead of your mouth. Again, the parallel with simultaneous interpreting will give you an indication of whether your particular wiring is suitable for working this way.

Another thing I've learned from my own experience and from talking to colleagues is that it's very important to keep in touch with your source languages. Visit when you can, talk to contacts via Skype. There is no substitute for reading daily newspapers and magazines in your source languages, even though your translation work may be specialized and not at all colloquial. Happily, we are living in a time when it is very easy to go online and read today's editorials in your source country's biggest newspaper. Half an hour a day spent in scanning up-to-date material and deliberately not translating it as you go, just soaking it in, will pay off in keeping your brain loose and nimble. Personally, I also like to read mystery novels. The dialogue is often very colloquial and the authors are usually not overly concerned with literary effect. If I worked out of English, I'd spend some time every day reading Elmore Leonard.

Along with keeping in touch with your source languages, I'd like to recommend keeping in touch with the subject of language in general. It's easy for a pick-and-shovel translator to overlook the fact that we are working with a unique aspect of humanity—language itself. I've discovered that it doesn't do much good to try introspection while you're translating. Something is going on there that does not lend itself to conscious analysis. I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time and able to take a couple of courses from Noam Chomsky just when he was beginning to publish on syntactic structures. Although I didn't appreciate it much at the time, I recognize now that having had even a little exposure to the theory of syntax has helped me to learn how to analyze sentences on the fly, which is precisely what you're doing when you translate, and particularly so when you dictate. Language is inherently fascinating and, of course, there's a huge literature on the subject. I found that Steven Pinker's books were helpful in understanding how language categorizes things. For all practical purposes, I'm addicted to the blog Language Log from the University of Pennsylvania. Follow the discussions there for a few days and see if it doesn't give you a new outlook on translation. There are even specialized language and linguistics blogs in practically every European language. Translators' blogs have too many bottom-feeders for me to feel comfortable there.

I've also found that my appreciation of the structural details of language has been improved by spending some time working on creole languages. They have small vocabularies and simplified grammar, so they're easy to learn. If you are on the Latin side the house, try Papiamentu; if Germanic is your specialty, try Afrikaans. Both of these have excellent home-grown literature. I suppose that there are similar choices that you could make if you work in Chinese or Slavic or in the Central Asiatic languages. A side benefit of learning one of these minor languages is that there is a small but steady demand for translation services. I get three or four jobs a month from Afrikaans.

I've probably wasted a couple of thousand words here teaching my grandmother to suck eggs (idiom alert!). On the other hand, it's done me a power of good to sit down and think about what, if anything, I've learned in the past couple of decades. At a time in life when I really should be thinking seriously about retiring, I find that the practice of translation has become very tolerable, not to say easy and enjoyable. I find that working about half time seems to be a good compromise. I turn down about half the jobs that come over the transom and I'm able to avoid headaches like annual corporate reports and Dutch real estate contracts. I do a lot of medical work and try to stay with Scandinavian hospitals because their record-keeping systems are so easy to follow. (If I ever have a heart attack, I hope to have it in Denmark.) All in all, I've found translation to be an interesting, challenging, satisfying and moderately rewarding second career. I may have stumbled into it more or less by accident 50 or more years ago, but I've found it an excellent way of spending my time and I hope some of these ruminations may contribute to your enjoyment of the profession as well.