A few months ago, I was introduced to the term “Translation Environment” at a webinar of the American Translators Association on CAT (Computer Assisted Translation) tools. The presenter coined the new notion as a more accurate – and thus preferable – description of the latter, explaining that what these software programs provide is a unique setting geared specifically toward translation, just like Quicken is for bookkeeping and Final Cut is for video editing. His argument was so compelling that I went out (well not literally, but virtually) and bought one of the latest and greatest translation memory products, as they are also referred to. I had further just started working on a long-time project that was entirely set up in the online translation tool of one of my client language companies, so I felt like proudly arriving in the 21st century as far as my digital workspace was concerned.
Well, apart from the fact that my new acquisition proved to be not intuitive at all, I also found the lauded translation environment to be a rather inhospitable place. Now, this was not my very first experience with this kind of software, over the years I have worked on and off with other clients in so-called satellite versions, some that I deemed useful and quite enjoyed (for the translation of Brill’s New Pauly, a renowned encyclopedia entirely devoted to antiquity), and others that were just okay (e.g. for Apple iTunes). But I started to wonder what made my experiences different and why the translator-tailored environment didn’t feel like home sweet home.
You made your bed, now lie in it
One of the great perks and prime raison d’être of these tools is of course the translation memory functionality – the fact that they remember everything that has ever been entered into the software and bring up matches as you translate new material. To have an instant reference can be priceless, however, it may also interrupt the translation flow and stunt creativity. For me, the crucial aspect of the various programs with regard to their function as a home base for translators turned out to be the “environment” in the most straightforward sense of the term: what is the layout, i.e. how does the material appear on the screen, where and in what form are you seeing the source and creating the target text? I have never been a fan of the two-column or spreadsheet approach to translation. Context is easily lost and content often broken down, in what sometimes appears to be a random order. While things might be simplified from a technical point of view, the process of creation becomes more difficult. And this might just be the crux of it: the state of mind of the translator is different when filling in little boxes than when working from a blank page or overwriting the original content with something new.
The philosopher’s stone
In his book “Is That a Fish in Your Ear?”, David Bellos ponders the origin of the word translator as derived from Latin – someone who “brings something across”, i.e. carries it from one place to another. He playfully asks if we might have a different understanding of (and appreciation for) the translator’s work if we saw in him or her less some type of delivery boy but someone who turns something into something else. In ancient Babylon, as a matter of fact, a translator was eme-bal, a “language turner.” Like the alchemist, he was seen as someone capable of performing true transformation. The translation environments discussed above reflect the same dichotomy: We can either carry text from one side of the screen to the other, or we can take an existing text and make it into something new. The process is different, and the outcome is different, and even though we are talking linguistics, this is not just semantics. When we read the text as our mind is producing and our hands are typing the translation, we align ourselves simultaneously with both worlds, like the interpreter who is listening, understanding, transforming and speaking, all at the same time.
Maybe we need to allow for more of this ancient magic in our ultra-modern translator territories of today and find a way for it to be remembered (and honored) in the meticulous, yet frequently incoherent world of translation memory and its tools. There is always more room for discovery in the landscapes of language, and that’s where the translator is at home.
Nanette Gobel, MA