Tuesday 8 March 2016

So, you translate into Dutch?

I must confess, I really can’t complain: when it comes to careers, life hasn’t dealt me a bad hand. My background and my range of skills have allowed me to make a decent living out of my chosen profession. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m a self-employed translator working from Dutch into English. Because I work from home much of what I do is solitary, so my day-to-day regime remains largely hidden from view. Freelance translators like myself lead a ‘secluded’ existence, which means that our work is perceived to be cloaked in a shroud of mystery. Yet in many respects, the tasks my colleagues and I perform can be as humdrum (or as stimulating) as those in any other job: it is the invisibility of these activities that leads to fundamental misconceptions being made on the part of others. When translators do eventually venture outside the confines of their offices and communicate face-to-face with the outside world, it can result in some bewildering misunderstandings. The difference between what we do and what people think we do is often a world apart. 

Small talk - for example, at parties - invariably leads to conversations about work. So, over the years I have subconsciously developed a mental checklist of questions I’m likely to be asked every time I strike up a conversation with a stranger. Here are just a few of the those questions (with answers). If fact, there are plenty more, these are just for starters. 

So, you translate into Dutch? 
The short but very simple is: no, never. 
For some reason, perhaps because I’m good at Dutch, it’s assumed I translate into that language. Good translators however, follow a simple, but golden rule: we translate only into our native language! It’s not without reason we call it the ‘mother tongue’: the first words I heard and used were acquired while I was still being cradled in my mother’s arms. In later years, I would pick up the language from my older brothers, the kids next door and on the school playground. Then, in the classroom, I learned English in a more structured and complex way. Through constant exposure to the language and culture, often through trial and error, I came to understand its subtleties. 
By the time we were offered foreign languages at school - aged 12 - it was already too late to learn them though natural acquisition, unless perhaps English had disappeared from the face of the earth and I had suddenly been immersed in an alien culture. When I finally moved to the Netherlands at the age of 26, plunging myself headlong into Dutch culture and language learning, it soon became clear that I would never equal the ability of a native Dutch speaker: 30 years later, I may be a proficient speaker and user of this language, but I do not ‘possess’ it in the same way as my mother tongue, nor do I hold any pretensions of doing so. 
My contention is that anyone who claims that they can translate professionally into a language which is not their own is deluding themselves. Those who can do this faultlessly – perhaps only true bilinguals, brought up speaking two languages – are few and far between. Rarely in my 20 years as a full-time professional translator have I come across anyone who – even after decades of immersion - has acquired an ability to communicate flawlessly at all levels in a non-native language
So, no. I would be doing the translation industry a great disservice if I were to translate into Dutch, as well as damaging my professional reputation along the way. 

My daughter's unemployed. She speaks good English, do you think you could find her work in translation?
The great thing is about translation is that you don’t need any qualifications to start up professionally. But simply being able to read and write doesn’t mean any old Tom, Dick and Harry can translate. In the first place, you need a full command of your native language, and a proficiency, preferably C2, in your second, that is, the language you translate out of. Even then, that’s not enough: being word-perfect is all well and good, but you must also use a register and style that most closely reflects the specific subject matter of the source text, which may be legal, journalese or perhaps even one which contains obscene language or slang. And, at the back of your mind, you must always be aware of the subtle differences between your source and target cultures. So, linguistic adaptability and flexibility are essential requirements for success. 
A translation degree – on top of your language proficiencies – can help you learn these skills, many others – like myself – have a background working in industry as a copywriter or communicator which stands them in good stead. If you can find a job as a paid employee working in a translation agency, you will learn as you go. On-the-job training is a boon, but sooner or later most of us have taken the bold step of going self-employed, at which point you need a whole new gamut of skills. Don’t underestimate the paperwork that comes with being self-employed: you will have to send out invoices, file VAT returns, fill in annual accounts, take out various insurance policies and arrange a pension plan – at least if you want to make a career of it. And on top of that you will have to learn to deal with customers on a daily basis, either existing or new ones, with whom you will have to negotiate rates and deadlines. 
Oh, and I’ve not even mentioned the unsocial hours ... 
So, if you think your daughter’s up to it, tell her to give it a try. 

I imagine you translate a lot of literature? 
No, I do NOT translate books (by which most people tend to mean novels). The bulk of work in the translation industry is commercial in nature – for example, business correspondence, business plans and proposals, commercial literature, communication strategies, exhibition catalogues, legal contracts and documents, marketing plans, mission statements, and newsletters & magazine articles, to name but a few. However, there are several specialised genres which for one reason or another I steer clear of, including medical and overly technical translations. After all, I do not have a background in engineering or medicine.
Book translation accounts for a very small share of the translation market, especially in the language pair I work, Dutch to English. Literary translation is a niche-market, usually cornered by a specialised group of literary translators who do little else. 
Even if I were offered the chance to translate a book, there are several other good reasons why I would probably turn it down. There are exceptions, but if I were to quote my rates for commercial translation to a bog-standard publisher, they would probably trash my email without giving it a second look. Even if they were to accede, there are plenty of other grounds for not accepting the work, not least that taking on a large project where tight deadlines are involved would preclude me from handling the steady inflow of bread-and-butter work I get from my regular clients. Last but not least, literary translation is a genre in its own right requiring a painstaking, often monastic devotion to creative re-writing which only a few colleagues possess. 

To be continued ...