Why does one start a blog? I am, among much else, a translator and an archaeologist. This is my professional website. Why do I start this blog? Practice, information, self-reflection: those are some of my reasons. No doubt there are others, there always are, but I will not trouble you, my reader, with those.
Practice is obvious: a good translator must also be a good writer. There are many ways to interpret the word ‘translation’. To me a good translation is above all a good text, well written and able to speak for itself, not leaning on its source text like a cripple on crutches. But good writing requires practice, developing skills and keeping them needle-sharp. That is what I hope to do in this blog. I beg your forgiveness if I do not succeed altogether and all the time.
Information, I said. You, as a client, may be interested to know what happens between the moment you hand over your text to me and the moment, days or weeks later, when you receive your translation – and the invoice. What does a translator do, and why? What do you pay for? Read and learn!
Then there is self reflection: a dangerous word, likely to put people off. No ‘dear diary’ here, no exploration of your translators’ innermost feelings. Translation, however, can be lonely work without colleagues around who can hold up a mirror, forcing the translator to step back and look: is this right? Should I do this, now, or something else, later? Lacking colleagues holding mirrors, at least in my office, I will use this blog instead.
As this will not be a personal diary there is no need to write daily. But regularly, a few times every week, whenever other tasks allow it. I shall – perhaps overconfidently – write in English, not in Dutch. I trust that most Dutch visitors to this site can read English, and I need the practice. My apologies, Dutch readers. It is a tribute to your language skills.
I work from home, in my office on the top floor of my medieval house. The room is full of books. There is the usual pile of dictionaries, grammars and style guides, paper or digital. Those are the ones I use regularly, often daily. Then there are multiple bookcases, stuffed with archaeology, anthropology, linguistics and much else, collected over many years and used for background research or specific terminology. They were recently joined by new books I could not resist. What attracts a translator’s attention?
There is a fat ‘Dansk sproglære’, a combination of a professional grammar and a biography of the Danish language, all in Danish (by Dansklærerforeningen). There is an equally fat overview of Danish history from the first centuries AD until the present, also in Danish (by Aarhus Universitetsforlag).
In a brave moment I also picked up an introduction to Old Norse. Viking language, sword language. It is in English (by E.V. Gordon, revised by A.R. Taylor), looks daunting but is fascinating. Only a fellow language freak can understand my joy upon discovering that Old Norse verbs had a ‘middle voice’. I should have known; modern Danish has traces of it, Indo-European was riddled with it. This is how a palaeontologist feels when a supposedly extinct creature hops past. One of my former teacher at Groningen University, Professor Stefan Radt (an exceptionally brilliant lecturer and a kind man) needed a full semester to explain the intricacies of this beast and its kin to us in their Classical Greek disguise; those were fascinating lectures. Is it relevant to my translations? Rarely. But it makes my day.
Another new gem on my shelves, a bridge between this Norse and my English: ‘The Reckoning of King Rædwald’ by Sam Newton. Short in pages but rich in content, thorough, and overflowing with useful notes and references. Inspiring. That is important: good translation is impossible without inspiration and joy. I will soon need extra bookcases.
So far, most of my clients are academics. The downside is that they question and argue, and bluffing won’t do. The upside is that they question and argue, and bluffing won’t do. I don’t work for them but with them, and that suits me fine. To do so I use my Eightfold Path towards Translation. That path is the result of much trial and some error.
Step 1 is Reading. I carefully read my client’s text, trying to understand its meaning and noting down words or passages that may cause trouble later on.
Step 2 is Research. Trying to find the correct translation for those words in this context. For that I use all my dictionaries, encyclopedias and word lists, an ever expanding collection. I once tracked down the English translation of a 17th-century Dutch military term in an on-line Latin-English glossary on Roman military engineering. I have had to resort to Anglo-Saxon for the equivalent of a medieval eastern Dutch territorial unit. This is why I love my work.
Step 3 is Translation proper. Translating the text sentence by sentence or paragraph by paragraph, never word by word. Where there are ambiguities or mistakes in the original I make a digital note in the margin, as I also do if I suspect that my choice of words or syntax needs explanation.
Step 4 is Correction. The spell check (never on automatic pilot!), removing double spaces, in short: the basics.
Step 5 is Polishing. I read the translated text from first to last, often aloud, without referring to the original. Would a native speaker accept this or is it Danglish or Denerlands? Where necessary I change words, spelling, grammar, style.
Step 6 is Back to the Roots. I carefully compare the original and the translation, sentence by sentence. Sometimes my efforts at step 5 make me stray too far from the author’s original meaning.
Step 7 is that same Author. The translation and my remarks, explanations and questions are sent to him or her, to shoot at. Have I understood what you wanted to say, and do you understand my choices?
Step 8 is Revision. I look at the author’s comments and questions and where necessary adjust my translation or if not, explain why. Ideally, the translation is then finished and the author well pleased.
There is no step 9, or it would be my invoice. To be paid promptly, of course.
I spent the past few days tying up loose ends, including a few insurance matters. Dull, dull, but necessary. As long as my head is clear and my body can drag itself to my office upstairs, I can work. But if even that fails, my landlord will still want his rent and my cat his food. No kind employer or state to help me out; independence has its price. Saving up would take too long: life is fragile, I could fall down the stairs (my house has five steep staircases) tomorrow. For my cat’s and my own sake I need insurance, a policy with fair conditions and an affordable premium. That is a needle in a haystack; tracing it requires time and the patience to sift through daunting documents phrased like alchemists’ arcana. Insurese is a language in its own right and quite unrelated to Indo-European. I postponed the chore endlessly but finally made the time and found the needle. Nonetheless I will still be careful on the stairs. I may have misinterpreted some of the Insurese.
Yet another loose end: my customer database. It’s digital, part home-made and part courtesy of the software company (all legal and above board, no piracy). It contains relevant information on almost 300 people at last count, all business contacts of some sort. Keeping track of mutations and of who has been contacted when and how is essential. Dealing carelessly with esteemed clients is rude, and bad for business. I therefore spent some hours checking, changing and making new entries. Well done.
Tweaking my website and other digital jobs were also on my list. As a one-person business I cannot afford to outsource such things; a self-employed translator must be a Jill-of-all-trades. Some software applications drive me up my four walls and back again (no names). After such epic battles, going back to translation pure and simple is sheer bliss. Give me grammar and idiom any time. That is on my list for tomorrow: relaxation and study. I am halfway MacKenzie’s “Principles & Pitfalls of English Grammar”. It is great fun, believe it or not, at least for the like-minded.
It is hot. Hot outside and hot inside. Hot upstairs and slightly less hot downstairs. I wilt in temperatures others call ‘balmy’. My concentration drops to zero and my eyes droop. I have therefore moved The Office. GrondTaal now resides in the living room downstairs, its premises reduced to a laptop and some books. Let’s try again, shall we? No, no web surfing, focus on the text. It’s interesting, honestly, give it a chance. And no, you don’t need another cup of tea. Some ice cream from the Italian around the corner? Later. Concentrate on your work.
It is hot outside and hot inside. My concentration ebbs, my eyes burn. I’m wilting. My boss-me tells me to keep going for another hour. I will write a proposal to management-me to make director-me redundant for the rest of this day. Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow I will hire myself again.
It is hot outside and hot inside.
Tomorrow came and went, and temperatures have dropped. With renewed energy I burrowed deep into my ever expanding client database. Tunnels through names, corridors through dates, and large dumps of superfluous data outside. Spring cleaning. Following additions to my service package I have renewed my company brochure, and my website too underwent some important changes. Extra information, different illustrations, and of course a giant blooper in my menu that urgently needed fixing. No, the message “This page cannot be displayed” was not your server’s fault. Mea culpa entirely.
So: changes, new information. Relevant to whom, and in what form? Email, letter, with or without business card or brochure? Which potential customers have not been approached for far too long, which colleagues should be informed? Letters must be written, carefully phrased, addresses checked and printed, envelopes neatly filled. And afterwards, important, do not forget: notes made about who has received what and when. Pestering people with the wrong message at the wrong moment is unwise. With almost three hundred business contacts in the database I cannot trust my memory to keep track of that. Therefore it is Ctrl-F, search, copy and enter many, many times over.
The whole project took three days of concentrated work but now, late Friday afternoon, it is finished. Hopefully with good results in the form of new projects and customers. But that is out of my hands now: time to relax. Monday I will start afresh. There is an interesting Danish news paper article on a treasure find in Sweden, in need of a good Dutch translation, and another one about making plastic from pig manure (!) that will interest a former colleague. Never a dull moment in the world of translation.
A few stern words on the rates we language people charge you, our esteemed customers. Read and shudder.
IF we consistently work 40-hour weeks, never being ill or otherwise unavailable;
- IF at least half of those hours can be charged to clients;
- IF we can do an average of 400 words per hour when actually translating or editing;
- IF all our clients accept a rate of at least € 0,10 per word;
- IF no more than half of the total price we charge you (50% approximately being the norm in the Netherlands) goes to taxes, fees and company costs;
- THEN we make about € 1600,- every four weeks to live on. Those are six big Ifs. BUT:
- IF, all other factors being equal, the text is complicated and allows only 200 words per hour, our earnings drop to € 800,-;
- IF, all other factors being equal, projects are scarce and only 1/3rd of our hours are paid for, our earnings drop to € 1065,-;
- IF, all other factors being equal, our customers will only pay, say, € 0,04 per word (a rate used by many Dutch commercial publishing companies), our earnings drop to € 832,-. That is well below the legal minimum wage in the Netherlands. And all other factors are never equal.
There are ways around this. Some work insanely long hours. Others rush through a job, cutting down on hours but sacrificing quality. Some rely on a partner’s income. And some give up after a while, because they can’t make ends meet. Those include many excellent professionals who could have given you top-quality work but will do so no more. So, dear customer, remember this before you raise your eyebrows upon seeing our rates and our invoice. We just try to make ends meet.
January 21, 2008, a world ended. On that day the last surviving speaker of Eyak, Marie Smith Jones, died. Her Eyak name was Udach’ Kuqax*a’a’ch, which translates as “A sound calling people from afar”. Ms. Smith Jones or Udach’ Kuqax*a’a’chwas also the last full-blooded member of the Eyak Nation, a Native American group in Alaska. Until her death she worked closely with linguists to record her language and to produce grammars and dictionaries. But none of her nine children learned to speak Eyak. Many Native Americans never learned their own language, and many languages in the world died out because its native speakers did not teach it to their children. They could not.
For mysterious reasons many people classify languages into two main categories: ‘good’ and ‘bad’. ‘Good’ languages are beautiful, logical and spoken by advanced people. ‘Bad’ languages are ridiculous, illogical and spoken by backward people. Invariably those who decide which is which are those in power. Governments, church authorities, the wealthy. And those in power can determine, by force if necessary, which languages are being taught in schools, which ones are allowed within the administration, and which ones are taken seriously. Those are always their own languages. Parisian French, not Occitan. ‘Goois’ Dutch, not Frisian or Achterhoeks. American English, not Eyak.
Every linguist knows that there is not, indeed never was, a primitive language. Every language is perfectly suited to its own culture and has a long and complex history. They all look at the world in a different way and so, in a sense, are different worlds. There is a deliciously bewildering variety of them, an endless source of joy for those with open minds and ears. But people in power fear variety and change, clinging to their own ways and worlds as supreme over all others. Therefore Eyak had to die, and with it its world. Languages are mortal, as are people. They wax and wane and at last pass away, often leaving descendants behind. But some people are deliberately murdered, as was Eyak. Its sounds will no longer call people from afar.
Those of you who visit this website regularly (welcome, welcome!) may have noticed that the banner text at the top occasionally changes. There is usually an English quotation about language or translation, followed by its Dutch translation. I select these quotations, and I wish I could say that I have a vast stock of literary texts firmly stored in my head. But no. I simply select them from the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Quotations, having looked up ‘translation’ in the index. But the gems I find there!
This one, from the preface to the venerable English bible translation known as the ‘King James version’: “Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtaine, that we may looke into the most Holy place; that remooveth the cover of the well, that wee may come by the water, even as Jacob rolled away the stone from the mouth of the well, by which meanes the flockes of Laban were watered.” [thanks to www.kjvbibles.com/kjpreface.htm for the original 1611 version]. One possible translation of this in Dutch would be: “Een vertaling opent het venster en laat het licht binnen; breekt de noot open en laat ons de kern eten; schuift het gordijn opzij en toont ons het Heiligste; haalt het putdeksel weg en laat ons bij het water komen, zoals Jacob de steen van de putrand rolde en zo de kudden van Laban liet drinken.” However, my feeble attempt does not come close to the original in glorious rhythm and sound.
There is a nice quotation by Goethe in the same Dictionary: “Translators are like busy pimps extolling the surpassing charms of some half-veiled beauty. They excite an irresistible desire for the original.” That original would be in German, and this is my translation of the above translation: “Vertalers zijn als nijvere pooiers die de charmes van een of andere half-gesluierde schone aanprijzen: ze wekken een onweerstaanbaar verlangen naar het origineel.” Does that make me a pimp twice over? Here is the original, by way of atonement: “Übersetzer sind als geschäftige Kuppler anzusehen, die uns eine halbverschleierte Schöne als höchst liebenswürdig anpreisen: sie erregen eine unwiderstehliche Neigung nach dem Original.”
All translators should frame that and hang it on their walls.
I am a great TimeTeam fan. I have seen all the episodes and specials as well as several of the DVD’s, and once I have reached the last one I simply start again from the beginning. The programme cannot be received via Dutch TV (long live the internet!) but some years ago Discovery Holland ran several episodes and then ran them again, and again, in true Discovery fashion. I was hooked. Opinion on the programme amongst the Dutch archaeological community is divided, with roughly equal numbers hating it and loving it. I love it and I think it has done archaeology a world of good.
Sadly, those first Discovery broadcasts were not entirely satisfactory. That had nothing to do with the programme itself but everything with the Dutch subtitles. While I find subtitles distracting when I can understand the original language, I acknowledge their usefulness and simply try to ignore them. But these particular subtitles were hard to ignore, as they were often simply wrong. A respectable Norman church suddenly became Norse (Noors in Dutch), a Roman military site lost a millennium of its age and became “Romaans” (Romanesque in English), and BC and AD regularly changed places, creating an entirely new and interesting British chronology in the process. Trenches, as in “Phil has opened up another trench” became “greppels” (drainage ditches in Dutch), but my favourite was “earthworks”. This was regularly transformed into “pottery”, which may seem miraculous until you realise that pottery in Dutch is “aardewerk”. All those poor Iron Age sites surrounded by huge heaps of pottery……..
I am sure that the Discovery translators are very good within their own field of expertise, but that field clearly did not include archaeology. I myself am fond of the series ‘House’, but I wouldn’t touch its subtitles with a bargepole. My knowledge of English (or indeed, Dutch) medical terminology doesn’t reach much beyond ‘appendix’, and in my hands the patients’ medical problems would become even more mysterious then they already are. I can deal with the dialects of archaeology, history, anthropology and classical music. That is enough. The rest I gladly leave to my esteemed colleagues.