I was once shown a Japanese typewriter in my Japanese class in 1975. It was a huge, heavy monster, always covered to protect it against dust as nobody was using it since it was just too complicated. Typewriter was invented for languages that use only relatively few alphabet letters. It is not a mechanical concept that is suitable for languages with thousands of characters like Chinese or Japanese, although typewriters for these languages did exist. If you wanted to write Japanese in the seventies, you really had to learn how to write it by hand.
Fast-forward 37 years. Whenever I translate something from Japanese, my main problem is that I keep forgetting which virtual keyboard I am using so that when I type something while doing my research on line in English, Japanese characters appear on the screen, and vice versa.
It is very easy now to type in just about any language by using a virtual keyboard. If you don’t understand something, you can use machine translation. Most references that a translator needs are accessible online. A few decades ago, the progress in the area of instruments used by translators was so much slower: a quill was used for about two thousand years, a fountain pen was used for about a hundred years, a computer with software for about the last three or four decades.
Some translators worry that all of these new inventions, and machine translation and access to specialized databases in particular, are setting the threshold for entry into their profession so low that people who can hardly translate at all, mostly because they don’t really know another language, may now be able to produce passable translations.
In a way, it must be true that rogue translators – people who don’t really know a language very well – will find it easier to wander into the freelance translator profession thanks to a whole range of tools that are now instantaneously available on Internet.
But our profession has always been open to anybody who can say, with conviction, “I can do it – and I charge less”, especially in countries where translating is a completely unregulated profession (unlike highly specialized and much more dangerous professions, hair cutting, for example), such as in the United States.
Nihil novum sub sole. In fact, just about every translator starts as a youthful rogue and pseudo expert-translator. Even translators who graduate from college with a degree in languages, how much do they really know right after graduation?
I have been wondering for quite a while now about the differences between various types of translators and would-be translators and inventing new names for them in a number of posts on this blog, such as zombie translators and subprime translators.
There are many possible ways for entry into the profession of translator. Some people put the emphasis on linguistic education, often because that is what they have. Others who somehow “picked up” a language or two call attention to their technical or other expertise, often by pounding their chest as loudly as they can.
If I were to put my finger on the main differences between translators who can really do very good work, at least most of the time, and translators who will almost always deliver substandard translations, I think that I could identify several key points of difference here between these two breeds of translators.
It goes without saying that being native in the target language is a very important criterion. But it is a dynamic rather that a static requirement – just because you are a native speaker of a language does not mean that you can write well in that language, let alone translate into it from other languages, which you presumably don’t know as well as your first language.
As I keep reminding the readers of my posts (because nobody else is saying it), St. Jerome, the most famous translator of all times, at least in the Western world, was translating the Scriptures into Latin, which was not his native language. The thing about saints is, they usually ignored conventional wisdom. And some of them paid for it dearly, but not St. Jerome as far as I know.
Education is in my opinion at least as important, if not more important, than native fluency in a language and the ability to write well. But I have met a quite a few people who went to excellent and expensive schools, and some of them had PhDs and other fancy titles, who were really stupid. And so have you.
I think that the most important quality distinguishing good translators from the rest of the mad crowd full of zombies and fakes is the ability and willingness to keep learning until the end.
Some people reach a certain level and they will remain at this plateau for the rest of their life. It is probably true about other professions as well.
But some people keep getting better, year after year, decade after decade, because they keep learning new things and they really like it.
And then they retire or die and their customers suddenly realize that it will probably take a long time to find somebody who could translate for them as well as good old John or Joanne used to translate for so many years.