There is a well known Japanese proverb (originating in an old Chinese fable) that says exactly what is in the title of my silly post today, namely: 井の中の蛙大海を知らず (i no naka no kawazu taikai wo shirazu). A Chinese idiom, 井底之蛙 (jǐng dǐ zhī wā), which translates as “a frog on the bottom of a well”, is a synonym in Chinese for “an ignorant person”.
A link to the entire Chinese story about a turtle who visited a frog who used to be living happily at the bottom of his dark and cool, full of sweet water and tasty squiggly warms and buzzing insects, until the poor amphibian found out from the turtle about something called the ocean, is below:
I am sometime reminded of this Japanese idiom when a translator is speaking with authority about this or that issue having to do with translation, usually on a blog or on social media, but also in publications on paper.
So many of us know so much about so little! Or is it so little about so much?
This would of course include also this little froggy in his comfy patent translation well, full of squiggly and tasty technical translation terms from Japanese and other languages. But this little froggy at least knows that the little bit of knowledge that he may possess is limited only to his little well.
So many people would like to create hard-and-fast rules about translation in general. Here are a few examples of these universal and immutable rules about “translation”:
1. All translators must use computer tools (called CATs). CAT Refuseniks are insane and should be locked up in asylums for the mentally ill.
2. Translators can only translate into their native language. People who translate into another language than the one they learned from their mother are laughable imposters who need to be exposed as such and shunned by real translators, e.i. those who can rightfully call themselves native speakers.
3. The going rate for translation is [fill in the amount]. It would be futile to charge more than the going rate, and a translator who would like to attempt to do that will inevitably fail.
4. Based on the natural order in the universe, translation agencies are in charge of supplying work to translators and liaising with clients, while translators are only in charge of translating. It would be nice to be able to work for direct clients, but for a mere translator, this is an unattainable goal.
5. Translators who want to make more money must increase their productivity. There are several “language tools” in the form of software enabling diligent translators to do just that: they can increase their translating speed for example with voice recognition software, or with Trados, and they can “incorporate” machine translation in their software, etc. Since any of these tools, when used properly, will double, triple, or quadruple translators’ output, they will finally start making real money if they start using these tools.
Etc., and so on, and so forth.
There is a grain of truth in all of those statements, of course. But most of the times, most of these statements are mostly false.
1. While no statistics are available, I think that most translators in fact do not use CATs and never will. Although these tools may be very useful for some kinds of translations, namely extremely repetitive text provided in MS Word format, they are essentially useless for other types of translations, such as patent applications provided as PDF files. It makes sense for some translators to use these tools, and it would make no sense for other translators to use them.
2. It is true that most people can translate only into their native language. But that still leaves hundreds of thousands of people on this planet who can translate very well into their non-native language. And how do we define “nativeness”, this natural prerequisite for fluency in a language summarized by the term “native language”? Wasn’t George W. Bush a native speaker of English? (Yes, he was).
3. The going rate for “translation” can easily vary by a factor of 10 or more depending on things like the language combination, the subject, whether the translator is working for an intermediary or a direct client, where the intermediary or direct client is located, how badly the translation is needed, etc.
In other words, there is no such thing as “the going rate” for translation. But to froggies who live in their small, dark well, the well is all there is and nothing else exists.
4. There is a natural order in the universe, but translation agencies do not seem to be a part of this natural order. While some of them provide real value both for their customers and their translators, usually small agencies specializing in one or a few fields, many of them are useless parasites who do not understand the first thing about translating. A translator who only works for translation agencies is living in a particularly deep and dark well, where the food is not very tasty or plentiful, and the water smells bad and is scarce.
5. We can increase our productivity and various software-based tools can be used for this purpose. But there is a limit to a translator’s “productivity” because our brain can only process a certain amount of words per day so that the words would still make sense to us. In my case it is between 4 to 5 thousand words. If we try to go beyond this limit, instead of relying on our own brain, we have to allow the software to take control over the translating process. The results of such an approach will vary.
It is OK when a plane’s crew allows software to fly a plane on autopilot so that the crew can get some rest during a night when nothing unusual happens. But when a translation is processed by software to triple or quadruple the translating speed, the chances are that the translator will not even notice how many times his plane has crashed because as I already said, the human brain has only a limited capacity to process a certain amount of information. And this limited capacity of human brain to make meaning of things is the real limit to how many words can a human translator translate per day, not the capacity of a software package that by definition does not understand what the words in a translation mean.
At the end of the Chinese story about a frog and a turtle, the frog became much less enthusiastic about his comfy well when he realized that there is something out there called “the ocean”, and that this ocean cannot be even described in terms that a frog who has been living all his life in a tiny, dark well can understand.
Whatever it is that we translate, we can only know a few things about a few drops in the vast ocean of what we call “translation” because regardless of the many limitations of human brain, anything and everything that a human brain can think of can be also translated from and into another language.