Notes from the Israel Translators Association Conference, 2010

Notes from the Israel Translators Association conference, 2010 As a technical writer and translator, I find that when either of the two professions holds a conference, there are always several “How I Do My Stuff” lectures.  Sometimes they can drive you crazy.  What do I care how you translate fifty random sentences of nineteenth-century Spanish slang?  My source material is entirely different.  What do I care how you cleverly you leveraged the bureaucracy at your workplace?  My workplace is entirely different.

Then along comes a “How I Do My Stuff” lecture where the stuff does resemble your stuff.  That kind of lecture, in contrast, is fascinating.

So please don’t take this little report as an attempt at objectivity.  And for that matter, please don’t consider that even my subjective opinion is necessarily reflected by whether I discuss a particular session briefly, at length, or not at all.  A last caveat:  I am taking the liberty of paraphrasing freely.

For me, the Israel Translators Association’s 2010 convention started with a fascinating workshop by Alan Clayman about his stuff, which is financial translation.  I don’t specialize in financial translation, but sometimes when I’m translating general material, just minding my own business, I get ambushed by financial terminology anyway.  Alan showed us some typical financial tables and translated them from beginning to end.  Where translators may tend to differ, he showed us which differences were a matter of right versus wrong, which were a matter of British versus American, which were a matter of archaic versus current, and which were a legitimate divergence of styles.  Apropos styles, it seems that a code called the International Financial Reporting Standards has come along and is likely to increase uniformity while imposing its own vocabulary.  No more depreciation, no more amortization, but instead impairment, a term Alan — and the rest of us — found regrettable.

The workshops were a separately paid prelude, followed by the conference’s formal opening with chairperson Inga Michaeli of the Israel Translators Association (ITA) and keynote speaker Oren Nahari of the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA).

Michaeli reported that the ITA’s membership figures are good and its voice is being heard in the corridors of power where issues such as government tenders and intellectual property are involved, but progress in improving the translator’s lot is hard-won and slow.

Nahari cautioned us that if we think the brave new global world of electronic communications is keeping us well informed, we’re deluded.  There are more video clips coming in than ever, but there are fewer trained correspondents out in the field providing objectivity or even providing any informed point of view to balance that of the local pooh-bah who provides the footage.  In the whole of black Africa, the major American TV networks don’t have a single correspondent permanently stationed.  Even when the Israeli news guys cover Israel, there’s inadequate budgeting for reportage from what’s called the periphery.

The next day’s first speakers were Ephraim Sidon and Dani Kerman.  Sidon is a widely appreciated humorist and satirist.  Kerman has contributed comical illustrations to Sidon’s books and others and is also a writer himself.

Sidon’s topic was humor in the Bible.  He claims that the Bible includes only one joke:  when prayers from the prophets of Baal went unanswered, “Elijah mocked them, and said, Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked.”  But if that sort of sarcasm counts as humor, then there are other examples as well.  Yaakov “Dry Bones” Kirschen (not at the conference; I’m digressing) considers that the first one is “Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness?”  I would go as far back as “Am I my brother’s keeper?” for that matter.  And the Bible contains a number of puns as well.  Still, no one would disagree with Sidon when he says there is much more humor about the Bible than in the Bible.  And Kerman finds here a dialectic principle:  Humor, or much of humor, requires on the one hand a shared background.  To appreciate a joke about the Bible, you need to know the Bible at least a little.  But on the other hand, such humor requires at least a little openness to the idea of an alternative perspective.  Where only one view of the Bible is acceptable, the Bible is no laughing matter.

Next the program split up into simultaneous lectures.  I went to hear Andrew Wilson, a visitor from London, on “Looking over the Translator’s (Invisible) Shoulder,” which considered — among other things — how unnoticeable it can be, or should be, that a translation is a translation.  Voltaire, for example, translated Shakespeare into rhyme and in doing so he may have considered he was making the act of translation less obvious — rather than intrusive, as the rhymes look to us — because serious French drama was all rhymed at the time.

Where street slang is involved, a translator today may try to adopt a slang vocabulary that belongs to the equivalent streets of his own society, or the translator may deliberately admit the foreignness that comes across with a closer approach to the original.  After all, a gypsy from Romania is not a homeboy from Watts.

Wilson included a few aphorisms, one in verse (author unknown or at least uncredited):

Many critics, no defenders; Translators have but two regrets: When they hit, no one remembers, When they miss, no one forgets.

After Wilson, I heard Jeffrey Green, a literary translator who began by reminding the audience that despite the excitement over various digital tools for translators, in the end it’s up to us human beings and generally we start with the disadvantage that the writer we’re translating writes better than we do.  Jeff provided a few samples of distinctive English-language writers — Edward Gibbon, Henry James, Mark Twain — and pointed out that their achievement lies not only in the meaning of the text but also in its structure.  The latter can often be harder to replicate in a different language than the former.

Rachel Halevy, a doyenne of book editing, spoke about editing modern Hebrew, and it seems that some Hebrew editors, like some English editors, tend to think they’re correcting language when they’re merely imposing their own style and their own misbegotten prejudices on a piece of writing that’s perfectly good as is.  If you receive a translation to edit, Halevy said, you should be able to assume that the translator is basically competent.  The editor’s job should be to correct the occasional human error, not to correct the whole human.

Translator Michal Horneman and her husband Yitschak Horneman — who I can attest is an honest and patient computer repairman if you need one — spoke about how the popular Asterix comics are rendered in Hebrew, English, and Dutch.  Because Asterix has a long history, there are even interesting differences between earlier editions and later ones.  The Hebrew, for example, has become — not surprisingly — less nationalistically didactic over the years.  An old Hebrew edition adds a remark explaining that the Roman soldiers whom Asterix encounters are the same soldiers we knew here in the Second Temple period.  A later Hebrew edition doesn’t bother.  But there are always additions, if only because when in one place the translator can’t translate the joke and can’t even think of a substitute joke, the only way to maintain the humor quota is to add a joke somewhere else where the original has none.

Ruth Zakovitch, who has translated a book of Yiddish children’s rhymes into Hebrew, read out her translations to demonstrate the principles she follows:  not to worry about what some people might call difficult language, as long as it’s lucid (if the children need an explanation, they’ll ask for it); to allow the smallest possible divergence from the original structure and literal meaning; but to preserve the beauty of the original at all costs.

Uri Bruck, who works both in translation and in software, discussed the translation of websites.  As he sees the situation, the biggest problem is communication between the client and translator.  The client may think the translator can simply visit the website and translate what’s on the screen there, but often it’s hard to be sure you’ve visited every page of the site, and often a single page can differ depending on factors that the translator may find difficult to guess.  When the translator talks with the client about a web page, they may not be looking at exactly the same thing.  The best ways to work, in Bruck’s opinion, are either by means of stable files like PDFs and screenshots (not Microsoft Word files, which don’t convert back and forth well) or by giving the translator access to the site’s content management system.  Almost every serious site these days is run via a content management system, he remarks, and if the client is afraid to give you access to the online material, there may be a test server you can access.

This year, for the first time, the translators’ convention included an evening activity at extra charge:  a walk through the Western Wall tunnels and a bit of Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter.  The weather was very good, and we even received a few minutes to visit the Wall itself so that for once we could submit our writing with no fear of any misunderstanding.

The third and final day began with a talk from international translation and localization guru Jost Zetsche, covering technology trends.  He says that translation memories — the databases that make old translations a useful basis for new translations — are getting bigger and merging together to give machine translation a powerful future.  In the meantime, though, he says that some good tools for translators have failed in the marketplace because translators are not good customers.  Translators are not sure whether automation is a friend or an enemy, but by failing to step forward as friendly customers and counsellors for the translation software developers, they are leaving the leadership to the real enemy, the giant companies that don’t consider the human side of translation at all.

When we split into groups again, I went to hear “Nina and Rina,” as later speaker Danny Verbov called them.  Nina Rimon Davis provided “First Aid for Translators and Editors” based on her long experience.  A few examples:  get proper furniture, learn keyboard shortcuts, have reference books and websites and human helpers to call on, find out all about the assignment in advance and don’t overextend yourself, get a specialty and stick to it, know your audience, keep backups.  Rina Ne’eman, an agency owner, presented “Fifty Things You Can Do to Succeed as a Freelancer.”  Danny complained wryly that their long, valuable lists of hints and advice left him little to say, except to agree, when he got around to his own talk.  Rina in her talk apologized for stating the obvious, but made it clear that she often ran into people who had forgotten the obvious.  A translator needs to be marketing constantly, but politely and honestly.  A translator, as the song in Gypsy says, has got to have a gimmick, be it specialized knowledge, exceptional speed, or a willingness to work weekends.  Reliability is essential, proper formatting is essential, excuses don’t work, and to be friendly and presentable is part of being professional.

Danny called his talk “Your Greatest Marketing Tool is Right Under Your Nose!” because he claims we know instinctively what we should be doing:  we should give the customer a good experience.  For example, we should respond to e-mail within twenty-four hours.  Rina disagreed.  “Twenty-four minutes,” she said.  Danny, whose work consists largely of marketing collateral, said that the pressure at the customer’s office doesn’t have to put us under pressure.  Yes it does, said Rina.

Micaela Ziv, a long-time leader in the Israel Translators Association, reported on the organization’s mentoring program and on its drive toward eventually establishing a status of certified translator to separate the professionals from the amateurs.  Undaunted by the prospect of setting criteria that must rule out some of its own dues-payers, the organization is taking a first step by inviting members to apply for the easier status of recognized translator.  We shall see.

Eve Hecht, who teaches translation and is very much at home with legal and financial material, spoke on “Teaching Translators (Including Yourself) to Read Between the Lines.”  In order to translate correctly, she says, you need to understand the underlying story.  A legal contract, for example, is like a marriage, with all the desires and fears.  A medical report is like a mystery novel.  People have an underlying agenda that they may not explicitly state, but you need to know it in order to provide the proper tone, for example in choosing between near-synonyms like “implications” and “repercussions.”  If it’s a legal text, she says, follow the money.  If it’s a financial text, follow the liability.  Sounds like much the same thing?  Yes, it is.  Legal is at bottom financial, unless it’s strictly criminal.  And you should work like an interpreter.  When an interpreter is translating speech in real time and a hard word comes along, the interpreter soldiers on.  Don’t stall.  Often an explanation for the hard word will come along later in the text, or it will strike you out of the blue the next time the word appears.

Yael Sela-Shapiro, a professional lecturer on translation, gave a talk about “Preparing Quotations and Contracts,” and she handed out outlines of what not to forget:  If the client is a company, make sure there’s an individual who accepts responsibility.  If it’s a book that you’re translating, make sure you know what to translate and what not to.  (Blurbs?  Photo captions?)  Make sure you know what file format the client is supplying, and what file format the client expects to receive.  Work out the timeline, details of payment, details of credit if any, who has approval rights, and who has intellectual property rights.

The final speakers were Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann and Ruth Almagor.  He has written a book distinguishing the Israeli language from the Hebrew language, and she is the expert on Hebrew (or Israeli, if you will) for the Israel Broadcasting Authority.

Zuckermann contended that what we hear in the streets and think of as a Hebrew riddled with mistakes is actually correct because it is a different language, the Israeli language, based only partly on Hebrew, partly on Yiddish, and also on other immigrant languages.  The attempt to speak proper Hebrew is artificial and unnecessary.

Almagor said that a song, a news broadcast, a radio commercial are all artificial media and there’s nothing wrong with a little artificiality.  She does recognize that even biblical Hebrew provides precedents for many variant constructions, and to a reasonable extent she exploits those precedents in order to go with the popular flow, but she knows there is a demand for proper Hebrew because she hears the demand from the public.

That’s my summary.  I know of two others on the net: (entry of February 11) and .