From there to here: mapping a journey to becoming a good translator

Image: Nad Hemnani via Unsplash

Image: Nad Hemnani via Unsplash

With overwhelming numbers of college courses, online webinars, translation seminars and conferences, not to mention the pressures of deadlines, marketing and the challenges of having a life, it is very easy to lose track of what needs to be done to continue (or even start) growing professionally. I suspect that I’m not the only one struggling with having a CPD plan that goes beyond “go to a conference, buy a couple of webinars”, and enters the territory of hard work at the core translation skills. Fortunately, the wonderful world of books (and podcasts) once again comes to the rescue. Read on to find out more about plotting your course to becoming a better translator.

Mapping the Journey

If you are looking for a “getting better at X” blueprint, you only need to pick a copy of “Peak: secrets from the new science of expertise” by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool.

After that, unfortunately, it becomes rather messy. Given the many sub-types and translation and the multitude of factors that go into translation becoming “yay” not “meh”, and even the differences in what different people, professional translators and laypeople, define as “yay” or “meh”.

While there is no lack of online and offline training courses, seminars and conferences. However, most of them are lacking an interactive component, “role-play, discussion groups, case solving, hands-on training, and the like” (p. 134 – “Peak”) that is crucial at improving your practical skills.

An additional hindrance is that experience does not equal improvement: "once a person reaches that level of “acceptable” performance and automaticity, the additional years of “practice” don’t lead to improvement” (p. 13 – “Peak”). The key to improvement, according to Ericsson and Pool, is deliberate practice (as opposed to just repeatedly doing something, hoping it will stick – p. 14 – “Peak”).

A long and winding road?

According to Ericsson and Pool a deliberate practice consist of the following elements (pp. 15-18 – “Peak”):

  • Well-defined, specific goals
  • Focus
  • Feedback
  • Getting out of your comfort zone.

Starting point (you're gonna go far)

I think that most freelancers would agree that while maintaining focus and specifying measurable and specific goals seem attainable, taking on more challenging study projects possible (although definitely causing some discomfort), finding a source of relaibly good, detailed and tailored feedback is likely to be a Very Big Problem (cue Peg + Cat music) - and we're not even talking about such terrifyingly visible endeavors as translation slams or "Translate in..." events.

Current workaround (minimal pain)

Although there are many ways to approach the goal-setting and many ways to define the "goodness" of a translation, there is an easy, existing shortcut that will work if you are not looking for improvement in a highly specialized niche of translation - the ATA Certification Exam. Information on grading criteria (measurable, specific) can be found online, practice tests can be purchased, exam can be taken (if desired).

Even if you're not trying to become ATA-certified, using the grading framework overtime can give a general idea of what kind of errors you are especially prone to, even if you are reviewing your own translations (with the caveat of not being able to find mistakes you are not aware of).

However, it is extremely hard to see your own translation with fresh eyes (a way to overcome this has been mentioned in John Riedl’s article on preparing for the ATA certification exam in Spring 2016 SlavFile). Taking an ATA practice test to get some feedback is a good option, but the problem with this approach is that you do not get feedback continuously, and that you get information on the types of errors you make, but not explanations of each separate error. In some cases you’ll be able to figure out what when wrong; it some you’ll be guessing.

One of the current workarounds is participating in the ATA Certification Examination Practice Group (read more in the Spring 2017 issue of SlavFile).

The problem in this case is that usefulness of the feedback will inevitably vary. In my opinion, this drawback is to some extent offset by having to review other participants’ texts, which forces you to slow down and to focus – which is part of the practice. Additional benefit of the group is that you are not choosing the texts yourself, so you cannot select the texts you like or that are easy. And you have to commit to translating the text and reviewing translations of others, which helps you stay on track.

Inspiring examples

The fear of failure is a very real impediment (especially if you have been attending college in a school system that places enormous value on giving the right answer), so it has been very heartening to learn that everyone makes mistakes, and that there are other professions where messing up is more public, painful and distressing.

If you are looking for an inspiring real-world example of someone mastering a new and difficult skill, I suggest reading Bianca Bosker’s “Cork Dork”, preferably after reading “The Peak”. It is a wonderful example of implementing some of the principles of deliberate practice in a completely different industry (that, shockingly, in some ways is not so far away from the translation world), from learning the necessary vocabulary necessary to form mental constructs and, eventually, a mental system, to finding multiple ways to get feedback necessary to grow. I especially admire the author’s ability to keep going in spite of the challenges of receiving very public and directly-worded feedback and many spectacular wine-related catastrophes, from decanting gone wrong to spraying an examiner (or was it examiners?) with wine. Whatever the risks and challenges of translation might be, wine spraying is not one of them.

If you need more language-specific reasons to start mapping your deliberate practice CPD, you might want to read Kevin Hendzel’s blog.

If you are in the middle of CPD-induced stupor, generally overwhelmed and no longer certain you can even speak your native language, read Kory Stamper’s “Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries”. You’ll find out that not only translators (and writers? possibly writers) obsess about words, lose ability to use their Sprachgefühl and “English” (or “Russian”, or “German”).

Over to you: how do you try to become a better translator, "own" your work and challenge yourself?


Ekaterina Howard, Pinwheel Translations. English and German into Russian marketing, business and real estate translations

Ekaterina Howard, Pinwheel Translations

English to Russian and German to Russian translator working with business, marketing and real estate materials. ATA and CATI member.