Becoming a Translator, by Douglas Robinson

Becoming a Translator, by Douglas Robinson
The study of translation and the training of professional translators is without question an integral part of the explosion of both intercultural relations and the transmission of scientific and technological knowledge; the need for a new approach to the process of teaching and learning is certainly felt in translator and interpreter training programs around the world as well. How best to bring student translators up to speed, in the literal sense of helping them to learn and to translate rapidly and effectively? How best to get them both to retain the linguistic and cultural knowledge and to master the learning and translation skills they will need to be effective professionals?

At present the prevailing pedagogical assumptions in translator training programs are (1) that there is no substitute for practical experience — to learn how to translate one must translate, translate, translate — and (2) that there is no way to accelerate that process without damaging students' ability to detect errors in their own work. Faster is generally better in the professional world, where faster translators — provided that they continue to translate accurately — earn more money; but it is generally not considered better in the pedagogical world, where faster learners are thought to be necessarily careless, sloppy, or superficial.

This book is grounded in a simultaneous acceptance of assumption (1) and rejection of assumption (2). There is no substitute for practical experience, and translator training programs should continue to provide their students with as much of it as they can. But there are ways of accelerating that process that do not simply foster bad work habits.

The methodological shift involved is from a pedagogy that places primary emphasis on conscious analysis to a pedagogy that balances conscious analysis with subliminal discovery and assimilation. The more consciously, analytically, rationally, logically, systematically a subject is presented to students, and the more consciously and analytically they are expected to process the materials presented, the more slowly those materials are internalized.

And this is often a good thing. Professional translators need to be able to slow down to examine a problematic word or phrase or syntactic structure or cultural assumption painstakingly, with full analytical awareness of the problem and its possible solutions. Slow analysis is also a powerful source of new knowledge. Without the kinds of problems that slow the translation process down to a snail's pace, the translator would quickly fall into a rut.

The premise of this book is, however, that in the professional world slow, painstaking, analytical learning is the exception rather than the rule — and should be in the academic world of translator training as well. All humans learn better, faster, more effectively, more naturally, and more enjoy ably through rapid and holistic subliminal channels. Conscious, analytical learning is a useful check on more efficient learning channels; it is not, or at least it should not be, the only or even main channel through which material is presented.

This book, therefore, is set up to shuttle between the two extremes of subliminal or unconscious learning, the "natural" way people learn outside of class, and conscious, analytical learning, the "artificial" way people are traditionally taught in class. As teaching methods move away from traditional analytical modes, learning speeds up and becomes more enjoyable and more effective; as it approaches the subliminal extreme, students learn enormous quantities of material at up to ten times the speed of traditional methods while hardly even noticing that they're learning anything. Because learning is unconscious, it seems they haven't learned anything; to their surprise, however, they can perform complicated tasks much more rapidly and confidently and accurately than they ever believed possible.

Effective as these subliminal methods are, however, they are also somewhat mindless, in the sense of involving very little critical reflection, metathinking, testing of material against experience or reason. Translators need to be able to process linguistic materials quickly and efficiently; but they also need to be able to recognize problem areas and to slow down to solve them in complex analytical ways. The main reason for integrating conscious with subliminal teaching methods is that learners need to be able to test and challenge the materials and patterns that they sublimate so quickly and effectively. Translators need to be able to shuttle back and forth between rapid subliminal translating and slow, painstaking critical analysis — which means not only that they should be trained to do both, but that their training should embody the shuttle movement between the two, subliminal-becoming-analytical, analytical-becoming-subliminal. Translators need to be able not only to perform both subliminal speed-translating and conscious analytical problem-solving, but also to shift from one to the other when the situation requires it (and also to recognize when the situation does require it).

Hence the rather strange look of some of the chapters, and especially the exercises at the end of the chapters. Teachers and students accustomed to traditional analytical pedagogies will probably shy away at first from critical perspectives and hands-on exercises designed to develop subliminal skills. And this critical caution is a good thing: it is part of the shuttle movement from subliminal to conscious processing. The topics for discussion that precede the exercises at the end of every chapter are in fact designed to foster just this sort of critical skepticism about the claims made in the chapter. Students should be given a chance both to experience the power of subliminal learning and translating and to question the nature and impact of what they are experiencing. Subliminal functioning without critical self-awareness quickly becomes mind-numbing mechanical routine; analytical critiques without rich playful experience quickly become inert scholasticism.

The primary course for which this textbook is intended is the introduction to the theory and practice of translation. Such introductory courses are designed to give undergraduate (and, in some cases, graduate) students an overall view of what translators do and how translation is studied. To these ends the book is full of practical details regarding the professional activities of translators, and in Chapters
6—10 it offers ways of integrating a whole series of theoretical perspectives on translation, from psychological theories in Chapter 6 through terminological theories in Chapter 7, linguistic theories in Chapter 8, and social theories in Chapter 9 to cultural theories in Chapter 10.

In addition, however, the exercises are designed not only to teach about translation but to help students translate better as well; and the book might also be used as supplementary material in practical translation seminars. Since the book is not written for a specific language combination, the teacher will have to do some work to adapt the exercises to the specific language combination in which the students are working; while suggestions are given on how this might be done, it would be
impossible to anticipate the specific needs of individual students in countries around the world. If this requires more active and creative input from teachers, it also allows teachers more latitude to adapt the book's exercises to their students' needs.

Since most translators traditionally (myself included) were not trained for the job, and many still undergo no formal training even today, I have also set up the book for self-study. Readers not currently enrolled in, or employed to teach in, translator training programs can benefit from the book by reading the chapters and doing the exercises that do not require group work. Many of the exercises designed for group work can easily be adapted for individuals. The main thing is doing the exercises and not just thinking about them. Thought experiments work only when they are truly experiments and not just reflection upon what this or that experiment might be like.


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Douglas Robinson (2002), Becoming a Translator: An Introduction to the Theory and Practice of Translation, Routledge: London and New York.