Just three weeks ago yesterday, I flew out to Berlin to attend the inaugural Translate Better event, organised jointly by the BDÜ and the ATA as a German interpretation of the successful Translate In series of style workshops for the French-English language pair. Having attended Translate In Cambridge (hosted by the ITI) in 2016. I’d thought for some time that it would be great to have an equivalent event for my other language pair, German > English: an opportunity to meet up with other experienced colleagues and work on improving our translation skills in a specific language direction. As Matt Baird, one of the event organisers, said in his introduction, this was to be all about the craft of translation, not the business. And when you get to a certain stage in your career, that’s exactly what you want to hear.
Much as I enjoy attending translation conferences and the associated networking, I have found in recent years that the actual presentations tend to be a bit samey: marketing yourself, raising your rates, coworking, making social media work for you… Not that these aren’t all entirely valid topics, but there’s a limit to how many times you want to hear a variation on a theme. I’m not saying that I couldn’t improve in these business areas, but, right now, after 34 years as a professional translator, I’d rather concentrate on honing my craft, rather than the nuts and bolts of the business itself.
The course was held at the Landgut Stober hotel, a magnificent country estate some 20 km to the west of Berlin. Unlike the Cambridge event, the workshop included all meals and accommodation at the venue, which had impeccable eco credentials and was set in a beautiful lakeside location – perfect for a morning wake-up swim before class. The fact that we were all on site made for excellent networking opportunities and a very laid-back feel to the few days we were there. The food was delicious and plentiful (always a good sign) – and the weather simply amazing! (Too hot in fact for some of the afternoon sessions with the sun beating through the windows of the seminar rooms, but as a sun-starved English rose, I certainly wasn’t complaining….)
On to the course itself: the workshop was designed to have two parallel tracks, one for native German speakers and one for native English speakers. Numbers were strictly limited to 25 per track, plus trainers/presenters, so we were a fairly select crew. In theory, the tracks were intended to remain separate, but it would actually have been quite nice to have the flexibility to attend the “other direction” occasionally if the subject matter of specific talks in your own language direction didn’t appeal. Naturally, best practice is always to translate into your native language, but it’s astonishing what you can learn from discussions about the opposite direction…. Inevitably, I can only comment on the English track here, but I hope some of my German colleagues will share their impressions elsewhere too – I heard great things about the other side of the room.
Matt Baird from the ATA kicked off the English track with an extremely entertaining session entitled “Making sense of im Sinne von and other German phrases translators love to hate”. Other expressions covered included those notable groan-inducing old chestnuts im Spannungsfeld zwischen, in beiden Fällen, auf verschiedene Ebenen, im Umkehrschluss… We all come across them time and time again, and it’s so tempting to fall back on stock answers – especially when working with CAT tools which might prompt a previously used solution via Autosuggest. In a technical text, that might be all well and good, but in a marketing or more creative sphere we need to think outside the box. By showing us a number of examples where these phrases were used and getting us to guess how they’d been translated (first literally, and then more creatively), we were able to enjoy a satisfying and stimulating brainstorming session, proving once and for all that there’s rarely “one” right answer, but a whole basket of excellent and creative options. As we discovered in Cambridge, English tends to make great use of imagery, so we shouldn’t be afraid of going off at a tangent: im Umkehrschluss, for example, could be translated as the fairly pedestrian conversely OR you could branch out and talk about the flip side of the coin, a double-edged sword or another side to the story. Lots of food for thought here, and an excellent start to the day’s proceedings.
After coffee and an extensive range of savoury snacks, we moved on to the next session, the first of two on “The Art of Writing about Art” by Bronwen Saunders. I was rather apprehensive about this initially, as art is one of those bargepole fields for me – I’d never accept an assignment in this area! Nonetheless, it was actually very interesting to hear about the problems facing translators in this field, not least because German texts tend to be pitched at a highly cultured and educated audience, whereas corresponding English texts are often much simpler and less highfaluting. Bronwen was clearly passionate about her subject and showered us with a comprehensive range of texts and handouts to put us through our paces. She had us examining parallel (but not identical) German and English texts about similar subject matter to establish the differences between English and German style in this field, reviewing three potential translations for a number of German passages and deciding which was the most natural – and more importantly, why – and making sense of complex German sentences with multiple relative and adjectival clauses (although as a patent translator, used to translating sentences covering half a page or more, I found those remarkably straightforward!). All in all, still not a field I’d translate in, but some interesting techniques and fundamental pointers to differences in (and solutions for) English and German writing in general.
After a delicious lunch and some free time to walk around the lake and gather our thoughts, followed by a group photo (which I’ve yet to see – perhaps some of the BDÜ members can tell me whether it’s on the website yet?), we reconvened for the afternoon’s session. Karen Leube, a native US English speaker now living in Germany, talked about “From bullseye to the big picture: pulling back for better medical translation style”. Again, medical translation isn’t really my field, but this was an interesting exercise in stepping back and thinking exactly how we’d say something in English before we even started to translate related texts from German – a trick that can and should be applied to any field. She also addressed the (sadly) ever-present issue of poorly written source material and to what extent we, as translators, should improve the original, even to the extent of restructuring texts to make more logical sense. Something I’d hope we all do, but perhaps we could go even further – with our customer’s approval, of course.
The next day started bright and early with a fascinating joint session on transcreation given in German by Nina Sattler-Hovdar, explaining the differences between transcreation, marketing translation and straight translation. The main purpose of a standard translation is to provide information, not necessarily to provoke a specific reaction. It is strongly linked to the original source text. Transcreation, on the other hand, is much more image-based and/or seeks to arouse an action (or reaction) on the part of the reader/viewer. It is not necessarily linked to the original and is more of a communication in its own right. Marketing translation, a sort of halfway house, may involve rewriting if necessary, but is based loosely on the original. She went on to give lots of examples to illustrate her points AND I learned a new word: I had no idea that texten in German meant copywriting!
I would have loved to stay on for Nina’s continuation session intended for the German native speakers, but the English track passed over to Stephen Powley, a UK-based technical translator, talking about “The Nuts and Bolts of Writing as a Technical Translator”. I was rather disappointed that Stephen chose to adapt a presentation that I’d already attended in London for the ITI London Regional Group, admittedly in greater depth. As a technical translator myself, I felt it was more of an overview of the field, or an excellent introduction, but after 30+ years in the business, perhaps my reaction was only to be expected? It would be interesting to hear what non-technical translators felt; indeed, perhaps the medical or art translators had the same reservations about those sessions? It’s always a difficult ask to present to experienced colleagues, yet that was exactly what this course was all about.
The day continued with Part II of the art translation session, looking at descriptive language and the need to engage with your subject visually, emotionally and intellectually before you can write effectively about it – I did say this really wasn’t my field! However, I did enjoy the impromptu pastiches at the start of the session: Bronwen had asked us to describe a piece of conceptual art as our homework the night before, using any objects of our choosing. I have to confess I was far too busy socialising to even remember our assignment, but several noble souls had come up with the goods – and very good they were too. Much hilarity around the room as colleagues described objects as simple as a half-full water bottle and a sound recording of the single word “Ha!” in convincing conceptual art terms. Maybe you had to be there….
The final session was Matt Bulow’s “Style in the Age of Digitalization”. In direct contrast to the first workshop presentation, Matt seemed to be advocating a more international style, perhaps focusing on non-native English speakers and simplifying the language used. He recommended using technological style tools such as ProWritingAid to check style, highlight inconsistencies, reduce sentence length, winkle out the passive voice and overuse of adverbs, to name but a few examples. Personally, I found it overprescriptive and intrusive, but I can see that it would be useful in certain situations. He also gave us some horrendous English source texts to improve in small groups – always an interesting exercise.
So, was it all worthwhile? Yes, without a doubt: brainstorming with like-minded colleagues is always a valuable exercise, especially when the content is guided by committed and talented translation specialists seeking to make us think outside the box – and they succeeded! I wouldn’t say it was up to the standard of the Translate In series – yet! But this was the first of its kind, and the only way is up. I’ve definitely found myself thinking about my use of words differently since getting home, and these kinds of events always leave you with a renewed passion for the profession. I particularly enjoyed meeting colleagues I’d only met online before, as well as renewing old acquaintances. Translate better? You bet – looking forward to translating even better next time round!