Monday, October 24, 2011

Lisa and the Hamster: Some Thoughts on Non-Literary Texts and Style

Over at the Intralingo blog, Lisa Carter is very diplomatically sparring with one reader who relentlessly insists that he cranks out 10,000 publication-ready words a day on a regular basis. (“I’ve often translated well in excess of 10,000 words a day, and working overtime (sic) I’ve translated up to 18,000 words (sic!) over a 15 hour period (sick, yo!), and I would rate my quality as high, if not higher, than my contemporaries (contemporaries?).”) Lisa is very tactfully brandishing argument after argument that this is not possible, but our man, undeterred, blithely charges back after every rebuff. Bless her heart, she is soooooo polite. I, on the other hand, (for good or ill) was not bequeathed the gift of suffering fools lightly. Ms. Carter is wasting her time, though. Let’s face it, there simply isn’t a polite way to, you know, tell someone to his face that he is a hack.

Appreciation for language is hard to teach if your student simply doesn’t have it. It is a sense. Just like you cannot explain to a blind person what makes one of Monet’s water lilies special, Lisa cannot raise her voice sufficiently and explain to our 18,000-word-per-day Wunderkind that his output is most assuredly a stomach-churning bucket of bat guano. Even tone-deaf people who talk about translation but have never translated a single word in their lives are smart enough to sidestep the “literary” argument quickly. So they just, Sheldon-Cooper-like, bracket literature in a special mental category (“stuff that other people care a lot about—for some unfathomable reason—but I don’t”) and blissfully go about their business because literature isn’t applicable to commercial translation. “Ah, but that is literature,” the McLocalization theorist ruminates with a knowing smile, “I have heard of it, hmmm, yes… Wikipedia tells me it is something from back in the Age of the Codex. But I am here to discuss repetitive technical texts…”

The literary/non-literary dichotomy is not that ancient. As is the case of a lot of stupid stuff (nationalism, Mesmerism, Gothic novels), it only dates back to the Romantics. It is slowly being placed into question by the genre-disrupting culture of the present. Think about Ali G and reality TV, and then try to retain the old comforting distinctions of fact and fiction snugly in your head. The idea that we bring a set of conventions (the phrase “suspension of disbelief” was coined by Wordsworth) to one set of texts and another—completely different—set of decoding tools to non-fiction simply does not resist serious critical scrutiny. Does that mean that Ben Bernanke’s press conferences should be rendered by the financial translator with the same appreciation for the mot juste that Lisa Carter lavishes on her novels? Well, yes and no. “Yes” in the sense that you should weigh every word carefully (because every central banker does and their words can cause a lot of devastation) and “no” in the sense that you shouldn’t waste too much time waiting for the right adverb to strike you like the Pacific struck Keats’s “stout Cortez.” Because, aside from being slightly foolish, it will get you fired in the end.

Of course, the idea that a “translator is a writer” sounds hyper-pretentious if you think capital “W” Writer: a Luther-throwing-the-inkpot-at-the-Devil Writer, or a Flaubert-spending-eighteen-years-working-on-Madame-Bovary Writer. But small caps “w” writer in the sense that you write. And you should try to do it as well as you can in the service of the original author, who may or may not be a capital “W” Writer, but nonetheless deserves a hearing (or at least is paying for it).

I was reminded of that recently while reading Bruce Catton’s trilogy on the Army of the Potomac ( translators should be keen readers). While Catton’s books are not really works of academic history, they do provide a lot of technical details on military affairs, from the movement of armies during campaigns to minutiae such as the types of weapons used and just what the heck hardtack actually was. But his works are also quite opaque as texts. The influence of William Faulkner is felt on every page, even though it is a very Northern book—an attempt to write Yankee history. The jumps forward and backward in time are also unimaginable without the precedent of literary Modernism. One small example. When Catton is describing the sequence of the Second Battle of Manassas/Bull Run, the 12th Massachusetts regiment is left facing a colossal flanking movement from the Confederates. The author abruptly breaks off for one entire page, in the middle of the battle, to tell the story of the regiment. Its members were responsible for writing the marching song John Brown’s Body, dedicated to the abolitionist guerrilla whose raid on Harper’s Ferry partly triggered the Civil War ( “John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave/ And we go matching on!”). This song was the source for Julia Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic, which is still a staple of American military marching bands (and tactfully suppresses references to rotting corpses). That takes Catton a page and a half. After such as lengthy digression, Catton equally abruptly returns to the two tiny brigades facing a Rebel onslaught:
But the dandy 12th was a long way from the ladies of Boston now, and Colonel Webster was killed, and the 12th was finally forced back, along with the rest of Ricketts’s men and the Germans. (p.40)
You see what the author did there? Try rewriting that sentence according to the rules of “proper” grammar (leaving aside the fact that he started a paragraph with a negative conjunction, a huge no-no according to the provincial school marms who teach “proper” English):
However, the dandy 12th was a long way from the ladies of Boston. Colonel Webster was (had been?) killed. The regiment (Note: the reiteration of the name probably wouldn't pass muster with most proofreaders) was finally forced back, along with the rest of Ricketts’s men and the Germans.
Blink and you miss it. Try to translate this sentence without trying to recreate the confusion and terror of the Massachusetts soldiers and you might as well translate 18,000 words a day.

But perhaps that is a rare case of non-fiction that is suffused with literary technique. After all, the Civil War as a historical subject has always been more the preserve of belles lettres because of Whitman, Sandburg and Faulkner. The lyrical undertone to a lot of writing on the conflict stretches all the way to the present, as anyone who has seen Ken Burns’s documentaries on the conflict will easily perceive.

So how about a less high-falutin’ example? This is an example of something I come across very often (the highlight is mine):
After Papandreou's election win, Mršnik wrote, in a confidential letter to Standard & Poor's customers, that in light of the repeated budgetary lapses of the various Greek governments, it remained to be seen whether the new administration had the will to implement a credible budget strategy. This sounded diplomatic, but it was pure sarcasm. Investors got the message, namely that the decline of Greek bonds from secure investments to casino chips was accelerating.,1518,790333-2,00.html
In a lot of financial research, what you put down on paper is purposefully bland, because some day you may have to answer to a wider audience (or an angry politician or, gulp, a judge) for anything that is more controversial than a spiceless platitude. That is why you have to be attuned to the sarcasm. Once again, blink and you miss it. Mršnik was trading a “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” moment with his readers. His real opinion was reserved for the very privileged clients who get him on the telephone or the board room, as any good analyst’s opinion should be. That is why inexperienced translators often chuckle and say: “Wait, is he serious?” Duh! Of course not! The unspoken byword here is “ldl,” which is what investment bankers write for “let’s discuss live” (i.e., where no written or taped evidence is left).

Every single sentence contains dozens of tiny little decisions. If you translate 18,000 words a day, that means you make over 100,000 tiny decisions in a single day. But that is no problem because you are working on a non-literary, repetitive text, right? We can just hope that none of your tiny decisions is dangerous. Or the subject of future litigation.

Miguel Llorens is a freelance financial translator based in Madrid who works from Spanish into English. He is specialized in equity research, economics, accounting, and investment strategy. He has worked as a translator for Goldman Sachs, the US Government's Open Source Center, several small-and-medium-sized brokerages, asset management institutions based in Spain, and H.B.O. International. To contact him, visit his website and write to the address listed there. You can also join his LinkedIn network or follow him on Twitter.


bonnjill said...

On my busiest day I can crank out 4000-5000 words, but I am typing 95 words per minute and this is only on jobs when I don't have to do any research or look things up. With the help of Trados without the Trados discounts. Wow. I certainly can't sustain that pace for more than a few days. Then I need to take a day or two off to recuperate and let my arms rest. I can't imagine how wrecked this guy's body is.

Kevin Lossner said...

What timing. I have listened with great skepticism to a few colleagues, whom I actually know to be reasonably competent, when they talk of daily outputs that would cripple me. I agree that the 18,000 words referred to (or even the 10,000 daily) are likely bilgewater, but I have in fact witnessed someone do about 10,000 words in a day with less effort than I would spend for 4,000 words of similar material. The method I saw was an interesting mix of old and new techniques, and it reminded me of points made by two very experienced, gifted translators I know (or knew in one case - he translated for over 50 years before dying earlier this year). I am now experimenting with this style of work, and while I doubt I'll ever be pumping out 10,000 words of blended dog food every day (nor do I want to try), I am working a bit more effectively and discovering some interesting effects on my writing style. More on all that later....

Wasaty said...

Well, I do both literary and technical (medical) translations and usually the literary translation is much more productive than technical one. While working on the average day and not particularly difficult medical text (let's say, PET manual) I'm able to translate 2.5 - 3k new words (not counting fuzzies), on most days I can easily do 4 - 5k words of literary translation (reaching a maximum at about 7 - 8k words). Of course a lot depends on the source text - there are easier and more difficult authors, but the general rule stands - it's easier to translate flowing, literary prose than dry technical text (but technical text pays more).
Still, 10 - 18k words a day? I'll believe it when I see it.

Lisa Carter said...


Eloquent, reasoned and pointed prose, as always. I do love your blog.

Yes, I have been rather diplomatic in the replies to my commenter, and will be so here, too; just my style. ;-) But you're so right that my point is being lost. Maybe it requires some shouting? You were certainly more forceful than I, yet your point seems to be lost on some of your readers, too...

Perhaps it all boils down to definitions or opinions. One person's "finished", "revised" or "final" translation is another person's first draft.

For the book I'm working on now, I sat down the other day and cranked out about 3,000 words. By the end, my brain was mush. The result of that effort is essentially "blended dogfood" as Kevin said.

Note that I read that chapter and did research on it for a full day ahead of time, and I will revise those words *at least* four more times before I would ever consider them ready to go to the publisher.

So perhaps it's all in the definition of what exactly we're talking about when we say we can do X words a day. My output is words on a page, yes, but rarely finished, final, polished words fit for publication.

Guðrún gísladóttir said...

"but rarely finished, final, polished words fit for publication." (Lisa Carter)
Well said and fits my reality ;)

Jordi Balcells Antón said...

Sorry I am so late reading (and commenting) here, I have been slacking off on my translation blog reading.

I am not sure I can agree with you on this one.
I have not translated any fiction since my uni days. When I did, thought I did not suck too much, until I saw what my colleagues who were specialising in literary translation were producing. Then I realised that they were playing in a completely different division. Since then, I have specialised in technical (and marketing / journalism) translation where I can happily produce 3,000 words a day without any effort. Maybe 2,000 if I am unfamiliar with the specific field.
If I had to work with proper fiction, I am sure I would grow bored pretty quick because of overthinking and overrevising and I would never be sure of the output quality. I have no patience for that, really.