17 October 2011

Translation by emulation, take #1

‘Translation by emulation’ is an approach to translation/adaptation or transcreation. As a French-to-English translator specialising in technical journalism, I aim to produce English versions of my customers’ documents that read as though they had been drafted directly by a mother-tongue technical journalist, which is to says someone combining professional mother-tongue writing skills, subject knowledge and experience in writing for the same target audience. In Europe, the standard in naval defence is set by publications like Jane’s Navy International and Jane’s Naval Forces News. I have studied both for many years and always striven to emulate their style, rhythm and other characteristics, save for occasional concessions to accommodate the fact that many of my readers (i.e. my customers’ customers) read English as a second language.
Writing for a highly specialised readership is quite different from writing for a much broader general audience. To explain how and why is a challenging task. Let me take the following points one at a time:
1) Change viewpoint. One of the great challenges of technical communication is to write not from one's own or the company's viewpoint, but from the customer's viewpoint. Good product promotion begins not with claims concerning challenges overcome by engineers but with information presented from the customer's viewpoint on how the product meets customer need. Sounds easy, doesn't it? In practice it is very challenging and takes long practice.
Company engineers who have not been trained in this area find it very difficult to forget that they are engineers and to write from the customer's viewpoint. Result? Much technical journalism produced by in-house teams is company focused instead of customer focused.
Without a clear mandate from the client, a translator cannot re-write a document in the target language and change the viewpoint entirely. But (s)he can subtly (or not-so-subtly) reduce the focus on the company or its product engineering and increase that on customer's needs.  
2) Change viewpoint (claims). Similarly, a French journalist can easily make a bold claim that will ring true (or at least not false) for his French-language readers because, like the writer, they will subconsciously be thinking of the French national context more than the international context. Contrast this with the fact that most readers of the English version will subconsciously be thinking of the international context in which the same claim may be anything from unproven or unlikely to downright misleading. The courageous transcreator will modify the claim accordingly to ensure that it doesn't ruffle the reader's feathers or, worse, tarnish instead or burnishing the (translation) customer's image.
3) Change viewpoint (adjectives). When a French naval engineer writes about a ship or other naval topic, (s)he's probably thinking subconsciously about the French Navy. Contrast this with the fact that most readers of the English version will subconsciously be thinking of the large English-language fleets or their own navy. This means that even a very simple adjective like 'big' needs serious thought since what is 'big' relative to the French Navy, is not necessarily so for, say, the US Navy.
4) Personal pronouns: Research confirms that annual reports and similar documents written directly in authentic English contain more first person pronouns (I, my, our) than translations of similar texts from French. ‘Translation by emulation’ thus demands that many sentences be recast with first person pronouns rather than third person pronouns. This research (by Rosie Wells recently and by Vinay & Darbelnet many years before) is backed up by the recommendations of the SEC Plain English Handbook among others.
5) Acronyms: Countless online style guides advise journalists to avoid acronyms and abbreviations wherever possible. I do not believe that this rule should be applied too rigorously to technical journalism, particularly for military readerships. Military personnel live and breathe acronyms to the point where they are often more familiar with an acronym than its long form. The documents that they read use so many acronyms that the text acquires a rhythm of its own that cannot be maintained if one resorts too often to long forms.

More in due course on headings, captions, the USN style guide, transforming unqualified and unconditional claims into conditional claims etc.

Major update

French-English Glossary of Naval Technology v20 (#NavTechGloss v20)  This glossary is intended primarily for French-to-English translators s...