November 10, 2009

Conference session review: “Translating Government/Administrative French>English” (preconference seminar Q) by Grant Hamilton

Review by Jenn Mercer (seminar announcement here)

Grant Hamilton’s seminar on translating government/administrative French>English documents took place the day before the official start of the 50th ATA Conference, but that did not seem to hurt attendance. There were around 30 translators in attendance and the audience grew as the talk went on. Fortunately for those who arrived late (including myself), Hamilton’s seminar had a simple structure and it was easy to jump right in.

The seminar was designed around a handout which divided examples into various categories containing two to seven exercises each.  These categories included “Slippage in Style and/or Meaning,” “Overly Literal Translation,” “Overreliance on Nouns,” “Words Could Have Been Removed, But Weren’t” and “Say What?” Hamilton started with a French phrase, provided a draft translation into English, and then opened the discussion by asking specific questions.  Hamilton also encouraged the translators to work on their own translations of the sentences. He then revealed his improved version of the translation.

The discussion which ensued was lively and instructive. Different solutions were presented, but also different translation philosophies. Hamilton listed “devotion to readability” as one of his key goals for the day and advised attendees that “we have to assume someone has a message for somebody.” Hamilton said that “you as a translator, having already made this effort [to understand this message], owe it to readers to simplify the sentence on their behalf.”  This statement and similar comments were made in the context of bureaucratic documents provided to ordinary citizens, however one participant pointed out that this level of freedom would not be possible when translating legal documents.

Hamilton is also to be commended on his bravery in putting forth both the draft and “possible” translations in front of such a large crowd of intelligent and eager translators. Despite the fact that the revised translations were a definite improvement on the originals, there were still some errors to be found. Only a few of these were clear-cut examples of right and wrong. For the most part, these disagreements reflected the real difficulties of translation where there are as many right answers as there are wrong ones. These disagreements and the discussions which they produced would have been enough to make this seminar worth attending. Another priceless benefit was the opportunity to commiserate on the level of bureaucratese present in these documents. Hamilton put it best when he said “this kind of text – you just want to cry when you see it.” I have certainly had this feeling myself and judging by the laughter of the audience, I was not the only one.

Due to Hamilton’s detailed preparation, the benefits of this seminar continued well after the seminar itself was over. Hamilton passed out a second handout at the end of the session which contained the text of the improved solutions along with his comments. This was convenient, but there were a few unexpected bonuses at the end of the handout. These included a list of 37 alternate translations for the French word “structurant” as well as a “Translator’s Checklist.” This checklist contained basic questions such as “Can any words be removed?” and “Can I say things in a simpler way?” As if this were not enough, the participants of both of Hamilton’s sessions received PDF’s of this document, plus a few extras such as a handy guide entitled “When you see the word...” This last guide contained examples such as “When you see... accessible, Ask yourself whether you should say... accessible, affordable, available.” All of the checklists and guides which Hamilton provided showed a consistent strategy of looking beyond the surface complications of French bureaucratic texts to deliver clear, and yet faithful, English translations.

This pre-conference seminar was the first one which I attended at this, or any, ATA event. I found it to be informative, but more than that, it was a great introduction to the joy of discussing translation issues with people who really love words. I would like to thank not only Grant Hamilton for his excellent presentation, but also my fellow translators who were so dedicated to finding the absolute best translation.


  1. What a great and detailed review! And now you made me really sorry that I played hooky on that day and decided to wander around New York instead:-(

  2. Don't feel too bad. New York caused me to miss at least one session that I would have liked to attend myself.

    -Jenn Mercer