December 10, 2009

Conference session review: “Organisations Internationales : Un Défi À Relever” (conference seminar F-4) by FLD distinguished speaker Dr. Maite Aragonés Lumeras

Review by Alan Dages (photo below)

Dr. Aragonés began her presentation by saying that international organizations (IOs) represent a considerable share of the translation market and thus provide a steady flow of work. However, since the 1970s, their translators have had to follow manuals with rigid guidelines that cannot always be applied to the wide range of texts to be translated. At the present time, text revision is subjective in that reviewers make changes based on habit, preference and ideology. Much remains to be done to harmonize the revision function so revisers understand that their role is to control quality and provide training and not to call the translator’s ability into question. Greater tolerance is needed.

The IOs entered a “golden age” of translation in the 1970s and 80s as their mission turned to promoting multilinguism and multiculturalism. Translation became mandatory to the extent it became a part of the IOs’ corporate image. Organizations recruited large numbers of translators and interpreters to handle a growing workload. The United Nations (UN) unveiled its Manuel à l’usage des traducteurs in 1988 intended to train in-house translators and better harmonize their translations since several individuals could be working on a single text. By the mid-1990s, translation budgets had grown to the point that IOs hired fewer translators in house to reduce costs. They also began making greater use of outside translators for short-term projects just as the advent of the personal computer permitted outsourcing work to freelance translators working at home.

With the new millennium, outsourced translations were being revised in house and quality control became a hot topic. A growing volume of material to be translated, together with budget cuts, caused IOs to turn to terminology solutions such as databases and translation memories.

As things stand now, both the UN and the World International Property Organization (WIPO) use a thoroughly linguistic approach to translation based on a prescriptive method based on specific examples. By way of illustration, Dr. Aragonés cited examples from manuals, glossaries and guidelines developed at the UN and WIPO, where she has been a translator and reviser working in Chinese, English, Spanish and French since 1998. The manuals take a restrictive, case-by-case approach to guide the translator, and le mot est maître.
The UN manual states, “Les stagiaires ont intérêt à lire très attentivement..." and “Il convient, comme dans le cas de tous les textes à portée normative, de suivre l’original dans toute la mesure possible. […] En particulier : ne pas faire deux phrases là où l'original n'en comporte qu'une ou vice versa."

Translators are admonished to keep to the source text in a literal way while at the same time expressing the equivalent meaning in the target language's style and quality. Proper grammar must be used. Simplicity, clarity and conciseness are key. These general prescriptions are meant to serve equally well for all subjects, be they general, legal, technical, budgetary, political, administrative, economic or financial without factoring in the concept of text genre.
Hence, the UN prescribes, “Dans ce genre de textes, on se gardera tout autant d'interpréter l'original ou d'ajouter des mots qui n'y figurent pas.  Par exemple, une phrase telle que “Agrees in principle to the need of an expert group to assist the Committee...” est à traduire par “Reconnaît en principe qu'il est nécessaire qu'un groupe d'experts aide le Comité...” et non par "Reconnaît en principe la nécessité de créer un groupe d'experts pour assister le Comité”. Dr. Aragonés mentioned that it would, however, be possible to write “reconnaît en principe la nécessité de se référer/de s’en remettre à un groupe d’experts …” Even though a word has been added, the meaning has not changed.

Yet this prescriptive method inevitably results in apparent contradictions as in this quote from the UN manual under the heading, Qualité: “Le bon traducteur ne traduit pas mot à mot ni même phrase par phrase; d’instinct comme de raison, il se réfère à chaque instant au contexte.” This would appear to go against the previous advice to adhere to the source text while maintaining its sentence structure at all times.

IO guidelines contain a wealth of equivalencies, i.e. recommended translations from English to French of examples that may bear little resemblance to normal patent usage. These address such minutia as specific word choices as shown below:

  • Need : besoin, nécessité OMPI 08; exigence, impératif; s’impose ONU 88
  • compelling need à Il est absolument nécessaire
  • In need of à ayant besoin de, nécessitant (see “patient”)
  • patient/subject in need thereof à patient/sujet ayant besoin (d’un tel traitement), patient dont l’état nécessite (un tel traitement).
This proposal is in fact a translation that does not respect the conventions of patents written in French where the preferred use is “patients” or “malades” alone. Indeed, little is left to chance using this approach, but does it yield better translations?

IO manuals also contain examples of different types of texts that could be improved, which are offered only to illustrate the range of possible subjects the translator might encounter. Other guidelines include advice on abbreviations, capitalization, spelling and the use of gerunds.

Dr. Aragonés held out text genre as the guiding principle for a linguist working at the UN or WIPO, calling it the translator’s “GPS”. Aristotle was the first to study and write about text genre, but the notion took hold in literature and, much later, in cinematography. During the 1980s it turned up in sociolinguistics and rhetorics, particularly for teaching foreign languages to experts (Language for Specific Purposes, or LSP). Text genre originates from recurring situations and can be identified by the members of discursive communities who use it as a communications platform. The translator, as an outsider, can use text genre to glean missing contextual information, given she knows neither the issues and conventions nor even the intentions and objectives of the authors and readers. Far from being just a formal prototype, text genre socializes the members of a community, serving as a constantly changing model for negotiation among parties. Hence, it also socializes translators through the use of a corpus of texts, which becomes their documentation tools. This familiarizes them with IO conventions, thereby making it easier to produce a readable translation that meets the user’s expectations while keeping faithful to the author’s intentions.

Dr. Aragonés is currently training two fellows at WIPO’s PCT Translation Department based on text genre, which is the core of her teaching method known as “contextualization”. She uses this method to teach trainees how to translate from Chinese into French. The results are convincing, and the translation quality after two months’ training is excellent. The trainees now respect the formal patent conventions without betraying the intentions of the patent engineers and inventors.

A discussion ensued following the presentation in which a translator said the UN will train and restrict you at first, but if you are really competent, you will be given greater latitude. Another UN translator pointed out that manuals ensure adherence to conventions and harmonization.  Dr. Aragonés responded that there is still a great deal of disagreement between translators and revisers and among revisers themselves at international organizations. The subjectivity of language often results in drawn-out, fruitless and polemical debates if objective criteria are not defined. Translators and revisers must not impose their subjective choices; rather they should adhere to the text genre and formal conventions already chosen and negotiated between authors and their readers, who together form an integral part of a discursive expert community with clear objectives.

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