Remembering Joan Pinkham

I was very saddened earlier this week when I learned that Joan Pinkham, who translated Pierre Vallières’ autobiographical essay, Nègres blancs d’Amérique, into English, and whom I had interviewed in 2008 during my doctoral work, died a few months ago, at the age of 83. Although I never had the opportunity to meet Joan in person, we continued to correspond via email in the years after the interview, and I enjoyed her thoughtful and kind messages. During our interview, she reflected on her career, first as as a bilingual secretary at the United Nations from the early 1950s until 1961, and then as a French to English translator. Initially she translated magazine articles for the independent socialist magazine Monthly Review, but in later years she translated a number of non-fiction books such as Henri Troyat’s works on Catherine the Great, Alexander of Russia, Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great. Given my interest in translated works related to Quebec nationalism and the sovereignty referendums, our interview focused mainly her translation of Nègres blancs d’Amérique, which was first published in 1971 in the US by Monthly Review Press and then republished in Canada that same year by McClelland & Stewart.

As a tribute to her, I thought I would reprint an excerpt from our interview correspondence. In 2011, she granted me permission to post the full interview online as part of a collection I’m putting together that includes interviews with political translators and other archived material. The collection isn’t quite ready to be shared with the public, so I won’t post a link to it here, but when the rest of the interviews have been transcribed, approved, and posted, I will write a blog post about them.

The following excerpt is from our early correspondence, in which Joan discusses her background, her career and her motivations for translating:

Since you ask, I grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., because my father was a government official. My mother (Anne Terry White) was a prolific and acclaimed writer of non-fiction books for children. She taught her daughters the love of literature and a curiosity about words, and throughout their childhood she provided them with the constant and fascinating sound of an Underwood standard typewriter.

As you will see from the résumé, I studied French in college and graduate school (including in Paris) and had the good fortune to improve my knowledge of the language during ten years as a bilingual secretary at United Nations, where I worked for and with French staff members.

As a translator, I am basically self-taught. At the time I was in school, there were no official academic programmes in translation in the U.S. (or none that I was aware of). Courses at the British Institute in Paris and at Middlebury College in Vermont — they were called “Stylistics” – were invaluable but insufficient for my purposes. So I studied on my own, reading such books as I could find, preparing translations of Maupassant and comparing mine to the many different printed versions, learning much from the bilingual documents that constantly came across my desk at UN.

3. My career
In the course of my ten years at United Nations I did quite a bit of informal translation from F to E but soon gave up my ambition of becoming an official translator. I don’t know whether my French would have been good enough for the job, but proficiency in a third language was required, and it would have taken too much time and effort to bring my feeble Spanish to the required level. (It turned out that I had an increasingly responsible and interesting job as a bilingual secretary with WHO, and I never regretted having abandoned the other possibility.)

It was only after I left United Nations and began raising children that I started translating for publication. That was owing solely to a stroke of good luck: I was friends with the founding editors of the independent socialist magazine Monthly Review (Leo Huberman and Paul Sweezy), and it was they who asked me if I could translate an article for them. I did, they loved my work, and that led to other articles and to my first three books: the Nizan, White Niggers, and the Césaire, all published by MR Press.

These assignments all came to me unsolicited, but when MR had nothing more for me to do, I had to hustle jobs. Making the rounds of the New York publishing houses, I eventually got contracts for the next couple of books (Goldman, Israël) and then for Troyat’s Catherine the Great. Dutton liked my work, as did Troyat, so I went on to do everything else of his that Dutton took on.

Then, as you will see from the résumé, nothing. To the extent that I had a career and my name was known to a number of editors in New York, that career and those connections were interrupted by my eight years in China (whither I first went in 1979 because my husband had been invited there to teach journalism). I’ve done other things since our final return from China in 1994, but they haven’t included the daunting task — résumés, letters, cold calls to editors, job-hunting safaris — of trying to re-establish a career as a translator.

4. My choice of projects
I never chose my projects, except in the sense that I could have rejected them when offered. I was hungry for work and would have accepted anything that I didn’t think was actually pernicious. (I seem to remember that I did that once, with Viking, but perhaps I was not dealing with a firm offer.) Fortunately, I had total confidence in the MR editors and was proud and happy to undertake the jobs they proposed. I felt that this work constituted my small contribution to the propagation of ideas that I believed in. . . my justification for being, as Sartre says somewhere in the introduction to Nizan. I felt an affinity for Pierre Goldman, and was more than pleased to do Dr. Lucien Israël’s fine book on cancer. As for the Troyat books, although they were not political, I thought they were good and marvelously well written. They were a pleasure to work on.

Fiction would have been harder than non-fiction, but I would have cheerfully attempted it if any had been proposed.

5. Typical aspects of my career
You didn’t specifically ask about this, but your questions suggest that you may be interested in the following more general comments about the profession.

Unless circumstances have changed for the better in the past twenty years since I was active in the field — and I believe they have changed for the worse — literary translation is not a “career” in the United States. Technical translation, for staff members of international organizations and for inkstained wretches hired and exploited by commercial agencies, has always been a career. There may also be professional literary translators in the U.S. who make a living as such, but I have never met one (e.g. at a conference), or even read about one.

The distinguished translators who introduce the new works from Latin America or Europe, and whose names guarantee reviews, all seem to be academics, writers, lecturers in their own right. Presumably, they have separate sources of income. And no doubt the most celebrated ones command a part interest in the books they translate.

In this regard, my own experience is probably typical. That is, my work was subsidized by another source of income — not mine, as it happens, but my husband’s (he was a university faculty member). Even in the years when I was working full time, the income I earned was dérisoire in terms of the hours of skilled labor required to secure it, and I could not have supported myself in that way. Possibly in Canada, which is an officially bilingual country, the conditions of employment for translators are better.

Once, when I was doing the Troyat books for Dutton, I complained to my editor there about my rate of pay (a flat fee at the time; later I insisted on royalties). I was told that a certain literary agent, who was then the “gatekeeper” of foreign works brought into this country, negotiated the contracts with the French publishers even before the rights were sold to an American house, and that it was to him that I must apply if I objected to the terms. I made bold to write to this agent. Making the case that the work of the translator was fundamental to the success of the imported work, I asked if it was not reasonable for him or her to expect a greater share of the benefits. The Great Man’s assistant replied that the translator’s case did not merit special consideration: after all, the jacket designer likewise thought he deserved a larger share.

That experience was consistent with what I had found to be the general level of respect accorded a translator. At the time — the situation may have somewhat improved by now– most reviews of translated books never mentioned the work of the translator, for good or ill. Often, indeed, one would never have known that the book had been originally written in another language.

Nor is the translator necessarily respected by the publisher. In dealing with one of the biggest houses, I repeatedly had to wait months for replies to correspondence and even came to the point of considering legal action before I was paid what was owed me for completed work.

6. Why I translate
Despite these grievances, I have continued to translate so long as I could get jobs. Because I love the work. Because I believe in my authors. Because once every few years a reviewer or an editor praises my work. Because some of my authors –Amin, Vallières, Goldman, Israël, Troyat — kindly answer my queries, thank me for my collaboration, and tell me that they prize what I have done for them.

For example, I was touched and honored by the note that Pierre Vallières, whom I had the great pleasure of meeting at last in Quebec in the summer of 1971, inscribed on the flyleaf of my copy of the English book:

A Joan Pinkham, pour son travail extraordinaire et sa profonde amitié, je dis ma plus sincère estime, ma grande admiration et mon amitié indéfectible. Vive le Québec libre! Vive la révolution mondiale! Nous vaincrons! Pierre Vallières 29-7-71.

Students translating for Wikipedia

Well, the Fall term is officially ending this week, and I’ve just taught my last Introduction to Translation into English class, where my students presented the Wikipedia translation projects they’ve been working on for the past month.

I really enjoyed listening to the students describe the challenges they encountered during the translation process, their experiences using the wiki markup language, and their justifications for adapting the French articles for the English version of the encyclopedia.

They had a lot of positive things to say about the assignment, which involved working in pairs or small groups (of up to four students) to translate all or part of an article of their choice, which I recommended they select from this list of 9000+ articles needing translation. They liked the fact that Wikipedia has (very broad) translation guidelines to follow, as well as advice about writing in an encyclopedic style. One of these recommendations was that translators should “avoid being overly influenced by the style of the original” and that “a useful translation may require more than just a faithful rendering of the original.” My students really seemed to like this flexibility: if they found some information irrelevant for English readers, they omitted it; if they found a word or section too subjective for an encyclopedia article (e.g. adjectives like “spectacular” and “great” to describe the historic site of Aigues-Mortes), they omitted it in the translation; if they found that important details about a subject’s life were missing (e.g. Octave Crémazie’s bankruptcy and subsequent flight from Quebec), they added them in. I haven’t marked the assignments yet, so this aspect may prove a little challenging for me, but I was happy to see the students taking such an interest in really making the texts fit the expectations of an imagined English-speaking audience.

On the other hand, students did find some aspects of the project frustrating: one group was annoyed that their translation was modified by another Wikipedian shortly after they posted it. They had spent a lot of time debating stylistic preferences such as hyphenation, spelling, and capitalization, and they felt that the changes the other user was proposing were not justified by the style guides they had consulted and–even worse–were not applied evenly throughout the article. Other students found that editing within the Wikipedia environment was tedious, and not everyone was able to figure out how to add references, post images and add hyperlinks to relevant English articles. (Others, though, were happy with the Wikipedia cheat sheet, which outlines most of the mark-up code for things like adding links, headings, and italics.)

In general, though, the students seemed to have enjoyed the assignment. They were able to choose articles that interested them, collaborate with others in the class to solve problems and research terms, and post their translations online for other Wikipedia users to see–although as one student mentioned, the collaborative nature of Wikipedia means that the translation might ultimately change, and it might eventually be hard for individual students to show exactly how they contributed to the version that is available online.

Once I’ve had a chance to mark these assignments, I’ll post a few thoughts about my experience with the project, in case other instructors might be interested in integrating a Wikipedia translation exercise into their classes.

Would you like to take a look at some of the translations? Here are a few of the articles students contributed to:
Russell Bowie
Old Quebec
Octave Crémazie

Another term teaching online

Now that I’ve had a chance to get caught up on the first few weeks of prep for the courses I’m teaching this term, I thought I’d post a few thoughts about the online course I taught time last term. I’ve discussed my experiences teaching online before, but when I taught Specialized Translation into English again last term I tried a few new things, with mixed results, so I think it’s worth writing another short post about the experience. Here are a few reflections on the two main tools I used to deliver course content last term: Twitter and WordPress.


One of the comments I received from students I taught online in 2011 was that they wanted to receive notifications when the course website was updated, new content was added and responses were posted in the homework forum. WordPress does, of course, have an RSS feed, but not many of the students took advantage of that feature, either because they didn’t know about it, or because they didn’t have an RSS reader. So last term, I decided to integrate Twitter into the class. I created new account for the course, and let students know they could follow the feed to receive updates throughout the semester. Of the twenty students enrolled in the class, though, only 1 had a Twitter account. However, I had installed a WordPress widget so that the Twitter feed also appeared on the course website (more on that in a minute), so the rest of the class was still able to see the messages, even if they didn’t get instant notifications. Despite the low participation rate, I would still use Twitter again for the next online course. It allowed me to post not just notifications about new content, but also announcements about events on campus, job vacancies, and graduate programs. Although I had posted those kinds of announcements on the course homepage in previous years, it required more time and effort, since I had to cut and paste notices from emails, PDF files, and websites. With Twitter, I was able to just retweet the announcements I’d received that I thought might interest students, and they could then click through for more details. And the 140-character limit on tweets was actually perfect for making sure announcements were short and easy to read. They usually sounded something like this: “Nov 22: Just posted: videos (week 13), corrected homework (week 13), new homework+discussion question (week 14). Test 3 on Nov. 29!”

I’m hoping in future years that more students will have their own Twitter accounts so we can use it for exchanging questions and answers as well. (I planted the seeds for this last week, when I told my Introduction to Translation students about several Twitter accounts, such as @anglais, that Tweet helpful translation-related tips. Ideally, these second-year students will sign up with Twitter now and still have accounts next year when they enroll in the Specialized Translation course). Kathleen Hughes, a PhD candidate in educational psychology at Carleton University, has a good blog post with a lot of ideas about how to use Twitter in the classroom, and I enjoyed following her Twitter feed last term to see how students interacted with her during class.


Last summer, I came across an article in The Chronicle where a journalism professor reflected on some of the mistakes he had made teaching online with WordPress for the first time. Because of that, I thought other instructors might be interested in hearing about how I use WordPress in my online classes, as I’ve generally been happy with the results. Two widgets that proved useful this term were Private Only and Twitter Goodies.

Private Only allowed me to require users to log into the course website in order to view or access any of the content. Last year, I had required students to create user accounts to post material, and I had blocked search engines from indexing the site, but I was looking for a little more privacy, since blocking search engines wouldn’t stop students from sharing course website URL with someone outside the class, nor would it prevent last year’s students from coming back to the course website, since I was using the same URL this year. The plugin worked well for two of my three courses, but it did cause some problems in the online course (a conflict with the video player plugin I was using, perhaps?). Some students–particularly Mac users, it seemed–could log in, but not download any of the content. I ended up uninstalling the plugin, and that seemed to solve the problem. The version I used for the course website, though, was older than the one I’ve mentioned here. So I’m going to try out this new version next year and see if I have better luck.

Twitter Goodies allowed me to post our Twitter feed on the course homepage. I put the widget in the middle of the page, so it would display a rolling list of the most recent tweets, letting students read what updates I had made recently. Another advantage was that I was able to add a second widget that displayed tweets with the hashtag #xl8n or #xl8, so students could also read translation-related tweets posted by Twitter users around the world. A few students complained that the rolling display of the tweets was distracting and/or confusing, so if you agree, you could instead try the Twitter Feed plugin, which just displays the last three (or more, if you like) tweets. This is the plugin I used for the Twitter widget you see in the right sidebar.

So as I said, I had some mixed results with WordPress and Twitter, but overall, I was happy with the results. Has anyone else tried using WordPress in their classes? What plugins have you found helpful?

Experimenting with Wikipedia in the classroom

Late last year, I came across a very insightful podcast series called BiblioTech on the University Affairs website. Each episode focuses on technology and higher education–Twitter in the classroom, for instance, or storage in the cloud–so of course I was immediately hooked. I had missed the first thirteen episodes, but they’re all quite short–usually between ten and fifteen minutes long–so I managed to catch up after two jogs and a commute to work.

Episodes 12 (Wikipedia) and 13 (Plagiarism) in particular piqued my interest and actually inspired me to change the format of the courses I’m teaching this term: an MA-level Theory of Translation and a BA-level Introduction to Translation into English course.

First, I listened to the Plagiarism episode, which mainly discussed how to design tests and assignments that discourage students from cheating. As host Rochelle Mazar, an emerging technologies librarian at the University of Toronto’s Mississauga campus, argued:

We need to create assignments that have students produce something meaningful to them, but opaque to everyone else.

Her suggestions included having students use material from the classroom lectures and discussions in their assignments (e.g. by blogging about each week’s lectures, and then using these blog posts to write their final paper), having students build on peer interactions via Twitter, Facebook or the course website to develop their assignments, or having students contribute to open-access textbooks through initiatives like Wikibooks.

I then listened to the Wikipedia episode, where Mazar made the following argument about why instructors should integrate Wikipedia into classroom assignments:

When people tell me that they saw something inaccurate on Wikipedia, and scoff at how poor a source it is, I have to ask them: why didn’t you fix it? Isn’t that our role in society, those of us with access to good information and the time to consider it, isn’t it our role to help improve the level of knowledge and understanding of our communities? Making sure Wikipedia is accurate when we have the chance to is one small, easy way to contribute. If you see an error, you can fix it. That’s how Wikipedia works.

Together, these two episodes got me thinking about the assignments I would be designing for my courses, and it didn’t take me long to decide that I would incorporate Wikipedia and blogging into my courses: translation of Wikipedia articles for the undergraduate translation course, and blogging as the medium for submitting, producing and collaborating on written work in the graduate theory course. Next month, I’ll write a post about how I decided to integrate blogs into my graduate theory class, but right now, I want to focus on Wikipedia and its potential as a teaching tool in translation classrooms.

But first, a short digression: A couple of years ago, I had students in my undergraduate translation classes work in group or partners to translate texts for non-profit organizations as a final course assignment. The students seemed to really like translating texts that would actually be used by an organization instead of texts that were nothing more than an exercise to be filed away at the end of term. And I enjoyed being able to submit a large project to a non-profit at the end of the term. But it was a lot of work on my part, mainly because I acted as a project manager by finding a non-profit with a text of just the right length and just the right difficulty, then splitting up the text for the class, correcting the final submissions, and finally translating the rest of the text, since the documents we were given to translate were inevitably too long for me to assign entirely to the students. So after two years, I went back to having students translate less taxing texts, like newspaper or magazine articles, since it’s easier to correct twenty translations of the same text than it is to correct twenty excerpts from a longer project. But I did miss the authentic assignments.

So, when I listened to the BiblioTech podcasts, I realized Wikipedia might be a good solution to the problem. Students can choose their own articles to translate (freeing me from the project-management aspect), and the wide variety of subjects needing translation–Wikipedians have tagged over 9000 articles as possible candidates for French-to-English translation–means we should be able to find something to interest everyone, and something just the right length for the assignment (around 300 words per student). I still expect to have to spend more time correcting the translations, but I think this will be less work overall than the previous projects.

As I was planning out the project, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the Wikimedia Foundation has established an education program in Canada, the United States, Brazil and Egypt. The Canada Education Program is intended to help university professors integrate Wikipedia projects into their courses, and it offers advantages like an online ambassador for every class to help students navigate the technical challenges of editing in the Wikipedia environment. In addition, there’s an adviser who works closely with professors who join the program. Fortunately for me, he’s based in Toronto, which means I was able to chat with him earlier this month about the program. His recent article in the Huffington Post offers some good arguments for why Wikipedia is a useful classroom tool. He suggests, for instance, that since companies like the CIA use wikis in their work environments, students are likely to need to be familiar with wiki technology and culture after they graduate. In addition, students gain exposure by contributing to articles that are visible online, and they learn to engage in debates with classmates and Wikipedians as their contributions are reviewed and edited by others.

I’m still in the early stages of this experiment… I don’t yet know, for instance, whether students will have a lot of trouble editing their articles, and whether the technical challenges can all be solved by the online ambassador who will be working us. I’ve asked students to use Google Documents to do most of the translating work, but I’m expecting students to add the final versions to Wikipedia before the end of the term, so many of these problems may crop up only in March or April. I also expect a lot of in-class discussion about Wikipedia’s Translation Guidelines, which encourage omission of irrelevant information and adaptation or explanation of cultural references:

Translation between Wikipedias need not transfer all content from any given article. If certain portions of an article appear to be low-quality or unverifiable, use your judgment and do not translate this content. Once you have finished translating, you may ask a proofreader to check the translation.
A useful translation may require more than just a faithful rendering of the original. Thus it may be necessary to explain the meaning of terms not commonly known throughout the English-speaking world. For example, a typical reader of English needs no explanation of The Wizard of Oz, but has no idea who Zwarte Piet might be. By contrast, for a typical reader of Dutch, it might be the other way around.

Because students may find they have more freedom to make their own judgements about the relevance of information, I’ve asked them to do in-class presentation about their translation decisions and the experience of working in Wikipedia at the end of the term. I’ll be sure to post some of my own thoughts on this experiment after the term is over, the marking is complete and the translations are posted online. I’ll even post links to some of our work.

Has anyone else used (or thought about using) Wikipedia articles as translation assignments? If so, I’d certainly appreciate your comments.

Another Canadian Standard for Translation

The Fall term has just wrapped up here at York University, which means the second Reacting to the Past game in my undergraduate translation theory class is now over. (For the results of the first game, take a look at my earlier post). This time, we focused on CAN/CGSB-131.10-2008, the Canadian Standard for Translation, and tried to recreate the context in which the standard was developed. Students were assigned roles based on the organizations involved in drafting CGSB-131.10-2008, including translation service providers, universities, industry associations, and companies that purchase translation services and/or have their own in-house translation departments.

In the published version of the standard, these organizations were grouped into three categories: general interest (universities, professional translator associations and translation technology companies), producers (small, medium and large translation companies), and users (government agencies, corporations, and professional associations like the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants). Our game included most of these organizations, but I did have to try to choose a representative sample, since 30 voting members were involved in the drafting process, while only 21 students were enrolled in my course.

The published standard also covered six areas: human resources, technical resources, quality management system, client-Translation Service Provider (TSP) relationship, TSP management procedures, and the translation process. For the purposes of the game, I decided to focus on just four of these areas so that we could debate a different one each week and then spend one final week revising the standard. This game involved a lot of collaboration, as the students had to work within their groups (users, producers or general interest) to agree on a proposal for each issue, which they then presented to the other groups. The groups were then able to ask questions of and negotiate with one another in order to arrive at a draft version of each issue that at least two groups could agree on. Given the varied interests I had assigned each group, the negotiation process was sometimes quite long and in some cases (as one student pointed out), rather frustrating. But that, I imagine, is what many of those involved in drafting the actual standard also experienced.

In week 1, we debated the Human Resources component of the standard. Talks actually broke down on this issue, because the question of whether translators should be certified by a professional translator association was too contentious. We had to leave that particular point for the final week of debate instead. The Users and Producers managed to reach an agreement that meant our standard recommended-but did not require–professional development for translators (since the smaller TSPs were concerned about the potential cost and time investment of mandatory professional development). In addition, our standard specifically acknowledged that a translation service provider (TSP) could be a single person, since the smaller TSPs worried the standard might otherwise exclude individual freelancers.

Week 2 focused on the translation process, and because the producers had won the previous round, they managed to allocate enough votes to this issue that they would have to be involved in any winning proposal if it were to have enough votes to succeed. This meant they were able to push through their proposal that revision need not be completed by a second person, unless clients requested it (so that individual freelance translators wouldn’t be disadvantaged by the standard). They also finally agreed that translators should be informed of any changes to their work, although they were careful to note that this was just a recommendation, rather than an obligation, as some of the students representing large TSPs were concerned that if they were informed of all changes every client might make to the finished translations, they would have to deal with too much extra administrative work.

In our third week, we debated the quality management portion of the standard. This time, the general interest group and the users were quick to come to an agreement that excluded the producers’ views, as they felt that the producers had been too hard to negotiate with in previous weeks. This meant the producers were not able to prevent the standard from including a clause that required TSPs to have an automated quality management system, nor were they able to get the other groups to agree to a clause that required the QM system to be “relative to the size and structure of the TSP”, as the users argued that this kind of wording was not really creating any sort of standard at all.

In Week 4, we addressed the issue of technical resources, and here debate mainly centred around whether computer-assisted translation tools should be mandatory or recommended, but the producers eventually agreed that these tools should be required. By this point, students had been required to submit their first written assignment associated with the game: a blog post presenting their organization’s views on the standard. When presenting their arguments to the class, several students referred to their blog posts, which was one way I had been hoping the written work would be integrated into the game.

Finally, on our last week of class, we looked at the draft standard as a whole document and addressed the issue of whether translators should be certified. The compromise most students agreed to was that translators had to be certified by a Canadian professional association, unless the language combination was not available. I then gave the students some feedback on our draft based on the comments organizations and translators had made when the actual standard was produced, provided these points were also relevant to our version. Students were then able to vote on the draft on an individual basis (up until this point, everyone had been obliged to vote with their groups), but they still had to represent the organization they had been assigned. On our first round of voting, only a minority supported the draft. Some objected to the certification requirement, while others objected to the fact that translations did not have to be revised by a second person. After we changed the standard to require that all translations be revised by a second person, everyone but the producers agreed to support the draft, and it became our new Canadian standard. If you’d like to take a look at it, here’s a link to the Google Document.

In general, I was happy with the way this game worked. Compared to the previous game, this one required much less work on my part, since the students played just one role throughout the game and their role descriptions did not change over the course of the game. This meant I didn’t have to send out 20 emails every week with revised role descriptions and victory objectives, as I did with the William Tyndale game. I was also able to keep track of the points, since these were awarded to groups rather than individual students. Interestingly, the group that had the greatest success was the General Interest group composed of universities, professional associations and other organizations. In fact, the the professional associations (OTTIAQ, the Canadian Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters Council, and Society of Translators and Interpreters of British Columbia) were the only ones to achieve all their victory objectives. I’m currently surveying the students who completed the course to see what they thought of the two games, so I’ll post some of their feedback once I’ve finished collecting and analyzing the responses.

Highlights from the 12th Portsmouth Translation Conference

I returned from the UK about two weeks ago, and now that I’ve had some time to catch up on the marking and course prep work I missed while I was away, I can finally post a brief overview of some of the talks I attended at the 12th Portsmouth Translation Conference, the theme of which was “‘Those Who Can, Teach’: Translation, Interpreting and Training.” The one-day event was packed, with a 9 a.m. plenary session by Dorothy Kelly, followed by five parallel sessions throughout morning, three parallel training-themed workshops right after lunch, and then another series of 4-5 parallel sessions for the rest of the afternoon until the 5 p.m. closing plenary by Daniel Toudic.

Obviously, I got just a glimpse of the entire conference, as I attended only one talk from each of the parallel sessions. But I came back with some new thoughts on teaching techniques I could integrate into my classes, and I met some delegates who were interested in the new Master of Conference Interpreting program we’ve introduced here at Glendon (which was what I had gone to the conference to speak about). This blog post will cover three of the presentations I particularly enjoyed, along with the final plenary by Daniel Toudic.

I attended three sessions in the morning: one by Justyna Giczela-Pawtwa on how relevant undergraduate and graduate translation students consider translation theory, another by Akiko Sakamoto, who spoke about the positive and negative experiences of offering optional online translation workshops to students at the University of Leicester, and a final one by Agata Sadza, who spoke about developing a project management course for students at London Metropolitan University.

In Justyna’s talk, she presented some results from a survey of undergraduate and graduate students who were asked various questions about the relevance of translation theory. Interestingly, while most of the undergraduate students (67-70%, depending on the group) found translation theory was “almost useful” to their practice, the graduate students were more divided, with 46% responding that it was almost useful and 54% responding that it was mainly irrelevant. The MA program at the University of Gdansk, where Justyna conducted the survey, is both practical and theoretical, but has more theory than the BA level, so most of those attending Justyna’s talk (including me) were a little surprised to see that the MA students would find theory less relevant than the undergraduates. I think the results show how important it is for instructors to draw clear links between theory and practice in both undergraduate and graduate courses, to help students feel that the theory they’re learning is relevant to practical translation problems.

From Akiko’s presentation about online practical workshops for translation students, I learned about the free screen recording software BB Flashback Express, which she encouraged students to use to record themselves as they worked. Students would then post sample recordings to an online discussion forum so peers (and, to a more limited extent, the instructors) could give them feedback on their translation process. This was one solution they had to compensate for the fact that few of the students had the same language pairs and would therefore be able to offer one another very little direct feedback on the translated product. The process, at least, would be something more participants would be able to comment on.

Later, Agata spoke about the logistics of developing a one-semester project management course for students enrolled in a graduate, practical-oriented translation program. Students were broken up into groups, assigned a 6000-word text, and generally left to manage the project on their own. The class met together formally only three times (for three hours each session) to discuss progress, address problems and concerns, etc. Although I’ve incorporated group projects into my own classes (as I’ve discussed here), I’ve never run a project of the size Agata described. Moreover, Agata had some good advice to share: before breaking the class into groups, and before describing the format of the course, she asked each student about their interests, including the fields they would like the specialize in and the types of jobs–e.g. terminology, revision–that interested them the most. That helped to ensure the various interests were more evenly split among the groups. She also had students write a report about their experiences, but made sure to give them guidelines to follow, as students at this level were not all sure what sorts of things should be included in a report.

The final talk was a keynote address by Daniel Toudic, from Université Rennes 2, who spoke about the Optimale (Optimising Professional Translator Training in a Multilingual Europe) project and presented some data from a survey of over 700 non-public-sector European language service employers drawn largely from the European Union of Associations of Translation Companies.

Some of the survey results I found relevant were the fact that employers are seeking, among other things, graduates who can produce 100% quality, who can identify client requirements and who can define the resources required for a project. Interestingly, many of the skills employers did not generally find essential were technology related: understanding software/video game localization, for instance, as well as post-editing machine translation, pre-editing texts for machine translation, and using desktop publishing tools. Some respondents did note, however, that skills like pre- and post-editing would be needed in the near future. You can find a PowerPoint presentation detailing the survey methodology and survey on the Optimale website here, if you’re interested in taking a closer look.

Highlights from the Translation in Contexts of Official Multilingualism conference

As anyone who browses through enough of this blog will likely discover, my research interests are rather varied. I love technology, and I’ve presented and published papers and posts on crowdsourcing, website translation, and translator blogs. I spend a lot of time teaching, so I often post blog entries about my experiences in the classroom. But I also love history and politics–so much so, in fact that my doctoral thesis focused on the English and French translations of non-fiction texts related to Quebec nationalism, independence movements and the sovereignty referendums. So this month I’m attending two very different conferences held two weeks–and two continents– apart: the Translation in Contexts of Official Multilingualism conference in Moncton, New Brunswick, and the 12th Portsmouth conference “Those who can, teach”, in the UK. I’ve just returned from the Moncton conference, and I’ll be flying to the UK later this week.

Writing more than just a brief overview of the two conferences is beyond the scope of a short blog post (which is unfortunately all I have time to write), so I’ll share a few thoughts from the Moncton conference right now, and a few comments about Portsmouth later this month.

Some of the presentations I found particularly interesting were Chantal Gagnon‘s presentation on Liberal, Bloc Québécois and Parti Québécois translation policies around the time of the 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum, Kyle Conway‘s research on (non)translation policies at Radio-Canada and the CBC, and Mathieu Leblanc‘s talk about translation in a Moncton public-service agency.

Gagnon’s comparison of speeches made by the Bloc Québécois, Parti Québécois and Liberal leaders during and after the 1995 sovereignty referendum really underscored, to me at least, the advantages of having an official translation policy: while the Liberal Party was able to target voters differently by adapting the French and English versions of speeches to the two audiences, the speeches made by politicians from the Quebec parties (Bloc and PQ) were translated in newspapers by journalists. Thus, only partial translations of the speeches were available, and these translations often contained minor shifts in meaning and omissions of politeness markers that the Quebec politicians may have wanted to retain. Not providing an official English translation meant the two Quebec parties weren’t able to control the message English-speaking Canadians (and English speakers outside the country) were receiving.

Conway, by examining statements made by policymakers and executives in the 1960s and 1990s, explored the question of translated news at the CBC and Radio-Canada. His presentation compared the current style of presenting news to Canadians, namely having two separate, but parallel, national news services to report on events and interview Canadian figures, and an alternative model periodically recommended by policymakers who wanted to see more bilingual or translated news. For instance, a politician’s might be broadcast in French across the country, but subtitles would be added to broadcasts appearing on English networks. Conway explored why this alternative model has not been successful in Canada, raising questions along the way about how French- and English-speaking Canadians understand one another.

The interviews Leblanc conducted in a Moncton-based federal department gave him some insight into the attitudes of bilingual public servants toward translation. The vast majority of the documents in the department were produced in English and then translated into French, even when the writer’s mother tongue was French. What I found fascinating was that many of the public servants Leblanc interviewed didn’t view translation negatively (as it often is in cases like this where the target language is the language into which texts are usually translated rather than the language from which translation generally take place). Instead, the French translations were viewed as a model to be followed. Some of the interviewees commented, for instance, that they wished they could write in French as well as the translators. Often, these interviewees didn’t write in French because they didn’t feel confident enough in their mother tongue, but the fact that the bilingual public servants also worked with unilingual anglophones also played a role: French speakers wanted to ensure their drafts could be read by everybody in the department before the document was finalized (and translated).

Moncton isn’t the only place where non-native English speakers are producing texts in English and having these texts translated into their mother tongues (and other languages). During the panel discussions and plenary talks with representatives from organizations like Canada’s Translation Bureau, the European Commission and Amnesty International, one point that came up several times was that language professionals are less frequently translating official documents into English and are instead revising English documents produced by non-native speakers and then sending these documents on for translation into other languages. Partly because non-native speakers are writing in English and their texts are being revised rather than translated into English, public-sector English translation work seems to be on the decline. This is a trend I’ll have to mention to my students, as editing (rather than translating) may be the kind of work they’ll have to look for post-graduation, given the current economy.

All in all, this was a very interesting conference, and it’s given me some new points to consider as a revise my doctoral dissertation into a book. I’ll start posting more on political and historical translations as I focus more attention on my book in the new year.

William Tyndale’s fate

We’ve just finished playing the first Reacting to the Past game I developed for an undergraduate Theory of Translation class here at Glendon. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, this game was set in England from 1528-1536, and it focused on William Tyndale and his English translation of the bible at a time when unauthorized translations were being burned by Church authorities and anyone caught with these banned translations risked being convicted of heresy. The game allowed us to explore issues like translation and censorship, the influence of powerful institutions on the translations produced in a given society, and the history and politics of translating sacred texts.

In Week 1, we had a great debate about whether translation of the bible should be forbidden by the Church, with most of the class representing the views of various scholars at Oxford in 1528. Although several players were betrayed to the authorities (Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Thomas More, Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall and Bishop John Longland) by a spy who was taking notes at the meeting of the Oxford scholars, everyone managed to evade arrest.

In Weeks 2 and 3, we had another debate–this time from the point of view of various bishops, cardinals and other clergymen in 1530–about whether the Catholic Church should authorize an English translation of the bible to help combat the unauthorized (and very Lutheran) translations circulating in England at the time. Students also debated whether William Tyndale’s translation was heretical. Three characters–Hugh Latimer, Bishop John Clerk, and even Thomas Cromwell–were accused (and convicted) of heresy during the debates. The students playing these roles all recanted and managed to avoid being accused of heresy a second time, which would have led to their characters being executed. After the debates, we voted on the issues at hand. The results: An English translation of the bible was not authorized and William Tyndale’s translation was declared heretical. No surprises here, given that the vast majority of the students in the class had victory objectives that included ensuring the vote turned out this way.

Finally, in Week 4, which was set in 1535, after William Tyndale had been arrested in Antwerp, students took on roles ranging from English merchants to bishops, archbishops and other clergymen and tried to convince one another that Tyndale should either be left to his fate in the Low Countries or extradited to England (so that he could either be put on trial for heresy in England, or set free). The vote this time was much closer: although many students voted to leave Tyndale in the Low Countries, a few extra votes were cast for extraditing Tyndale to England in order to save his life. Unfortunately, as I mentioned to the class after the vote was calculated, this decision did not rest entirely in their hands: ultimately, it depended on the slim chance (represented by the roll of a die) that King Charles would agree to release Tyndale, so our effort to save Tyndale’s life failed. Our game therefore had the same result as history: William Tyndale was executed in the Low Countries in October 1536.

In December or January, after the course is over, I’ll be conducting a survey with the students who were enrolled in the course so that I can prepare an article about the Reacting to the Past format and its pedagogical value in translation classes. For now, though, I’m happy that early feedback from my students has generally been positive.

As for my own experience, I was definitely happy with the way the game worked. Although I will make some minor changes to the format the next time I teach this course, I was happy to see the students thinking critically about translation-related issues. Because students were expected to talk for just a few minutes each, the attention of other students in the class didn’t waver as easily as it typically does during a 15-20-minute student presentation. Moreover, students took notes while their peers were presenting their arguments, because they knew they would have to question and critique these arguments later. And, although some did so more successfully than others, nearly all students ensured their remarks fit within the historical context in which the game was set, which helped make the debates feel more authentic.

The main problem with the game was that I had originally designed it for 13 students, and I now have 22 in the class. This meant the debates took longer than I had initially planned, since all students were expected to speak for at least a few minutes each week. We didn’t get a chance to cover all the discussion questions I had prepared, although I tried to make up for this by using Tyndale as a case study whenever we covered material from Introducing Translation Studies prior to the game. For instance, when we studied Polysystem theory, we discussed whether translation occupied a central or a peripheral role in England in the late 1520s and 30s, based on the controversy Tyndale’s translation generated at the time.

The other problem was that because the game covered an 8-year period, most students had to play two (or even three) characters over the course of the four weeks. Having to send new character descriptions and victory objectives to 22 students each week was time-consuming for me, and it did result in a little confusion for the students, as the first written assignment was based on the viewpoint of the characters in weeks 2-3, while the second assignment was based on the role students played in week 4. I’ll have to clarify the descriptions of the assignments next time.

Game 2, which is set in 2007 and focuses on the development of CAN/CGSB-131.10 2008, the Canadian Standard for translation, starts in two weeks. At the end of this term, I’ll write a post about how well this game worked and offer some thoughts about which one seemed most relevant to the students.

Will William Tyndale be executed for heresy once again?

With just two weeks to go before the start of classes, I’ve finally (!) finished the materials for the second Reacting to the Past game I’m incorporating into an undergraduate Theory of Translation course this fall. This one is set in England and unfolds over the course of several years, touching on key dates leading up to (and including) William Tyndale’s trial for heresy. It opens in 1528, with a debate on whether translating the bible into vernacular languages like English should be considered heresy. It then jumps to 1530, when the English clergy meet to a) discuss whether a vernacular translation of the bible should be authorized and b) draw up a list of potentially heretical statements in Tyndale’s translation. It ends in 1535-1536, when Tyndale is tried for heresy and the players debate about and then vote on whether to try to have Tyndale’s life spared or leave him to be executed in Antwerp, where he was arrested. Along the way, students will have to watch out for spies, accusations of heresy, and changing political circumstances that affect each player’s ability to win the game.

The game is designed to be played with up to 13 students over four weeks, with about 1.5 to 2 hours devoted to the game during each of the four sessions. I’ve tried to provide thematic discussion questions related to each week of game play so instructors can draw links between the game and Translation Studies issues (e.g. translation and power, censorship, activism, and institutions).

So, as I offered for the other game I developed this summer, if anyone is interested in integrating this game into one of their classes, please let me know and I’d be happy to make the materials available: I have a 20-page list of role descriptions, a 9-page set of instructions for course instructors, and an 8-page handout for students. (I realize it’s too late now for the Fall term, but there’s still time to adopt this for a Winter term course).

I’ll post an update once I’ve had a chance to try the game out in the classroom. I also plan to survey students after the course, so I’ll post some comments on what they thought of the game and its pedagogical value.

Early translator-activists

I’ve been working on the next Reacting to the Past game that I’m going to incorporate into my Theory of Translation course this fall (for more details, see this post from June or this one from July). Unlike the last game, which was set in contemporary Canada, this one takes place in 16th-century England, when William Tyndale translated the New Testament from Greek into English, in spite of the 1408 Constitutions of Oxford prohibiting Bible translations without approval from the Church.

Initially, I wondered whether Tyndale (or his contemporary, Martin Luther) would be a good choice for a Reacting to the Past game intended to be played in a general theory of translation course rather than a history of translation seminar. I wondered whether the game would be set too far in the past to allow us to examine contemporary translation studies issues; after all, Introducing Translation Studies, which we’ll be using as the coursebook, has only one chapter devoted to pre-twentieth-century translation theory. We’ll be looking at that chapter in the first week of classes, but the Tyndale game will run for about four weeks. Would students find the game too far removed from the content of the rest of the coursebook? How would I be able to draw links between the game and the material from the other chapters of Introducing Translation Studies?

But then, as I read more about Tyndale and the context in which he was translating, I realized we could drawn many parallels between him and contemporary translators. For instance, we’ll be able to compare Tyndale’s activities and very recent studies of activist translators or translators who support a social cause when translating. Just consider Tyndale’s comments in “A Pathway into the Holy Scripture”, which he published around 1530 to explain the meaning of words like gospel, Old Testament, Christ and faith:

I marvel greatly, dearly beloved in Christ, that any man would ever contend or speak against having the scripture available in every language, for every man. For I would have thought no one so blind as to ask why light should be shown to those who walk in darkness—darkness where they cannot but stumble, and where to stumble is the danger of eternal condemnation. Nor would I have thought any man would be so malicious that he would begrudge another so necessary a thing, or so mad as to assert that good is the natural cause of evil, and that darkness proceeds out of light, and that lying is grounded in truth and verity. I would think he would assert the very contrary: that light destroys darkness and truth reproves all manner of lying.

Or what about this passage from Tyndale’s prologue to the Five Books of Moses, called Genesis, also printed in 1530:

For they which in times past were wont to look on no more Scripture than they found in their Duns, or such like devilish doctrine, have yet now so narrowly looked on my Translation, that there is not so much as one i therein, if it lack a tittle over his head, but they have noted it, and number it unto the ignorant people for an heresy. Finally, in this they all be agreed,–to drive you from the knowledge of the Scripture, and that ye shall not have the text thereof in the mother tongue; and to keep the world still in darkness, to the intent they might sit in the consciences of the people, through vain superstition and false doctrine; […] For as long as they may keep [the Scripture] down, they will so darken the right way with the mist of their sophistry […]

In Tyndale’s texts, we see many of the same arguments that volunteer, cause-driven translation groups make today. Tyndale criticizes the Church for “trying to keep the world in darkness” and he recognizes that having access to the Bible in their mother tongue would allow his contemporaries to move beyond ignorance, to read and understand the Bible for themselves, without the Church acting as an intermediary. More recent activist and volunteer translator groups often argue that information is a powerful tool and that translators can help disseminate knowledge by making this information available in other languages. Translators Without Borders, for instance, states that:

Knowledge is power.
It saves lives, lifts people out of poverty, ensures better health and nutrition, creates and maintains economies.

Access to information is critical.
Language barriers cost lives.
Through the sophisticated Translators without Borders platform, important aid groups easily connect directly with professional translators, breaking down the barriers of language and building up the transfer of information to those who need it, one brick at a time.

Likewise, Babels, the network of volunteer translators and interpreters who help facilitate “interlinguistic and intercultural communication” at the World Social Forums describes itself in the following way:

Babels is made up of activists of all tendencies and backgrounds, united in the task of transforming and opening up the Social Forums. We work to give voice to peoples of different languages and cultures. We fight for the right of all, including those who don’t speak a colonial language, to contribute to the common work. We try to allow everyone to express themselves in the language of their choice. By increasing the diversity of contributions to the debate, we transform its outcome.

Like Tyndale, these groups believe access to information in one’s own language is important and something worth fighting for. Of course, the stakes for Tyndale were much higher: death was the penalty imposed on unrepentant heretics who translated or read the bible in English in the 1520s and 30s, causing Tyndale to work in self-imposed exile and in fear of the Church’s informants. Groups like Translators without Borders and Babels are able to operate much more openly today. Nonetheless, the similarities in the discourses of Reformation-era bible translators like Tyndale and contemporary activist groups like Translators without Borders are striking, and certainly support the arguments made by Chesterman (1995, 2000), Neubert (2000) and others that translation history needs to be integrated into translation courses if students are to fully understand the profession and their role within it. In the instructor guidelines for the Tyndale game, I will be sure to include some comments about how the game can be related to issues addressed in various chapters of Introducing Translation Studies (e.g. censorship, power), in case other instructors would like to integrate the game into their courses and need some guidance as to how a game set so far in the past is relevant to contemporary translation studies issues.

Chesterman, Andrew. (2000). Teaching Strategies for Emancipatory Translation. In Christina Schaffner & Beverly Adab, eds. Developing Translation Competence. Amsterdam; Philadelphia: John Benjamins, pp. 77-90.

Chesterman, Andrew. (1995). Teaching Translation Theory: The Significance of Memes. In Cay Dollerup & Vibeke Appel, eds. Teaching Translation and Interpreting 3. Amsterdam; Philadelphia: John Benjamins, pp. 63-71.

Neubert, Albrecht. (2000). Competence in Language, in Languages and in Translation. In Christina Schaffner & Beverly Adab, eds. Developing Translation Competence. Amsterdam; Philadelphia: John Benjamins, pp. 3-18.