ACFAS Conference

I’ve just returned from Quebec City, where I was attending the 81st Congress of the Association francophone pour le savoir (ACFAS), which took place at the Université Laval this year. It was the first time I’d been to an ACFAS event, which, for those of you who might not know, is similar to the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in that a number of conferences from different disciplines take place there, each organized by a different group of scholars. Unlike the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, which is held at universities across Canada and is bilingual, ACFAS is usually hosted by Quebec universities and takes place entirely in French.

This year, three translation-related conferences were taking place at ACFAS, and I was able to attend two of them: La formation aux professions langagières : nouvelles tendances (Training Language Professionals: New Trends), which took place on Wednesday, and La traduction comme frontière (Translation as Borders), which took place Thursday and Friday. Unfortunately, I had to miss the third conference, Langues et technologies : chercheurs, praticiens et gestionnaires se donnent rendez-vous , (Languages and Technologies: A Meeting of Researchers, Practitioners and Managers), because it was taking place at the same time as the conference on translation as borders, where I was presenting a paper. But here are a few points I found interesting and useful at the two conferences I did manage to attend:

La formation aux professions langagières: Nouvelles tendances
This conference gave me a lot of practical ideas to integrate into my courses next year. For instance, I really enjoyed the presentation by Mathieu Leblanc, who carried out an ethonographic study at three Language Service Providers (one public and two private) several years ago. These three LSPs each had at least 35 employees, including new and experienced translators, and he spent one month at each one, conducting interviews and observing workplace practices. (Mathieu presented some of the data from this study at the CATS conference last year. I wrote about it in this post). Although his research goal had been to study translator attitudes toward tools like Translation Memories, the data he gathered during his fieldwork also allowed him to explore questions like “What do translators think about university training programs?” He noted that although both novice and experienced translators noted that university training was good overall, some areas could still be improved: students could be better prepared to meet the productivity demands they will encounter at the workplace, taught not to rely so extensively on tools like Translation Memories, and encouraged to be more critical of sources and translations.

The presentation by Université de Sherbrooke doctoral candidate Fouad El-Karnichi, focused on converting traditional courses to online environments, and I learned that other universities are using a variety of platforms to offer real-time translation courses online. At Glendon, we’ve adopted Adobe Connect for the Master of Conference Interpreting, but the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, is using Via for their new online BA in translation. I’ll have to take a look at it to see how it works. Fouad has just posted a few of his own thoughts on the ACFAS conference. You can read them on his blog here.

Finally, Éric Poirier, from the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, described a number of activities that could be integrated into a translation course to help familiarize students with online documentary resources like dictionaries, corpora, and concordancers. Here are a few of the activities I found interesting:

  • Have students use a corpus to find collocations for a base word (e.g. Winter + ~cold = harsh)
  • Have students read one of the language columns in Language Update and then translate the word that’s been discussed
  • Have students practice using dictionaries to distinguish between paronyms like affect and effect

In an online course, these kinds of activities could be integrated into the course website via an online form or a quiz that needs to be completed.

Other presentations were very interesting as well, but this post is getting a little long, and I also wanted to discuss some of the talks from the second conference.

La traduction comme frontière
Although several presenters cancelled their talks on the first day, we still had some very stimulating discussions about translation as borders, whether these borders are real, imagined, pragmatic, semantic, political, ideological or something else entirely. Two papers were particularly thought-provoking (at least to me): Chantal Gagnon, from the Université de Montréal, spoke about Canadian Throne Speeches since 1970, with particular emphasis on the words “Canada”, “Canadien/canadien” and “Canadian” in these speeches. The fact that the number of occurrences of these words in English and French differed was not really surprising, since Chantal had found similar differences in other Canadian speeches, but the fact that the 2011 Throne Speech under Prime Minister Harper differed from the others was very intriguing. Finally, Alvaro Echeverri, also from the Université de Montréal, raised some very illuminating questions about the limits of translation, particularly with respect to how we might define the term translation. Based on work by Maria Tymoczko, he proposed studying the corpus of texts before trying to determine what should be considered a translation: that way, researchers will know what kinds of translations/adaptations/inspirations to include.

So all in all, these three days in Quebec City were very stimulating, and I’m anxious to incorporate some of these ideas into my courses next year and my research this summer.

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.

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.