Moving Beyond “Garbage In-Garbage Out” Translations

Moving Beyond “Garbage In-Garbage Out” Translations: A Conversation with Wendell Ricketts
by Andrea Spila, The European School of Translation

[The first part of this interview is also available in Italian!]

Andrea Spila: In your blog “VitaVagabonda,” you say that you were “born on an atoll almost no one has never heard of,” and that your “vagabond life” took you to various places in the world before you ended up as a translator….

Wendell Ricketts: Well, I grew up on the island of ‘Oahu, in a very rural setting. I went to a tiny school—rickety wooden buildings, less than ninety students in eight grades in the whole school, with two grades in one classroom and a single teacher for both. Later, after high school, I attended the University of Hawai’i until I decided I wanted to live in San Francisco. I moved there in 1981 and stayed for most of the next twenty-four years. I first visited Italy in 1990 and, just as the cliché would have it, I couldn’t get enough. I continued to visit as often as I could and to stay for longer and longer periods. I played around with translation in the mid-90s, but didn’t begin seriously working in the field until 1998.

AS: Let’s talk about translation, then. You have some fairly uncompromising views regarding the translator’s work. I wonder how much of that is the result of what we might call your “first love,” creative writing.

WR: A translator’s most essential skill is the ability to write in her or his native language—and I mean write not adequately, but superbly. It’s a radical position, but I don’t think it can be emphasized enough. Native-language writing skills come before foreign-language skills.

AS: Here at ETS, we share that concept, though I don’t have the impression that most of the training programs available for translators today are moving in that direction.

WR: Translation schools and institutes of “mediazione linguistica” tend to approach the training of translators in a way that is precisely backward. They treat translation as if it were primarily a linguistic puzzle whose solution requires a scientific approach. It is not and it does not. Obviously, if your foreign-language skills are weak, you cannot be a translator, but the situation we find ourselves in today is that there are many, many people with fine foreign-language skills (which are, in comparison, easy to acquire) and very, very few people who know how to write. And yet, as far as I know, translation schools and master’s programs almost never insist that their students demonstrate excellent writing skills in their native languages; rather, they focus on students’ foreign-language skills, almost in a vacuum. It’s a colossal mistake, and it’s one of the main reasons why the quality of translations, at least in the market that I personally know (Italian-to-English) is in such rapid decline. If it were up to me, I would prohibit even the finest linguist in the world from translating professionally if he or she couldn’t write clearly and effectively in his or her native language. I simply wouldn’t allow it.

What I hear—increasingly—is “Oh, you’re talking about style. I don’t care about style. This is a furniture catalog, not Manzoni” (which is something a client actually wrote me once). Apart from betraying a deep distrust of language itself, what such an attitude tells me is that people are largely incapable of judging whether writing is clear and effective. Or, to put it more bluntly, they can’t tell the difference between good writing and bad writing. Now, that fact should make them embarrassed, but instead it makes them arrogant. In fact, people are often quite militant about their lack of interest in clarity and go to some lengths to defend bad writing: “I know the writing is difficult to understand, but that’s how I meant it to be.” To me, that’s like saying, “I know the sugo is burned and the pasta is mushy, but that’s what I intended to do.” It’s a lousy justification for being a bad cook.

AS: On the subject of translation quality, you have a fair amount of experience in publishing and you also work as an editor and proofreader. Do you think a translator must also be a good editor?

I’m shocked by the large percentage of translators who apparently feel that issues of readability and clarity aren’t their business. In your March 12, 2009 online seminar, in fact, it seems to me that well more than half of the attendees said they didn’t get involved in the kinds of issues that might be collected under the category of “editing.” The result is often what I call GIGO translations: garbage in, garbage out. Here, too, I know of translators who are quite proud of their ability to take bad Italian and reproduce it—word for word and sentence for sentence—in bad English. They call it “faithfulness.” I call it madness.

AS: If I understand correctly, the problem often starts “upstream.” You’re saying that the client also bears part of the responsibility?

WR: The fact is, the vast majority of the texts that come to me to be translated are not ready to be translated—they should have gone to the editor and not to the translator. Obviously, the underlying issue is, once again, people not being able to write in their native languages. I certainly don’t allow myself to change a writer’s opinions or substantially reorganize his or her thought, but I do edit, either while I’m translating or when I do final revisions. As far as is humanly possible, I don’t produce texts in English in which the reader cannot understand what is being said or in which the syntax of the sentence is so convoluted that meaning is compromised. Obviously, I can’t always do as much as I would like.

AS: In some cases, I imagine you wind up needing to work directly with the writer, which is not always the easiest task….

WR: I actually enjoy working with writers. Being able to raise certain questions with the author almost always makes for a better translation. Still, clients are not always in the mood to explain what they wrote, or there isn’t time, or they don’t remember, or the author simply isn’t available. Not infrequently—and this is something I always find both funny and frustrating—if there’s an agency or other middleman involved, the person who is managing the translation will tell me, “Well, we’ve all read it and re-read it and we don’t know what it means either.” Why would you send something to be translated into English if it you don’t understand it in Italian? What do you expect the translator to do with it?

Here’s an example from a translation I just finished. The topic is the restoration of an historical monument in northern Italy: “Chimica, fisica, geologia e biologia, ma anche tecnologia dei materiali antichi e moderni, ingegneria strutturale, pure già presenti, vengono richieste di ricerca e sempre più intensa specializzazione, di affinamento e avvicinamento alle problematiche poste dal restauro dei monumenti, ma sotto la speciale ottica dell’attività di conservazione.”

Can anyone understand that, at least without reading it twenty times, taking the sentence apart in different ways and trying to reconstruct it so that it makes some sense? In fact, here you could go a little crazy just trying to locate the grammatical subject of the sentence or the object of the verb.

Or, take another example from a furniture catalog that I translated some months back: “L’ambiente progettato in toto dagli interior designers completa un’atmosfera decisamente fashion, esaltando uno stile cool per creare sinergie total look e 100% made in Italy.

You cannot reproduce a sentence like that word-for-word or clause-for-clause in English; it would be gibberish. But the real problem is that it doesn’t mean much in Italian either. What are “total look synergies”? What is “an environment totally designed by designers”?

In situations like these, the translator has to find the meaning (if there is one) and re-create the language from scratch. If you don’t know how to write effectively in English, and if you don’t know how to edit, you’re of no more use than Google Translate or Babel Fish.

AS: You’ve been fairly critical of translation agencies. Do you feel they have a role to play in the life of a professional translator?

I’ve put an article on my website entitled “Ten Reasons To Hire a Translator Directly … and Say Goodbye to Translation Agencies,” so I won’t repeat all the same points here. My basic feeling about translation agencies, though—given present market realities and at least for the Italian-English combination—is that qualified, professional translators have virtually no need of translation agencies. In fact, we need to end our dependency on agencies and move on to a healthier way of doing business.

What we do need is a way for clients and translators to find and evaluate one another—directly. In other words, a kind of clearinghouse. My idea would be to create a simple, nonprofit information exchange that would cost very little to join—I mean very little, something on the order of €15 a year—and which would bring qualified translators together with clients who are committed to providing ethical, appropriate working and economic conditions to translators.

You might think that something like that already exists—Proz, Translators Café, the relatively new International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters, and others—but it doesn’t. In fact, all the efforts to date have the same, fatal defect: They refuse to police either the qualifications of translators or the payment practices of clients. Both aspects are fundamental.

A potential client shouldn’t be able to post a job offer for two cents (of a dollar) per word for IT-EN, for example. It’s a below-market offer and it doesn’t belong on a site for professional translators. We cannot stop people from offering below-market rates or translators from accepting them, but so-called professional groups can at least refuse to help those two factions find one another. In translation we are loathe to talk about “unfair competition,” but that is precisely what this is. There’s no shame in protecting our profession and our livelihoods by combating underhanded business practices.

Similarly, a translator shouldn’t be able to claim to be bilingual or to be a “native speaker” of two or even three languages without some reliable, independent verification of that claim. Personally, I would make passive-language “hookups” impossible: In other words, I would actually do what translation agencies only promise: connect the client with a native-speaking translator of the requested target language.

The main problem with agencies is that they have an inherent conflict of interest: Their attention is on their end client, not on the translator. Finally, agencies have the tendency to forget that it is not up to them to establish the conditions of the job: rates, deadlines, conditions, payment practices. That’s backwards. From the translator’s point of view, the agency is the customer, and the translator establishes the conditions for providing his or her services. No one goes into a restaurant and tells the waiter, “I’d like these delicious ravioli di zucca and I’m prepared to pay €6 for them, as long as they’re on the table within fifteen minutes and you throw in a glass of wine. In fact, I plan to come here twice a week from now on, so I also want an additional 10% discount for repeat business.” The restaurant is the service provider and sets the conditions. The diner is the customer and accepts those conditions or goes elsewhere. Translation is no different. We need to stop being so passive.

AS: Speaking of not being passive, you’ve also started a petition called “Professional Standards for Written Translations in English,” which has been the subject of some controversy. What prompted you to do it?

WR: Two things. First, the fact that English needs defending. Especially now, and especially in Italy, and especially from non-native-English-speaking translators. And second because: Despite all the talk about “professionalism,” translation is a profession without guidelines, without a true code of ethics, without a genuine deontology, without any reliable way to distinguish people who have a good reason to call themselves professional translators from those who don’t. My position is that we need to stop being so reluctant to say that many people who hold themselves out as professional translators don’t have the competence to do so. It’s a serious problem and, in a very small way, I wanted to call attention to that problem.

What I propose in my petition is astonishingly simple: that being a native English speaker is a necessary but not sufficient condition for calling oneself a professional translator into English. That the professional translator should provide written translation services solely into her/his native language. That professional translation brokers and agencies should employ qualified translators who are native speakers of the requested target language.

Mild proposals like these generate an incredible amount of anger. In Italy, it seems to me, the issue is complicated by Italians’ fundamentally ambivalent relationship toward English: As Italians, you’re repeatedly warned that English is indispensible for your careers and that your children are going to wind up sleeping under a bridge if they don’t learn English, and yet English-language education in Italy is something of a disgrace. Just to take one example, recall the scandal in June 2008 regarding the Italian Ministry of Public Education’s English-language test for students at the Istituti Tecnici per il Turismo. Not only was the reading-comprehension text full of errors, but so were the questions about the text, which were written in English by the Ministry’s examiners.

To me it bespeaks both a lack of seriousness about English. Knowledge of English has become a status symbol, and possession of that status often manifests itself as pomposity. I find that the attitude only gets worse as the “prestige” of the writer’s position increases. University faculty and people in ministerial positions are, in my experience, among the worst.

Recently, for example, I was hired for a long translation of a scientific article by a professor at a major Italian university. The text was the usual, overblown prose that academics often produce, perhaps all over the world. After I handed in the assignment, he complained that I hadn’t follow his Italian closely enough, and he wanted me to replace my translations with sentences like this one: “The second reason depends on this, that the geographic issue discussed above, changed now into a mere pretext used to introduce in wider questions, cultural as well as politic: they arose directly from the geographic issue and are the subject of the following discourse.” Naturally, I refused, and some very angry emails went back and forth. In the end, he accepted my version, but of course I have no way of knowing whether he later rewrote everything to suit his version of “Inglisc.”

I have a difficult time believing that Italians—who are justifiably proud and protective of their language—would ever accept my telling them how to translate into Italian or insisting that my version of Italian was better than theirs. And yet the reverse happens constantly: the native-English-speaking translator who works from Italian is routinely corrected and revised and second-guessed by Italians who are certain that his English is wrong: the reviser who insisted, for example, that the proper translation of “preoccupare” was “preoccupate” and not “preoccupy,” because she had found it on the internet.

My belief is that there are two basic problems with the whole “second-language” translation concept. First, people confuse the ability to speak, live, work, or attend university in a second language with the possession of native-speaker skills. At times, they jumble those concepts up quite deliberately.

But of course the ability to speak English, even very well, and to write English very well are two entirely different things. Why is that difficult to understand? Language teachers know this better than anyone, perhaps: Second-language acquisition falls, very roughly, into two categories: what we might call “receptive” skills (reading and listening) and “productive” skills (writing and speaking). Students of a foreign language almost always lag behind in productive skills, even when their receptive skills are good. By the same token, we know that it’s perfectly possible to speak a language well but be functionally illiterate—that is, unable to read or to write.

The second problem is that being “bilingual” doesn’t imply being bicultural. In other words, you might understand English extremely well but be unable to pass what I call the “Come Si Dice” test. During your March 12 seminar, for example, you posed the question of the translation from Italian into English of “pulsante apriporta.” The answers you got (door-opening button, etc.) expressed the concept, but they failed the “Come Si Dice” test: that simply isn’t what we would write on a door, and someone who hadn’t grown up in an English-speaking country probably wouldn’t know that.

One of my favorite examples, which I’ve put on my website, was a discussion on a translators’ list about how to translate “non capovolgere,” which was the legend on a carton of retail merchandise. An Italian translator working passively from Italian into English posed the question, and another passive-language translator looked in the dictionary and found that the verb “capovolgere” meant “to turn over” or “to turn upside down.” Thus he suggested: “Do not turn over.” Linguistically, it’s accurate. But it flunks “Come Si Dice,” and perhaps only a native English speaker would know that the correct English translation of the identical concept in an identical context—a true translation, that is, and not simply the slavish substitution of English words for Italian ones—is: “This End Up.”

Actually, as China prepared for the 2008 Olympics, we had a great demonstration of what happens when you ignore the “Come Si Dice” rule. In the run up to the Olympics, Chinese government officials decided to spend a lot of money to mount a campaign against “Chinglish.” The goal was to replace signage like “deformed man toilet” (for handicapped bathroom) or “don’t bother” instead of “do not disturb” on hotel room doors. The director of the Beijing Speaks Foreign Languages program told a reporter—and I thought this was a miracle of understatement—that “an over-reliance on the dictionary can lead to the incorrect choice of synonyms.” But the main reason for the campaign was embarrassment: They knew a lot of guests were coming for the Olympics and they didn’t want them to see those bewildering signs. Frankly, I’ve never understood why Italians aren’t embarrassed. In Italy, you can still go into restaurants and read things like “mushrooms with ham pants” (calzone con funghi e prosciutto) or “first flats” (primi piatti) on the menu. Or, more seriously, go to important monuments like the Arena di Verona or the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome, to see Bernini’s Estasi di Santa Teresa d’Avila, and find tourist information in English that is literally unreadable.

Is there some enormous shortage of native-English-speaking translators from Italian? I truly don’t believe there is. For other language combinations, the issues may be different, but not for Italian and English. So why not use native-English speakers, assuming they are also qualified to be translators?

Still, what strikes me as most interesting in the reactions I’ve received to the “Professional Standards for Written Translations in English” petition is this: People who disagree with me accuse me of being arrogant or bigoted or resentful. They insist that it isn’t fair to divide people into “native speakers” and “not native speakers” because the situation is much more complicated, and so forth.

But what no one ever says—ever—is that I’m wrong about the low quality of English that is being produced by non-native-speaking translators. No one ever argues that my position is off the mark because, in reality, the second-language English that is being sold to translation clients is clear, effective, and accurate. That it is, in every way, as good as translations by native speakers. That it substantially passes the “Come Si Dice” test. I find that extremely revealing. Perhaps I am arrogant and bigoted and resentful and all the other things that people say, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.

Meanwhile, I’m still waiting to meet this person who I keep being told exists: this non-native speaker who is capable of translating into clear, substantially perfect English. I keep being told there is such a thing, but I’ve yet to come across one. At this point, I feel as though these so-called “bidirectional” translators are like the Loch Ness Monster. Lots of people believe in them, but nobody’s actually seen one in person.

Sure, if we want examples of people who’ve managed to write literary masterpieces in a second or other language, we can point to writers like Nabokov, Conrad, Brodsky, Beckett, though I’m not sure what that would prove—other than their rarity. If we want, we could even put Oriana Fallaci on the list: She translated her own book, The Rage and the Pride, into English, explaining in the Introduction that any “oddities” in style or vocabulary were there because “that’s how she wanted it” (sound familiar?). But it’s also fair to say that many reviewers of the book weren’t impressed by Fallaci’s experiment. The Publishers Weekly reviewer commented, for example: “Fallaci only aggravates her lack of rigorous thinking by translating the work herself, resulting in a clumsy text that appears not to have been edited or proofread by a fluent English speaker.” I’ve read both versions of the book, and I can tell you: Fallaci didn’t do herself any favors.

I’m working with an Italian editor right now who is in trouble because he paid for the translation of two books into English by Italian native speakers and the translations he received were, frankly, rubbish. And he says to me, “But each of them lived in the United States for at least ten years!” Yes, and they’re not native speakers. I have no doubt that they speak terrific English, but they’re not native speakers. And that’s the point.

Wendell Ricketts
ProvenWrite Italian-to-English Translations


4 Responses to Moving Beyond “Garbage In-Garbage Out” Translations

  1. Pingback: 采访:超越“垃圾进、垃圾出”的翻译 | DALLASCAO.COM

  2. Pingback: Interview: Moving Beyond “Garbage In-Garbage Out” Translations | DALLASCAO.COM

  3. I’ve seen the Loch Ness Monster a few times Wendell and read his translations. But he and his siblings appear very, very rarely, so your point is essentially correct.

    As for your concerns about rates and compelling certain minimum levels, I can’t agree. You are perfectly welcome to offer me a project for three cents a word, but my response will be a hearty laugh and an invitation to try another order of magnitude. No one is compelled to deal with these fools on their terms.

    And the arrogance you cite for non-native speakers of English in Europe is depressingly wide-spread. My favorite so far is a certain woman of French/Dutch heritage who translates from German into the most appalling English I’ve encountered in her technical field. When such people suggest maiming an English text to suit their flawed understanding of our language, I try to take it with a smile, chuckle and tell them politely that they are welcome to look foolish if they insist, but I see protecting their reputations (if possible) as my role….

  4. Marty Dillon says:

    found your site on digg today and really liked it.. i bookmarked it and will be back to check it out some more later

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