Academic Translation from Start to Finish

Translating can seem rather opaque. The author/client will often simply send a file and receive a translated version back. Even with a decent level of language proficiency, it can be difficult to gauge whether a translation into a foreign language is average, good or excellent. In today’s blog, I seek to demystify this process. I do so by discussing the “workflow” I use for academic translation when dealing with direct clients. Translation agencies may divide the tasks up differently.

Understanding authorial style is key to academic translation in the social sciences and humanities. This is because there is more diversity in writing styles than in, say, legal translation. These styles are often intimately tied up with the arguments that authors wish to make and they often link to wider intellectual schools and projects too. Special attention must therefore be paid to accurately translating not only concepts and ideas accurately, but also authorial style and voice.

In my experience, the best academic translations emerge from a direct collaboration with the author, in which there is space to discuss the interventions made to a text. This is because the author knows her style best and is often better versed in the relevant academic literature and jargon than the translator. If the translator has subject knowledge, this is a great help, but translation experience and training are also crucial.

What, then, do I do exactly?

Part 1 – translation

After I receive a text, I use translation software (SDL Trados) to work on the file (see below). This software breaks the text up into manageable segments. It also reformats the translated segments, so I don’t have to mess around with fonts, styles and footnotes in MS Word. I can also highlight specific jargon in the text. E.g. kulturni kapital (HR) – cultural capital (EN). This is then stored in a terminology database and suggested as an accurate translation next time I come across the same term. Note: the following screenshot is of a non-confidential translation.

Trados is also useful because it lets me store a databank of translated phrases: a translation memory. Translation memories are useful for academic translation but indispensable in legal and technical translation where there is even more repetition and an even greater need for conceptual precision.

If I am unsure of a word or phrase, I insert an author query, as the author often has a deeper knowledge, through reading in English, of subject-specific jargon and conventions. It is worth remembering that the translator’s knowledge and expertise is in language and general academic conventions, not in the minute details of each academic sub-discipline. This is why collaboration is so important! I base my schedule on (comfortably) translating 2000 words a day.

Part 2 – bilingual revision

After the first round is completed, I then crosscheck the translated segments in Trados with the original ones, correcting any errors. This is sometimes called translation revision. After the first round, some translated sentences are still ordered in a “Croatian” or “German” style. For example, quite a few Croatian sentences begin with the construction “Zbog toga” (lit. Because of that). This is comprehensible in English, but it sounds clumsy and unwieldy. While this is an obvious example, there are more subtle sentences that can pass through undetected. After this round, I send the text to the author to review. At this point, I stress that the author should focus on the precise translation of concepts, ideas and style: not on a literal, precise translation of every element in each sentence.

Part 3 – monolingual editing

Finally, assuming the text will be sent to a journal or academic publisher for preparation, after receiving the corrected text back from the author, I do a final edit (typically in MS Word) of the translated text for consistency and remaining syntax issues a week or more later. This break gives me a fresh view on the text. All the consistency issues that copyeditors focus on (e.g. -ize/-ise endings) can also be tackled at this stage. I use editing software: PerfectIt and The Editor’s Toolkit to ensure a high level of consistency. This is not achieved during the translation phase as it is impossible to focus on all the different levels of language at the same time. It can also be useful to have another round of copyediting/proofreading completed by someone else before final publication.

The Long and Short of It: Academic Style for B/C/M/S Speakers Writing in English

The problem of long and unclear sentences frequently comes up in the editing process. Long sentences create numerous problems in English that are not problematic in B/C/M/S, at least partly because of the case system. The case system makes it easier to identify how each noun links to each verb. It also creates a wonderful flexibility in word order. This flexibility can also make sentences unclear when translated, as word order is much more fixed in English.

A certain kind of academic writer everywhere can be found guilty of indulging in long, verbose sentences. Yet there are certain issues with word order and objects that are specific to B/C/M/S speakers. Chopping sentences up is almost always required in every translation I do, and in many copyedits.

Style or grammar issue?

Academic style in B/C/M/S, in the humanities and social sciences at least, has been strongly influenced by continental traditions. These traditions (especially the French ones) often include long sentences. The eloquence of many such sentences in the original language does not always work in English. Such sentences often need simplifying and transforming in English – and this can be a matter of grammar and clarity as well as of style.

Here’s a sentence with three issues all rolled into one:

“Researching the sources, a general justification for such comparisons is that contemporary archival knowledge was unavailable when those theories were being written, which their misconstrual of these theories increasingly disproportionate to their influence today.”

Now let’s try and make some sense of it. Have a go at rephrasing the sentence yourself and then I will offer a possible solution at the end. There are at least three issues present here: dangling modifiers, ambiguous objects and incorrect parallel constructions.

(1) Dangling modifiers

This is when a gerund (an -ing form, such as dancing, pondering) is used ambiguously, leaving the meaning of the sentence unclear:

“After researching the secret archives, the movie based on the historical evidence found there is purported to be controversial.”

Here the subject is unclear: a movie cannot research archives. In this case, it makes the sentence sound clumsy, but some dangly sentences are clear and sound OK too.

(2) Ambiguous objects

When very long sentences are translated into English, there is often a pronoun (e.g. it, him), demonstrative (e.g. this, that these) or possessive adjective (e.g. hers, theirs) whose object is not clear to the reader. Remember that what is obvious to you may not be obvious to the reader.

In the example sentence, their is ambiguous:

“which their misconstruals of these theories increasingly disproportionate to their influence today.”

In academic English, subjects and objects need to be stated more frequently, as their relationships with verbs etc. are not implied by a case system. Academic English in general uses a lot more “obvious” connecting words and phrases to explain links between ideas. This is likely a consequence of English having become a lingua franca in recent years, and so academic English needs to be intelligible to speakers from a variety of language backgrounds unfamiliar with Anglo-American contexts.

(3) Incorrect parallel constructions

The example sentence includes an ungrammatical parallel construction. The second clause does not fit together with the first clause. A much simpler example might be the following:

“Although the rain, we went to the party.”

In this example, although requires a verb phrase. To retain a similar meaning while using a noun phrase, despite can be used: Despite the rain, we went to the party. While this example is simple, academic connectors (Moreover, Furthermore, Namely) and their usage can get quite complex in long sentences. Consider their use carefully and learn from the corrections your editors and proofreaders make!

Solution:

So how might we rephrase the above sentence? There is no one solution in editing, and context is important.

Original: Researching the sources, a general justification for such comparisons is that contemporary archival knowledge was unavailable when those theories were being written, which their misconstruals of these theories increasingly disproportionate to their influence today.

Possible solution: A general justification for such comparisons, (1) the sources indicate, is that present-day archival knowledge was unavailable when those theories were being written. (2) The “misconstruals” of these theories are increasingly disproportionate in influence to (3) the theories themselves.

  • No ambiguity remains over who is “researching” the sources
  • A new second sentence avoids an incorrect parallel construction
  • “Their” has been replaced with an object

In this case, the solution is not particularly elegant. Further rephrasing would help if a heavy edit was demanded, but the various issues have been resolved.

Editing English, academic hierarchies and “native-speaker” bias

There have recently been several articles circulating about peer reviewers chastising academic writers from non-English speaking backgrounds for their use of English. One wonderful reply from an editor argued that peer reviewers should solely judge works on the merits of their arguments. Sorting out the technical proficiency of the English is the editor’s job, and this is a task to be approached in a kind and non-judgemental way.

Scholars in many countries are under significant pressure to publish articles in Anglo-American journals. This is increasingly the case in Croatia and Serbia, as the following initiative from an area studies journal noted. Learning to write in an academic style, expressing a voice, and honing arguments takes time and requires high-level language skills. The demand to do so in two or more languages means a lot more effort is required than for scholars publishing in one language alone.

Yet the support authors receive varies considerably across institutions and countries. In Germany, there is often considerable funding available for editorial work and some research institutes have an in-house editor. In other countries, such as Serbia and Croatia, I found academic English language editing was sometimes done by editors from those countries who had studied English at university. Here, this was a “good enough” solution as the authors’ messages were communicated, even if technical issues remained with the English. But this meant that such texts were often overlooked by readers who saw the language errors over the arguments and concepts.

Various “foreign-speaker” errors are sometimes used as strategies to gatekeep academic privilege. My own previous experience as a peer reviewer and academic author was revealing. As an author, I noticed that when I wrote about Croatian linguistic topics and had a Croatian academic affiliation, I received more peer review critiques of my use of language. This suggests some reviewers had made assumptions about my language background. In situations where I was involved in peer reviewing texts, I noticed other reviewers on several occasions emphasize “problems with the use of English” at the start of their reviews.

These forms of bias and prejudice typically affect scholars more intensely when they start to publish. During the PhD or as an early postdoc, scholars are often more sensitive and susceptible to negative peer reviews. Such scholars are just beginning to publish and often work in precarious conditions. They are also more likely to receive negative peer reviews on the content of their work as they have not yet had time to internalize the deeper, unspoken conventions of their discipline(s).

Every article that is rejected, or for which extensive corrections and a “language edit” is demanded, takes time away from other activities. Finding a solution obviously depends on both funding available and wider resources within academic networks. Where little funding is available for English language copy-editing and proofreading, more academic solidarity is required. But there is no section of the academic CV giving explicit credit for proofreading and copy-editing skills completed while helping colleagues. This could be recognized, as could the amount of effort that goes into becoming a proficient academic writer in two or more languages.

What are your experiences of such differences? And what changes could help diminish these differences and inequalities?