Volume 5, No. 1 
January 2001

  Nick Somers





Translation Journal
Translator Education

Revision—Food for Thought

by Nick Somers

ne of the subjects that preoccupies (or should preoccupy) translators once they have got a few million words under their belts is how to ensure that the next generation of translators will be able to carry the flame, in other words, how to give them the opportunity to learn their trade while minimising the damage they could cause through inexperience.

One possible solution is an apprenticeship in an organisation or translation agency large enough (or foolhardy enough) to permit the neophyte to learn the ropes on his/her own simply by throwing huge volumes of work at him/her. Far more effective, however, is some kind of mentoring or hand-holding system, where the new recruit can be initiated gently.

Every text can stand revision, whether it is done by a neophyte or a veteran.

One common form of mentoring is the simple translator/reviser set-up. Typically, the translator puts the fruits of his/her labour into a cubbyhole, the reviser collects it, red-pencils it and puts it back into the cubbyhole, and the translator retrieves the work to peruse, puzzle over, and ponder at his or her leisure (or not). Why is this (unsatisfactory) procedure still being followed? The reviser will claim that 'there's too much work to do and not enough time to go over each text individually.' The truth, in my opinion, often lies somewhere else. In the same way that some translators are reluctant to sign their work because they are scared to take responsibility for it, I suspect that hierarchical thinking makes some revisers unwilling to have to justify the choices they make and, more importantly, to be told that they are wrong.

Let us hope that this 'old school' of revisers is dying out. An obvious improvement on this situation is for the reviser to come to the translator's desk and go over the text in detail. This is clearly beneficial and, if done constructively and with discernment, becomes an invaluable experience. The only minor objection is that it perpetuates what might, among adults, be an inappropriate schoolteacher/pupil type of relationship.

A further improvement is possible—and it is this idea that prompted me to write this short piece. In this third-generation translator/reviser model, the two parties revise each other. This is not the configuration where two colleagues of equal standing read each other's work. In this scenario one party could well be a junior translator. The benefits are manifold.

  1. Every text can stand revision, whether it is done by a neophyte or a veteran. In hierarchical systems, however, promotion to reviser status often means the end of revision. While the beginner needs revision, among other things, to introduce him/her to the house style and established terminology, reciprocal revision also acts as a safeguard against complacency and exposes the senior translator to fresh input.
  2. The junior translator can learn something about the discipline of revising. He/she now has to decide whether the first run-through is good enough. Is the version acceptable, even if he/she would have put it differently? Is it close enough to the original (or far enough from it) to convey the information properly in the target language? These questions are slightly different from those asked at the initial translation stage, where it is easy to get bogged down trying to render difficult words and concepts, and it's as well for the inexperienced translator to be able to see this broader picture early on.
  3. It goes without saying that this system can be an excellent confidence-booster. When the junior can improve on something the senior translator has done, it breaks down barriers and puts into perspective the occasional mistakes or infelicitous choices to which none of us is immune.
  4. If a text is discussed face to face, this system can be a priceless learning experience for all concerned. By brainstorming, the participants can expose all the possibilities, problems and pitfalls that a particular sentence or word presents. It should not be forgotten that the reviser stands to learn from the beginner's input as well. And the outcome will almost certainly be a better finished product.

This system is of no use to translators (revisers) who believe that their work cannot be improved on, those who do not wish to expose themselves to this possibility and those who take criticism as a personal insult. It calls for open-mindedness and a modicum of courtesy, respect and honesty. Those who have these qualities and the time and patience to work through the texts in this way will find that it adds value to the avuncular, over-the-shoulder approach. It's on-the-job training at its most effective for the beginner; it's stimulating for the reviser and keeps him/her from gathering dust; and it can be fun for both.