Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Attending the FIT Congress: Thoughts from a Technical Translator

The International Federation of Translators (FIT) holds a Congress every three years. This year it was run by ATA and held in San Francisco on August 1-4, 2011. The Congress has a reputation for being more theoretical than ATA conferences and for that reason, many translators don’t attend. However, San Francisco is within handy driving distance of my home, so the family planned a summertime trip to see the city and I took time out to attend one day of the Congress.

Regardless of how the Congress has been in the past, I knew that this year’s eclectic program had attracted some attendees and deterred others. I found plenty to enjoy, the meals (breakfast and a dinner reception) were good, and networking was easy in the area set apart for the Congress. About 600 people attended, and apart from the US, China and the Nordic countries appeared to be well represented.

In translating chemical and technical documents for the pharmaceutical, cosmetics and medical device industries I frequently have to handle medical terminology. I went along to the session called “Comment enseigner la traduction médicale ?” (How should we teach medical translation?) by Christian E. Balliu of the Institut Supérieur de Traducteurs et Interprètes (ISTI) in Brussels. I thought it might give me tips for how to pick up that terminology. The speaker’s pair is Spanish into French, but the session was not language specific. In fact, this was a paper on a method of teaching translation students how to gain subject-matter expertise. The discussion veered towards finding the balance between technical expertise versus translation skills in producing good translations, an area we have often discussed in S&TD. In S&TD the balance of opinion tends to be towards ‘use a subject matter expert who can write’ whereas this speaker, perhaps unsurprisingly, leans towards ‘use a trained translator, and teach them a subject’.

This professor does not attempt to teach a huge spread of information to give a subject area overview. Instead, he drills deep and narrow in one particular field, immunology, and more specifically AIDS. This seems to me to be a helpful way to teach students, as it is a realistic comparison with how we learn on the job, whenever we accept a job in a field that is in a new area. As to how long it takes to obtain the required subject matter expertise, that’s another issue.

One key problem I felt the speaker glossed over was problems in register that are more common in medical work than in other areas of technical translation. Finding an equivalent medical term in another language is frequently easy. Determining the cultural factors that mean another register may be required in the target language is often very difficult.

I was not the only person in the room looking for time for a lively debate on these and other issues, though I’d have been in the minority on the ‘use a subject-matter expert who can write’ topic. Regardless, I found it thought provoking to hear the opinions of what appeared to be a roomful of translation studies professors.

Another session I attended was “The Beginning of Wisdom” by Nick Hartmann, who is currently the ATA president, and was the division administrator for the Science and Technology Division in its previous incarnation. Nick filled in at the last minute for a cancellation, on a topic that I had previously seen in a written paper, that I thought I would enjoy. The session took an email communication between a client and a technical translator and used that as a springboard for an examination of the issues, both text and business related, that technical translators commonly face, and from which we can begin to have wisdom. Topics included the nature of the business relationship, degrees of responsibility, having good technical instincts, developing understanding, time management, subject matter expertise, and terminology. Quite a list! However, by using this example email and focusing on the big picture of what we ought to be doing, Nick dropped many pearls of wisdom during his allotted hour. If this makes you wonder what they were, you can read the paper at Nick’s website: and see if you agree with my take on it.

Those were the sessions I attended that were of relevance to S&TD. I had a great, tiring day and am pleased I attended. The venue for the next FIT Congress was selected during this event, and it will be in Berlin, Germany.

Karen M. Tkaczyk, PhD, works as a French (ATA-certified) and Spanish into English freelance translator. Her translation work is highly specialized, being entirely focused on chemistry and its industrial applications. She holds an MChem in Chemistry with French (University of Manchester, UK), a Diploma in French and a PhD in Organic Chemistry (University of Cambridge, UK). She worked in the pharmaceutical industry in Europe, then after relocating in 1999, in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics in the US. Karen has taken technical writing and editing courses, and enjoys motivating translators to improve their technical writing skills as well as their subject matter expertise.