Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Translation is Not About Words. It’s About What the Words are About.

By Kevin Hendzel

Subject-matter knowledge is not just “important” to translation. It’s the very essence of translation.
Buried deep in the bedrock of every profession are certain truths that are universally understood and accepted by modern practitioners. In medicine, for example, those include a recognition that the human body exists in a physical universe subject to the laws of science and not to a fictitious universe of mysterious spirits accessible to the chosen, pre-ordained few, a concept that had dominated human medicine for millennia.

As a result, medical doctors strolling through a cocktail party today would never encounter questions from their friends, patients or colleagues about the effectiveness of specific spells, incantations or charms in their medical practice. Mysticism and superstition in medicine have been duly and effectively discarded in the proverbial dustbin of history.
Not so for translation.

We translators can spend decades of rigorous effort in the lead-up to our translation careers – and certainly during such careers – developing the crucial subject-matter expertise essential to the translation enterprise.

This process involves learning highly complex concepts in science, technology, philosophy, law, finance, business, music and dozens of other fields through immersion in the lab, lecture hall, classroom, production line, fabrication plant, trading floor or boardroom.
This prolonged effort is crucial to our ability to precisely convey all these concepts across language barriers.

But no matter how many fields we master as translators, awaiting us at that same cocktail party will be the eternal question that has been asked of translators since the Tower of Babel:
“How many languages do you speak?”

It’s a question that suggests an innocent, almost whimsical notion of translation as a low-stress career of light reflection, picked up effortlessly while flipping through phrase books and sipping sweet tea in the afternoon shade.

The reality is rather more sobering. In my case, for example, I’d arrive at such parties after having worked out certain issues in my translation work such as the principles underlying optical excitation of Rayleigh waves by interband light absorption or coherent acoustic resistance to an electron-hole plasma or approaches to calculating the electronic structure of alloys.

So my response to this friendly question of “how many languages do you speak?” would be a bit playful and would always be delivered with a smile:

“I speak science.”
Words or ideas?

It’s not the fault of our polite party-goer asking the “how many languages” question, since it’s just an attempt to strike up a friendly conversation.
And there’s no help from our culture, either – especially in the U.S. – where translators are looked upon with deep suspicion as these bizarre mythological creatures of ambiguous progeny whose field of endeavor is certainly trivial and should have been rendered mute by automated translation decades ago.

At the core of this fallacy is the ancient and somewhat quaint notion that translation is just about language – about words.

This can’t be true, though, because language itself isn’t even about words. The words of language are just the symbols we manipulate to paint meaning into our world — to project pictures that convey the underlying message, concept or idea.
So translators do not translate languages or words. They translate ideas.

And in today’s commercial translation market, that means we translate the ideas of people who are deeply invested in some highly complicated activities and are willing to pay us to convey them.
Since we must understand those ideas to do this accurately, we must know not only what we know, but we must also know what they know, too.

A solitary focus on language

What happens if a translator understands the languages, but not the ideas? How do those translations work out in the real world?
Short answer: Catastrophically.

The translation world today appears to be overflowing with novice (but certainly well-meaning) translators flailing about in dangerous waters infested with their own conceptual blindness. This is an inevitable outcome of the persistent and wrongheaded solitary focus on language to the exclusion of content.
It’s why students entering translation studies programs would be well advised to learn a great deal about the world before attempting to investigate ways to convey that knowledge – which is exactly what translation is – lest they end up conveying a disturbing and very costly lack of knowledge, an outcome that embarrasses both the novice translator and the poor unsuspecting client who, after all, thinks translation is just a matter of “speaking a foreign language.”

Russian has no words for that

One of my favorite stories that nicely illustrates this dilemma originated in an inquiry we once received from a U.S. manufacturer of a water purification system based on a novel yet straightforward technology that they wished to sell in Russia. The company had hired a translator – a Russian woman – to translate their technical documentation from English into Russian. They were getting nowhere with this approach and called me up to see if I could determine why.
“Every time we give her documentation to translate she says ‘Russian has no words for any of that,’” the manager told me. “Then she gets on the phone and speaks Russian all day with her friends. I don’t understand how she can speak that much Russian and not be able to translate what we need her to,” he said. “Is it true that Russian has no words for water purification?”

I assured him that Russian has a highly sophisticated technical lexicon, and in any event, it was unlikely that the language of Mendeleev – the author of the Periodic Table of Elements, after all – would prove utterly helpless in the face of reverse osmosis.

It was certainly possible that this woman was simply unaware of the technology (or was feigning ignorance of it), but in practice her apparent complete lack of any technical awareness was derailing the company’s efforts for reasons having nothing to do with language.

Line or link?

A more problematic case are translations that describe a world that doesn’t, can’t or will never exist.
And that happens because the translator doesn’t have the real-world knowledge to know what doesn’t, can’t or will never exist.

There are countless thousands of examples of this phenomenon. One is the word “liniya” in Russian, which means a physical telephone line such as a hard-wired copper landline. Unfortunately, the exact same Russian word also means a radio link to a remote terminal, satellite or cell tower, which is what cellphones use.

The only way to know which is correct is to possess the most rudimentary knowledge of telecommunications.

Alas, there never seems to be a limit to the English translations of this word that describe a world in which a physical copper wire is magically soldered to a satellite orbiting at an altitude of 42,000 kilometers.

Endless challenges

It’s certainly true that even the most experienced, careful and knowledgeable translators will find themselves in uncertain subject-matter territory at various points throughout their careers. It’s one of the many reasons to involve an expert colleague with greater subject-matter expertise in the review process while getting up to speed on technical concepts – a process that can and does take years.
Final appeal

In the event that I’ve failed to be convincing up to this point, consider again the title of this blog post:
Translation is not about words. It’s about what the words are about.

The message here is that translation is about meaning, not about words. To illustrate this idea, I use the same words in both sentences.
The only reason the meaning conveys is that the sentences are in different frames of reference. It’s the meaning underlying those frames of reference that delivers the idea.
Reposted with permission from http://www.kevinhendzel.com/

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Drugs and the Brain

“Drugs and the Brain”
A MOOC from Coursera taught by Dr. Henry A. Lester of CalTech
Review by AmyLesiewicz 
I recently finished up my first online class offered by Coursera. If you haven’t already checked them out, head over to www.coursera.org to see all of the free classes they offer from professors at distinguished universities. MOOC stands for massive open online course, and these classes certainly are massive. “Drugs and the Brain” initially drew 66,800 students, but that number quickly dropped; 10,426 students took the first week’s quiz, and about 4,400 students earned “Statements of Completion.”
Coursera offers a range of classes, and they’re all unique. They are different lengths and require different amounts of time per week. Some are open to beginners, while others require some previous knowledge. Some recommend that students purchase a textbook, while others provide reading material from open sources and online newspapers. Some offer a certificate or statement of completion, but none involve official credit toward a college degree.
“Drugs and the Brain” was a five-week class taught by Dr. Henry Lester, a truly engaging professor of neuroscience at the California Institute of Technology. Each Saturday, he posted ten or twelve short video lectures of eight to fifteen minutes each. These videos consisted of the main screen showing PowerPoint slides (with the occasional video clip or animation), plus a smaller screen showing Dr. Lester as he recorded the lectures in his office or around campus. This gave the presentation a nice touch of the human element—I could see Dr. Lester’s facial expression and hand gestures as he spoke. His slides were very well prepared and easy to read. Embedded in each video lecture were two or three tiny quizzes: just one multiple-choice question to emphasize an important concept. These really helped keep me focused on the most pertinent information. In addition, the slides could be downloaded as PowerPoint or PDF files and viewed at leisure, which I found to be a valuable resource. Each Friday (or earlier), a quiz would be posted on that week’s lectures. The quizzes were ten to twenty multiple-choice questions, and only required a few minutes to complete. The course was designed to allow students to attempt each quiz up to three times, with the highest score accepted. There was a soft deadline of one week for the quiz; after that date, there was a 10% deduction in score each day. Since the course started in December, there was a two-week break for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.
Although there was little interaction with the course staff, there was a class forum with many active threads. Students posted questions on concepts they didn’t understand, and their classmates offered help when they could, while others took discussions further. Dr. Lester and his assistants (Crystal Dilworth and Bruce Cohen) stepped in to answer questions when other students hadn’t provided explanations. The class forum showed how diverse the student population was: students from 13 to 83 years of age came from 75 different countries.
Here’s a summary of what the class covered:
Week 1: Definition of a drug; how drugs permeate into the brain; synapses, receptors, transporters, ion channels, and G-protein pathways; drug tolerance, dependence, and addiction; chemical classes of drugs; proteins and ligands; neuronal circuits and anatomy of mammalian brains; how brain activity is measured; how neurons act as electrical circuits
Week 2: Dose-response curves and concepts; agonists, antagonists, and inverse agonists; synaptic events; ligand-gated ion channels; receptor activation and desensitization; channel blockers; voltage-gated channels; use-dependent blockers; G-protein coupled receptors, effectors, enzymes, and intracellular messengers; modifying G-protein pathways
Week 3: Drugs binding to neurotransmitter transporters; passive and active transport; channel-mediated and carrier-mediated transport proteins; antidepressants (SSRIs) and attention deficit disorder medications (amphetamines); recreational drugs (classes and sources, targets and effects); dopaminergic neurons (pleasure, reward, and wellbeing); serotonergic neurons; nicotine addiction, upregulation, and genetics; smoking cessation drugs 
Week 4: Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease: clinical description, genetics, pathophysiology, and therapeutic approaches
Week 5: Psychiatric diseases and mood disorders: bipolar disorders and depression; mechanisms of antidepressant action; schizophrenia; genetics and therapeutic approaches 
Although shorter than a full semester, the subject matter and difficulty of this class were similar to what I experienced in my undergraduate science classes at a brick-and-mortar university. Because the course was free, I expected it to be a simplified overview, and I was pleasantly surprised by the class’s depth. The science was not dumbed-down; in fact, many students used the class forums to ask for help with the chemistry and neuroscience concepts involved.
This was my first online course, and I enjoyed it much more than I expected. I enjoyed the ability to watch the lectures whenever and wherever I wanted, and to pause the recording while I looked up an unfamiliar term or review a tricky concept, and then to pick up right where I left off, rewind, and repeat as often as necessary. The sound quality was better than I’ve often experienced with live webinars. You can also control the playback volume and speed: 1.25x or 1.5x speed for a slow talker is a nice feature. It would have been nice to have that kind of control with my professors back in college! Even if you can’t complete a class due to time constraints, you can watch video lectures in the online class archive or download them as MP4 files.
The professor was well-spoken and showed real passion for his subject. He always provided real-world examples and effects of the abstract ideas he introduced. He also clearly enjoys teaching in general and the Coursera experience in particular. An unexpected bonus for me: he often provided etymology for new terminology, such as drug (Middle English: drogge), enzyme (Greek: to leaven), ligand (Latin: to tie), protein (Greek: first), allosteric (Greek: other+body/solid object), dendrite (Greek: tree), axon (Greek: axis), synapse (Greek: connection/junction), agonist (Greek: to act), and vagus (German: wanderer). As a translator, my professional interest in the class (in addition to pure curiosity) was to learn new terminology, so this linguistic treat was very welcome!
I loved the class so much that I immediately signed up for a few more. I plan to take “Introductory Human Physiology” (starting February 25), “Climate Change” (starting in August), and “Clinical Terminology for International Students” (date to be announced). I’ve just started “Energy 101” from Georgia Tech, but so far I’m not loving that class; I’ll give it a few more weeks to decide if I want to keep with it. So if you sign up for a class and find yourself disappointed, don’t give up—try another one! What have you got to lose?
AmyLesiewicz is a Russian to English translator who specializes in scientific translation. As a chemistry student, she began studying Russian because it was the only language that fit into her class schedule around her science and math courses. She earned her BS in chemistry and went on to earn an MA in Russian and a Certificate of Advanced Study in translation. After working as an in-house translator for one year in Moscow and three years at a Houston-based engineering company translating for Russian oil and gas projects, Amy is now a freelance translator. She enjoys the variety of assignments she has received as a freelancer, especially medical and pharmaceutical texts.