From the ivory tower?

News from the KäTu Symposium on Translation and Interpreting Studies, 20–22 May 2021

Some are sceptical about how relevant academic translation studies can be for the world of work. Isn’t it too theoretical to be useful? Isn’t it too postmodern to be practical? Shouldn’t translation students spend more of their time learning how to run a business? If the machines are taking over, why analyse how humans translate?

If this is you, you can learn from KäTu. How you do the theory shapes how you do the practice, and you can’t disengage the two. I certainly got engaged. This year’s symposium was on Zoom, which made it easily accessible, but less easy to get to know participants. Hopefully next time there will be more opportunities to talk and meet informally and in smaller groups.

Four insights zoomed down to me from the ivory tower at KäTu 2021:

Writers need training in how to do and commission translations

Academics – like everyone else – are translating a lot themselves. They don’t always trust a professional to do it because they have had bad experiences with translation agencies. They are worried that they don’t have the budget. And their organisations – the universities – don’t usually have good systems to find the right translator. Training can help – Esa Penttilä and others at the University of Eastern Finland offered PhD students courses in translating their research. They are looking at other ways of training academics, both in translating and in working with professional translators. Organisations like NEaT can help.

New ways of describing gender create new linguistic opportunities

Genders are challenging to translate well. Finnish only has one personal pronoun (hän) for he, she, and everyone else. But Finns still use old “male” forms more than necessary, like laki- palo- or virkamies – literally “law, fire, and office man” for lawyer, firefighter and official. So hän tends to mask the male default still assumed in Finnish. This makes it tricky to translate a story about people whose genders change like Ursula le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, as Anna Merikallio from the University of Turku showed. Meeting this challenge inclusively is an exciting creative process.

Easy language makes your message clear and benefits everyone

The resources for writing something easy to read need to be clear too: here are some for Finnish, Finland Swedish, accessible English and minimal English. For instance, Ulla Vanhatalo at the University of Helsinki found that the minimal language version of a mental health questionnaire was most suitable for the widest range of users. Translators, editors and all writers could use easy language more to benefit all their readers.

Technology can support under-resourced languages

Neural machine translation (NMT) works better for the big languages than smaller ones. Jörg Tiedemann from the University of Helsinki showed how open-sourced translation tools and open data projects can counter this trend towards digital language death (András Kornai’s term). NMT tools can be trained with transfer learning. You can do this by translating texts from multiple source languages into one target language, or by translating monolingual texts in the small language into a bigger one and then back again. This is useful for crisis response and to counter reliance on commercial tools that favour bigger languages.

Here are some of those open resources:

Enjoy playing with the tools, read some of those links, and join the debate about how English and Finnish are changing at NEaT’s event on 8 June. Next time the ivory tower of translation opens its windows, you might be ready join me and look – climb? – in.

Kate Sotejeff-Wilson translates, copywrites and edits for academics at KSWtranslations, facilitates Ridge Writing Retreats, and is vice chair of NEaT.

Image: Tower of Babel c. 1372, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München Meister der Weltenchronik, via Wikimedia Commons.