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Translation in a pragmatic age

Моя поездка в Нью-Йорк была до предела стремительной (надо было срочно возвращаться в Берлин на встречу Горбачева, Буша и Коля по случаю 20-летия падения Берлинской стены), но интересной. Конференция Американской ассоциации переводчиков произвела большое впечатление прежде всего своей масштабностью. Сколько людей, преданных нашей профессии и способных к самоорганизации в общих интересах! Есть чему поучиться — но, учитывая наш «культурный код», времени для этого потребуется очень много.

Если у меня возникнут еще какие-то мысли на этот счет, обязательно поделюсь, а сейчас — текст лекции, ради которой меня и пригласили. Кроме нее я еще провел семинар для синхронистов, народу было много, реагировали хорошо.

UPD: Отзыв на лекцию с сайта журнала Translorial.

The principal character in a story by the Russian writer Mikhail Zoshchenko, a fellow by the name of Boris Ivanovich Kotofeyev, “was, by occupation, a musician. He played the percussion triangle in a symphony orchestra. This is a person who at the right time strikes this unsophisticated instrument, producing a melancholy ring. As a signal, the conductor usually gives him a wink with his right eye.” Now, Kotofeyev’s wife, Lukeria Petrovna is worried. One day, she “started telling how a former teacher of penmanship, Ivan Semenych Kushakov, was left without anything to sustain him in his life.” In the next episode, the former penmanship teacher himself makes an appearance. He is not nice. ‘“Well,” the teacher said, once again with an unnecessary smirk, “everything changes in our life. Say, today they’ve given up on penmanship, tomorrow on drawing, and then, before you know it, it’ll be your turn.” Kotofeyev’s wife, whose relationship with him seems somewhat fraught, chimes in: “It might very well happen, particularly with science and technology advancing.” This gets Kotofeyev really worried: “Well, Lusha, what if they indeed invent electric percussion instruments? Imagine a little button on the music stand. The conductor would push it with his finger, and it rings.” Zoshchenko then goes on to describe how the perplexed trianglist goes out and wanders, distraught, in the streets of the city. “Suddenly, it seemed to Boris Ivanovich that the electric triangle has long since been invented and they are just keeping it secret, in order to one day crush him – quickly, with one blow.”

The beauty of Zoshchenko’s stories, with their inimitable deadpan style, is, of course, that you never quite know where and to what extent he is serious and where he is not. It is probably this that made him unacceptable to Stalin’s ideological watchdogs. Almost always, there is a hidden meaning. In this story, however, it seems to me that he has created a pure and probably timeless masterpiece of compassion. The story is dated 1924. Yet, the twentieth century’s advances in science and technology, so aptly cited by Lukeria Petrovna, already had millions of people worried about the future of their trade. Obviously, our profession, too, hasn’t been spared those same concerns. So before looking at its future in a pragmatic age, let’s first consider the question of whether it has a future.

Let me say from the start that I believe it does (by the way, Zoshchenko, after describing how Kotofeyev, in a momentary act of lunacy, runs up the stairs of a church bell tower and rings the bells, ends the story on an optimistic note: “Things will work out well in the end. Boris Ivanovich Kotofeyev still has a long life ahead of him. Dear reader, he will survive us. That’s what we think.” Of course, one wonders how serious Zoshchenko is). And yet, I began my college studies as a future translator at a time (in 1966) when doubts about whether or not this profession would be needed in the future were strong in the minds of quite a few people. To use the unforgettable phrase of Karl Marx, the specter that was haunting our profession at that time was machine translation. At the Translation Department of the Maurice Thorez Institute of Foreign Languages there was a special group majoring in “structural and applied linguistics” – which was a somewhat more realistic way of describing a program whose ultimate objective was making machine translation a reality in the foreseeable future. (It was also a way for girls to get into the translation department, since all of the other groups were, unfortunately, men only.) The professors who taught them included some world class linguists; some of the courses they taught were fascinating; and some of them still believed that the goal was attainable. But, even then, many were moving away from that belief, awed by the enormous difficulties of automating anything associated with “naturally grown” languages. It is of course true that machine assisted translation, which appeared later, is a valuable tool that can facilitate our work, so let’s again take off our hats to the perspicacity of Mrs. Kotofeyev’s insight into the future advances of technology; nevertheless, the goal of having a machine that would make us obsolete seems distant at best.

The worry today seems to be, not about machine translation, but about the triumphant march of English as the global language. Indeed, in many areas of business and science, and even in entire sectors of the economy, such as for example tourism or air traffic control, English has become so dominant that much, though not all, of the translation formerly associated with those areas is no longer necessary. As corporations become transnational, they adopt English as their lingua franca. Some people think that proficiency in English should be a qualification for heads of state in all countries – at least this is what a forum participant on the website of a British newspaper suggested quite seriously. That of course is going too far, but it is true that English is making more inroads and knowledge of it is a big plus in practically all countries.

And yet, the market for translation and interpretation is not shrinking. In Russia, for example, at least before the current economic crisis, it was growing by up to 20 percent a year. I think we can safely assume that this will continue. Just as the telephone and teleconferencing and even the advent of the Internet have not diminished the need for travel; just as television did not supplant cinema and the radio, and before that cinema happily coexisted with the theater; just as the little triangle has survived, of course, as part of a whole battery of percussion instruments, the invention of the Moog synthesizer – and I could cite many similar examples – our profession seems bound to survive, I think both in its traditional forms and perhaps in some other forms that now can only be vaguely envisioned. That of course does not mean that we should not think about its future, about how it will be adjusting to the changes and challenges that await us all. In this talk, I would like to address just one of those challenges – the challenge of the rather pragmatic, utilitarian age in which we live. I think we have to accept it as such; this has been, in my view, the trend over the entire second half of the twentieth century and perhaps longer, a trend that is likely to continue and to affect more and more areas.

I am using the word pragmatic in its broadest sense, i.e. emphasizing practical considerations and goals, or, to take it a little further, the opposite of romantic (in the sense of ‘imaginative but impractical; idealistic and unrealistic’). I would like to show the ways in which the pragmatism of the times in which we live causes difficulties and problems for our profession in various ways, relating to selection, education, and the practice of the trade.

Let me first address the issue of what I have just called selection – that is who would choose our profession and who would survive the subsequent “selection process” as the profession and the professional community select those who fit the bill and, as we all know, dump some others, for reasons both good and bad.

I’ll start out by stating something that’s obvious to me: the profession of the translator (I mean both translators and interpreters here) is extremely labor-intensive and not “cost-effective,” that is to say, given the kind of “investment” one has to make (in terms of time, effort, perseverance, and commitment) there is nothing like comparable return in terms of one’s potential wealth. We tend not to think much about the time and effort we make daily to acquire and maintain our knowledge and skills, so let me just give one or two examples of the knowledge one has to possess and, in the case of the interpreter, often to have readily available in order to be up to the job.

Here is a short list of randomly selected words and word combinations in English: cardio-vascular system; barley; turpentine; detergent; linden; matinee; oil field; dry cargo ship; Milky Way; ginger; World Health Organization; desalination; thyroid. What do those words have in common? Nothing, it would seem. For us, however, there is one common thing about them: all of those words have precisely one equivalent in other languages. And they have to be learned, and given that most of them do not belong to the common word stock, they have to be learned by rote. So, when people say (and some of us say that, too) that translation “is not about words,” that one basically has to understand what is said in one language and then transpose it into another, it’s not quite true. Translation, and particularly interpretation, are “about words” in the sense that you have to know a lot of them in more than one language. Looking again at my list, most of you will probably be able to provide their equivalents in some of your working languages but perhaps not in others, because our “active vocabulary” cannot be equally active for all of our languages at all times. Yet, “having the equivalents” of this kind may be the simplest thing compared to other aspects of the vocabulary that we have to master. Take a simple word like drug, for example. When does it mean medication and when a narcotic? Even when the context is available, one may sometimes be confused. Similarly, with the word adult, whose meaning in recent decades has undergone some evolution, to put it mildly (consider ‘young adults,’ ‘adult content,’ and ‘adult services’), and scores if not hundreds of other words. And again, those are relatively simple examples, of course. Who would want to go through years and years of study and training, and polishing all of the skills our work requires? Some people would; but not an overwhelming number.

Languages evolve, and therefore translators have to constantly update and upgrade their knowledge. Recently upgrading one’s translation skills has begun to include the need to be aware of the changes in translation software, Internet resources and various other IT-related issues, which doesn’t come naturally to some of us.

The rewards of this tremendous effort are not obvious to many people. The prestige of the profession varies depending on the country, culture and time, but it is never enormous. A translator can certainly make it into the middle class and be comfortably well to do but, in purely financial terms, that’s about all he or she can achieve in most countries. One can argue that this makes the job not very attractive to a considerable percentage of potential candidates; on the other hand, one might suspect that the kind of people who think about “earning serious money” in the first place tend not to be particularly gifted linguistically. Be that as it may, such people are out of contention, and that, certainly in Russia and many other countries, includes many males. Another group that is “cut off” before the starting line are those who are after fame or status, who think that the profession of translator is “derivative” – basically, you are not creating anything of your own but are rephrasing something produced by others. This, too, is a relatively large cohort. Those who remain are probably not too numerous, and some of them will just not succeed, as happens in any profession.

But what are the rewards of our profession and, more broadly, of language competence? As I’ve said it’s probably not the financial rewards, which may depend on the economies of the countries involved, the kind of translation that is in greater or lesser demand, and on other aspects of market conditions. But for me, there is one thing that makes our work exciting and rewarding, and that is the knowledge and understanding that one acquires in the process of studying languages and practicing our profession. This “cognitive” or educational side of language competence is not often mentioned. From my young years, living in a society separated from the rest of the world by tightly controlled borders of different kinds, to the present, when I am still adding languages to the list of those with which I am at least familiar, the process itself has been giving me ever new “windows on the world” and, hopefully, better understanding of human beings and cultures. Multilingual people do have an advantage in many ways. Just one example: it took three years for the translation of Jonathan Littel’s Les Bienveillantes to appear in English, and they are still working on the Russian translation. So those of us who have read it in the original have had a head start in reading what I think will be one of this century’s most important novels. Anyway, this aspect has been a large and very important part of the fun that I’ve been having with my work for forty years now.

The above is a very broad outline; it omits the cultural, social and other factors that are specific to particular countries and that in some cases I can only guess at. But I would think that in most countries and cultures people who are prone to a careful “cost-benefit analysis” will probably choose something else to do with their lives.

Now let me try and make this discussion a little more concrete by describing some of my own experience.

When I was at the Maurice Thorez Institute I quickly realized that my fellow students were using basically one of two strategies. Some saw their studies as, most likely, a springboard to doing in the future something other than translation or, more generally, languages. They saw command of foreign languages as a big plus in some other occupation that they envisioned for themselves, such as journalism, international economics, or diplomacy. Some wanted to go into foreign intelligence, and some actually did. To me, it seemed a valid strategy, but my own strategy was different. I, like quite a few other student of my class, was after languages, after translation, which we saw as our future profession, as something to which we were making a lifetime commitment. It was a strategy that worked for many of us. Of course, in both groups there were other factors at play, such as, for example the lure of foreign travel and foreign culture; even the availability of foreign clothes was a factor at that time. Still, that was of secondary importance compared to the two strategic goals I described.

The group whose primary commitment was to languages and translation was, at least during the time that I was at Maurice Thorez, an incredibly enthusiastic bunch of people. Some of us, for example, were called fanatics of phonetics, spending untold hours in the phonetics lab working on every nuance of accent and intonation. In terms of mastery of British or American accents, the return on that investment was excellent; in more pragmatic terms, it was probably less than absolutely necessary – but we still kept at it and we had fun doing it.

As I have said, many members of my class have had a successful career. We were helped mightily by our teachers, some of whom said then and later that we were a unique class – capable, hard-working and, as one of them once said, “just good kids, most of you.” One can say something very similar of our teachers. They were certainly good people, but they were also a lot more than that. They were an amazing constellation of the best language and translation teachers in the history of Soviet higher education. You have to bear in mind that they achieved what they did as language experts and translators, and of course as teachers, in a country that was basically closed to most of the rest of the world, at a time when foreign language radio, cinema and much of the literature was unavailable to teachers and students and when the ideological straightjacket was extremely tight. I am referring to the 1940s and early 1950s. In that respect, my own time as a student was considerably different. The second half of the 1960s was a time when you could listen to the BBC World Service, which wasn’t jammed, read a lot of contemporary foreign literature, and get, mostly on the black market, records by the Beatles, whose songs most of my classmates knew by heart, from “A Hard Day’s Night” to “Abbey Road,” basically the entire repertoire up to their breakup. And yet, with all due respect to the BBC, the Beatles and Agatha Christie (another favorite of many of us), I think we owe most of our achievements to our teachers, and I would like to name at least some of them here.

Larissa Zakharovna Putilova and Margarita Pavlovna Vexler were my teachers of phonetics and English language practice, respectively, and they were the best in their class. My teachers of translation and interpretation included the patriarch of Soviet translation studies Yakov Iosifovich Retsker, the marvelous translator of English and American literature Marina Dmitriyevna Litvinova, and Geli Vasilievich Chernov, one of the first Soviet simultaneous interpreters at the United Nations, who trained several generations of his successors.

An important feature of translation teaching at Maurice Thorez (the In-Yaz, as it was called and as I still like to call it) was the emphasis on a sound theoretical basis and methodology, something many of us initially resisted but came to respect later. Retsker and others believed that translation is a process that combines intuitive and logical aspects and that can be studied to obtain meaningful generalizations that can be applied, in particular, in developing the curricula and the methods of translation teaching. In the process, they were able not only to amass and analyze enormous amounts of empirical data but also to make genuine discoveries, which is rather rare in areas other than exact sciences. I am referring, for example, to Retsker’s discoveries of the regular nature of transformations in translation and the logical processes and categories that underlie them, and to Geli Chernov’s pioneering work on the role of probability anticipation as the main supporting mechanism in simultaneous interpretation. (Let me add in passing that while the Soviet school of translation studies was very strong it did not isolate itself from the work done in other countries, and the findings of linguists such as Nida, Catford, Kade and many others were well known and treated with great respect.) The 1960s and 1970s were the golden age of translation studies in the Soviet Union, and the link between them and the practical training of translators made In-Yaz by far the best school of translation and interpretation at that time.

This approach was resisted not just by those students who had little time for and interest in what they saw as rather abstract and unrelated to their immediate concerns or future work but also by quite a few linguists of the traditional school, represented, for example, by Moscow University professor Olga Akhmanova, the widow of the famous linguist and lexicographer Alexander Smirnitsky and quite a personality in her own right. Akhmanova believed that much of the translation studies pursued by Retsker and his followers had little theoretical value. As for the practical needs of teaching translation, she believed that a person competent in two languages will, as they say, find his way. Many practitioners, particularly in the area of translating fiction, tended to agree.

I think it has now become quite clear who was right in that debate. Yes, it is true that there are people with an innate ability to convert a mastery of two or more languages into excellent translation skills – people “to the manner (or manor?) born.” But translation is a mass profession and one cannot expect that such samorodki (the gifted few) will suffice to meet society’s needs. So translation has to be taught as a specific subject, related to but also distinct from the study of languages as such. This is born out by the existence of numerous translation schools and departments at universities and colleges and also by “the test of results.” Certainly my generation of Russian translators and interpreters, and I would say those that came after us, is dominated by the graduates of Maurice Thorez and schools that followed its approach, rather than – with all due respect – of Moscow State University. As Yakov Iossifovich Retsker used to say, a good theory is good for you. (I should add in passing that some of the more recent theoretical approaches to the study of translation strike me as rather speculative and unrelated to the needs either of translation and interpretation practice or of teaching. They may, of course, have other value, but it is not obvious to me.)

It is sometimes said that in our much more pragmatic (and financially strapped) age the quality of both In-Yaz teaching and its product has deteriorated. That may well be true to some extent but, as I see it, the tradition has proved to be quite resilient, certainly strong enough not to be overcome by the prevailing “winds of change.” I have been working with colleagues representing the new generation, many of them graduates of my alma mater, and I like much of what I see and hear. So let me go back to the current challenges that we and our profession are facing.

As I have said, in today’s world a person with a purely pragmatic mindset is not very likely to choose a career in translation. He or she has to be a language enthusiast. But, as we all know, proficiency in languages and translation skills are not enough. A translator has to be a well informed person with a lot of diffuse and some focused knowledge in many areas – as a friend of mine once said, from astronautics to horse-breeding (it sounds a lot funnier in Russian: ot kosmonavtiki do konevodstva). As I found when I was working at US-Soviet arms control negotiations, one may even need to have some understanding of rocket science (in this country it is rocket science that stands for the height of complexity; in Russia, it’s Newton’s binomial theorem. So where you say It’s not rocket science we say Eto ne binom Nyutona). With time, an interpreter with extensive and diverse practice will develop a great deal of knowledge and understanding. So much so that he or she might one day say, or others might say that to them: If you are so smart and erudite why not go into some other area or business and succeed there rather than basically repeating what others say or write. Furthermore, some of us may develop a rather condescending and even sarcastic attitude, often quite misguided I think, to our employers or clients: they seem bumbling and not very bright. So the temptation to defect will be there, at least for some of us. Of course, there are many others, who will be quite comfortable in their skin – but not before achieving the degree of professionalism and self-confidence that our work requires. This is a challenge both for the translator and for the teacher, particularly a teacher of simultaneous interpretation.

The methodologies of teaching interpretation are still not very well developed. A teacher is basically guiding students in their own quest for a certain level of competence, which, as one must realistically understand, is further away from perfection than in the translation of written material. Much of the challenge is of a psychological nature. Lynn Visson has recently written about the need for the teacher to find ways to encourage the student, to instill confidence and help overcome doubt, frustration and often demoralization. Indeed, the teacher can be very helpful in this, but most of the task is for the future interpreters themselves to accomplish. Not all of them will be up to it, and this is another reason why all will not reach the finishing line – some will drop out. And even those who won’t, will sometimes succumb to self-doubt or, which is much healthier, dissatisfaction with their performance. Our work is often very visible and transparent. Critics are always at the ready, particularly in popular language combinations such as English-French or Russian-English (as I once said, it’s a lot safer to work from Japanese into Portuguese). So, on the list of competences that an interpreter must have, I would say that self-possession is at least as important as the knowledge of languages, specific translation and interpretation skills, and cultural and background knowledge.

In passing, I must admit that this was not a big problem for me. I started working for the UN Secretariat’s Interpretation Service at the relatively young age of 25, after one year at the UN Interpreters’ Course, which at that time was attached to In-Yaz. The five years at the United Nations were a tremendous experience and a great school. I will be forever grateful to my bosses George Klebnikov, now deceased, and Andrei Dmitriev, who later went into a diplomatic career and served with great distinction, lately as Russia’s ambassador to Cuba, for guiding me through my first years there. What I learned at the UN served me very well later when my career took what for me was a rather unexpected turn. My plans after returning to Moscow following five years in New York (such rotation was a strict rule in Soviet times) were to go to work for In-Yaz, my alma mater, and combine it with freelance translation and interpretation work. I am quite sure today that it would have been a good career that could have kept me happy and financially comfortable. However, when I came back to Moscow in late 1979, the long-planned expansion of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs translation department was under way, and when I was offered a job there I simply could not refuse. The work at the MFA included interpretation at US-Soviet arms control negotiations, such as INF and START. During the talks we worked very closely with American colleagues: developing terminology, exchanging translations, and socializing within prescribed bounds. With some of those colleagues, including Dmitry Zarechnyak and Caroline Smith, I later worked at US-Soviet summits, and I must thank them here for playing a role in my professional development.

So when I started working with Soviet leaders I felt I was well prepared and was not nervous despite the great responsibility that came with that territory and the glare of television cameras. Another thing that always helps avoid nervousness is the concentration on the subject at hand and the motivation. I felt that I was engaged in something really important, and later it developed into an understanding that what was happening was not just the end of the cold war but a historic, global shift from one era to another. I described those years in my memoirs My Years with Gorbachev and Shevardnadze, published by Penn State Press in 1997 and still in print, so I will not go into the details of those years. I would just like to add that the people I worked for at the time, particularly the two leaders mentioned in the title of my book, gave me the benefit of their trust and good will and showed a good understanding of the challenges interpreters have to face. I am grateful for their support, and I am grateful to my predecessor Victor Sukhodrev for his encouragement.

To my younger colleagues I can say that the interpreter is not so much in the limelight as under scrutiny, but that certainly shouldn’t discourage you. As we have seen recently, scrutiny affects not just interpreters but also translators, including those who translate important fiction and sometimes have good PR skills. Criticism of our work, including published translation, is, I believe, a healthy thing, and there should be more of it. Which brings me to the issue of errors.

We all make mistakes, in interpretation more than in translation. That some of us are infallible is a myth that we should not promote. Sometimes the errors are glaring and indisputable; sometimes it’s a matter of judgment and taste (we used to speak of vkusovaya pravka – “taste editing” – when I was working at the foreign ministry, and the consensus was that there should be as little of it as possible; a reviser or editor should not rewrite what the translator has submitted). Sometimes, the perceived differences between the original and the translation are not even mistakes but the result of a process of interaction between the author, the translator and the editor. Much here depends on the latitude that the author allows the translator. For example, in my work with Mikhail Gorbachev on his columns for the International Herald Tribune and other newspapers, I do a certain amount of ‘cultural adaptation’, sometimes checking with him and sometimes just assuming that I’ve known him long enough and know what he means well enough to do a little tweaking of the text. Of course, one cannot do that when translating, say, texts of legislation or legal briefs but in the translation of all kinds of other material, from technical manuals to presidential speeches, translator’s latitude is an important issue, since overemphasis on ‘precision’ can be the enemy not just of good style but also of comprehension.

It has recently become fashionable to speak of translators as cultural mediators, and there is much truth in that. Much of it is unexplored ground and uncharted territory. I still believe that the emphasis in training translators should be on language and translation skills and that a lot of literature on the so-called intercultural communication is simplistic or, to put it another way, premature: we haven’t yet studied the subject enough to start theorizing. However, I found some cultural studies quite interesting and useful. For example, work by Edward Hall on monocrhonic and polychronic time cultures and on high and low context cultures can be helpful in thinking about some of the issues we face both in our written and in our oral work. As for the latter (high versus low context), the fundamental question for the translator/interpreter is: How much do you explain to the reader/listener and how much do you just leave them to understand?

One may of course say that it’s not the task of the interpreter to be “more comprehensible” than the speaker, and this may be true when we deal with cultures that are very close or with low context cultures, such as for example Scandinavian or German, where in speech utterances little is assumed or taken for granted and people tend to be very specific in what they say or write (when they speak to foreigners they tend to “explain”). When one deals with high-context cultures, however, such an approach can lead to misunderstandings and problems. Hall believed that the Japanese, Chinese and Arab cultures were the most high-context ones, and put Greek close to them on his scale. My feeling about Russian culture is that it is rather high-context, and that is why a certain degree of explanation or adaptation is often needed. But again, this is still debatable and largely unexplored and it would be good for translators to give it more thought. One interesting question is how the need for, and methods of, explanation and adaptation differ in written translation, on the one hand, and in interpretation on the other (and whether it is even possible in simultaneous interpretation).

Another largely unexplored area is interpreters’ behavior (protocol) and professional ethics. Actually, the issues here are quite numerous but very difficult even to discuss, to say nothing about trying to generalize or theorize. John Le Carre once said that “a good interpreter effaces himself” and that’s a good general rule. But should an interpreter sometimes try to defuse a situation that is erupting or should he or she just let things go in whatever direction? How does the status of the interpreter (a neutral one or a “member of the team”) affect their behavior in such situations and in others? What does one do when one’s interpretation is corrected – sometimes properly and sometimes incompetently? How does one treat rudeness or obscenity? How does one react to an employer’s request for opinion on a colleague’s abilities or performance? Those are just a few questions to which I have given some thought and that I discussed at seminars with colleagues. There has also been some discussion of these issues in the journal Mosty, published in Russian in Moscow and dedicated to the practice of translation and interpretation. I have answers to some of the above questions and doubts about others, and we have had very interesting exchanges of views on them. Obviously such discussions require a lot of tact and circumspection and go better when they are kept rather abstract, no names given.

Whatever one thinks about these issues it is clear that the translator sometimes has to be a diplomat, in relations both with employers and bureaucrats and with colleagues. He or she also has to be – let’s admit and accept it – rather aggressive in seeking work and at the same time understand that while the market will continue to exist and will probably be growing, only high quality work will be increasingly in demand and therefore professional development and growth is essential. It is also important to discern the trends as they evolve in our profession and in the market. Some of them are global; others are different depending on the country or culture. Let me give you just one example, which concerns the future of translating fiction. During Soviet times, our culture was extremely ‘literature-centric’ and the prestige of foreign literature was extremely high. The number of titles translated and the number of copies printed was enormous. Just one example, provided by a colleague, Vladimir Babkov, who is an accomplished translator of English language fiction: in 1990, a collection of stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald was published with a first print run of 300,000 copies. (I think if it were printed now they’d probably be able to sell no more than three thousand copies in a year.) The work of translating fiction was then very prestigious and lucrative, in most cases deservedly so. It attracted high-caliber people, men and women of enormous knowledge and culture, many of whom could have been – and some were – excellent writers in their own right but who preferred to translate rather than write what the censors would never allow to be published. The result of this set of historic circumstances was the absolutely tremendous body of translation of foreign literature – vast in size and mostly excellent in quality. The names of Nora Gal, who translated Le Petit Prince, Rita Right, who translated The Catcher in the Rye, Nikolai Lyubimov, who translated A la recherche du temps perdu, and many other translators were known to practically the entire Soviet intelligentsia. Even books of foreign poetry, translated by the likes of Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak, sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

Today, it is clear that the particular set of historical circumstances that brought about that situation was unique and cannot be replicated. Our culture will probably never be as literature-centric as then; people read less, for a number of reasons, such as lack of time in a free-market environment; the prestige of and interest in foreign literature will never be the same; and censorship will not bother with most writers of fiction. Which means that there will be a lot less foreign fiction translated – a situation similar to the one that has prevailed in the United States and many other countries for many years. It also means that there is a danger that the culture and the high standards of translating fiction that we had in the Soviet era may well decline. Are there ways of at least slowing that process and perhaps ameliorating it? I tend to agree here with my colleague Victor Lanchikov, who believes that in the near future the profession of fiction translator as such may become unviable in Russia, as it is in many other countries, and that it will become more or less a sideline for linguists, teachers and who knows who else. Or could it be that governments interested in promoting their cultures abroad will start providing more grants for the translation of their literature, somewhat similar to the way that governments insisting on multilingualism in international organizations such as the European Union are subsidizing translation and interpretation? Is that likely in our pragmatic age? We’ll have to see what happens but, in any case, I will be somewhat nostalgic for that particular aspect of the Soviet past.

As I come to the end of this lecture, I am thinking of the tremendous impact that translation has had on the world’s evolution in the modern era. As the French theorist of translation George Mounin said in discussing the problem of ‘translatability’, each new translation of Turgenev, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy into French, of Mérimée, Flaubert and Maupassant into Russian, drew the two languages (and the two cultures, I would add) closer together and thus helped to close the ‘translatability gap’. But the work of bringing languages and cultures closer together is not done by the giants of our trade alone: each time any one of us translates an utterance from one language to another we are making a contribution to closing the gaps between languages, cultures and nations. The work is hard and sometimes frustrating, but let’s soldier on. For my part, I can’t complain: whatever contribution I’ve made to our profession and to the cause of mutual understanding among nations, the profession has given me a lot more than I ever expected. But, as I have said before, I would have been satisfied even with a much more modest career; even if instead of the ninety countries I’ve traveled to, it would have been two or three; even if I had not attended the historic summits of the 1980s nor had the privilege of knowing some of the world’s greatest in the arts, business, and sciences. This profession has a value that far exceeds the worldly or financial rewards that it may provide. Languages have beauty, and music, and strength. Appreciating it is not for everyone in our pragmatic age, or in any other age, and it’s therefore a gift. It is a gift that is designed for good ends and I am quite sure that members of our profession will be using it for those ends for years and years to come.

UPD: Отзыв на лекцию с сайта журнала Translorial.


Pavel Palazhchenko, Mikhail Gorbachev’s interpreter for many years, spoke to standing room only crowds at the ATA conference, and as I soaked in his words, admiring both his insightful perspective about the world of interpreting and translation as well as his wonderfully elegant English, I reflected also on the importance of this event. At the closing session of the conference, ATA President Nicholas Hartmann announced that ATA membership, as of now, numbers more than 11,000. In an interview that same day with Fox Business News, past president Jiri Stejskal stated that the profession of translator is just that—a profession (meaning, not a hobby or something one can take up after taking a Berlitz course) and that a proficient translator may well earn in the six figures.

In his presentation, Mr. Palazhchenko noted that even when he was studying language and translation (way back) in the 1970s, there was discussion of the idea that machines would eventually replace humans for translation and interpreting. With the year 2010 just around the corner, and with monumental advances in technology behind us, this idea can safely be laid to rest. As Jiri noted in his interview, there is a place for machine translation in this world but it can only exist as an adjunct to human interpreting and translation. The world of language translation indeed continues to evolve but in a way that indicates the need for more qualified language professionals, who are skilled in their craft and who will have an important part in the future of, among many other things, the global economy.