MAKING TRANSLATION: The view from a translator’s mind


Chapter 1   Making Text


Brains versus machines

During my lifetime (I was born in 1946), translation has slowly been turning from a craft into a business. Once it was engaged in mostly by amateurs/volunteers, self-employed individuals or small partnerships of translators. They interacted directly with publishers or other users/buyers of their services, or else took work from small, local translation agencies. There were also salaried translators of national and international governmental organizations pursuing socio-political goals, and a few worked for national companies that sold their products to bi- or multilingual populations. When I say translation was a craft, I don’t mean they worked slowly with paper dictionaries and typewriters. I mean that the individual translators controlled whatever technology they used, whether old or the latest thing; they decided whether and how to use it. And it was the translators who decided, individually or collectively, what counted as acceptable quality and what sort of quality control was needed. Productivity (words translated per hour) was certainly important for those who earned a living by translating and it was important in helping carry out the missions of those who used their services, but productivity was not the driving force.


Translation still exists as a craft, but slowly it has been turning into a business. That is, increasing numbers of translators are losing control of technology and quality, and productivity is becoming the driving force. Many work as dependent subcontractors or employees of ever larger international language services companies, the main purpose of which is  to make a profit for owners who are former translators or not translators at all. Productivity concerns override any conflicting personal or professional goals of translators. As I have discussed elsewhere (Mossop 2006), even public-sector translation services, such as the one in which I have worked for the past 40 years, have adopted this “business” approach in an uneasy combination with their socio-political goals.


Computer technology does not in itself turn translation from a craft into a business. That depends on who controls it. Computer technologies certainly seem to have increased the speed at which translations can be completed, and may thus assist the search for productivity. In the 1970s, electronic term banks made the process of finding terms much faster. In the 1980s, word processing programs eliminated the need for secretaries to retype translators’ messy typewriter-produced output, and speeded up the process of correcting errors. In the 1990s, email speeded up consultation of subject-matter experts and other translators, while Internet search engines—especially Google, which appeared in 1999—brought about a vast increase in the speed of research: no more need to trek to libraries or make laborious searches in paper documents.


Nonetheless, the central aspect of translation production, the composition of a sentence in the target language after the translator reads the corresponding bit of the source text, remained artisanal in nature. Translators continued to create wordings in the target language with their brains, fingers and voices. It made no difference whether they used a pen, a typewriter, a dictaphone, voice recognition software or a computer keyboard: they invented text from scratch[1]. Machine translation, which had appeared in the 1950s, had made no significant difference: the poor quality of its output prevented it competing with translators’ brains. From a productivity point of view, it was almost always better for a human being to invent wordings than to have them revise machine output.


Since the turn of the century, however, with the advent of Translation Memory, the writing work of some translators has come to consist less and less of composing text on a screen and more and more of editing wordings already on the screen.  Unlike Machine Translation, Memory does not attempt to compete with human brains when it comes to composing text. Rather, Memory-assisted translation simply eliminates composition, by recycling old brain-produced wordings. It remains to be seen whether the day will come when the shortcomings of Memory (and Machine Translation) are sufficiently resolved that it becomes normal to present translators working in all or most genres and language pairs with a source text that is accompanied by a complete proposed translation, one that is sufficiently good to be worth editing, given whatever quality standards prevail at that time.


Since the change is still underway, and progressing in fits and starts because of the shortcomings of translation technology, there is not much point in trying to say what translating will be like once the switch from composing to editing is complete, or if indeed such a complete transition will ever occur. Crystal ball gazing is a waste of time, because humans are so bad at predicting what the socio-technological future holds. We simply don’t know how things will be. So instead, I propose to look at what the act of composing a translation has been and still largely is, the better to enable a contrast with what appears to be lurching into being.



The translator as craftsman

“The distinguishing characteristic of translation studies, I feel, should be that it is at least as concerned with writing as with reading. … So much of the discourse on translation is readerly--backward-looking, fixated on the already-said…Little of the canonical discourse on translation has anything to do with the actual business of making text,” writes Barbara Folkart (2007:xiv, 30). I agree, and this book is a contribution to correcting that imbalance. It’s time to see how things look not to translation teachers and scholars, not to owners of translation and localization companies or employers of staff translators, not to translation software companies, and not to buyers and users of translations, but to us translators as we ‘make translation’.


Here is a translator who has just read or heard a chunk of text in another language and is about to start speaking, signing or moving his fingers on the keyboard. What is this person doing? The answer will depend on who is being asked. “Hurrying, I hope, to finish the translation I requested”, a client might say. “Telling them what I just said”, a witness in a courtroom might say. If the question is put to the translator--“What are you doing”—the answer might range from “earning a living” to “researching a term” to “translating a novel to help make our country better known abroad”.


The list of possible answers would be quite lengthy, but one answer would probably not be given by anyone: “producing language”, or more colloquially “saying/writing something”. Such an answer would be seen as true but so trivial as to not be worth mentioning. Only someone with a background in the language sciences would ever suggest this answer to the question “what is this translator doing?”, abstracting language production from its various frameworks—social, economic, historical, cultural, ideological, political, even communicative. Nevertheless, that is the answer from which this book begins.


From the outset, then, I distinguish translating as interlingual language production from translating as intercultural communication or social action. Language is to be isolated and considered separately from the larger social frameworks within which it occurs. Can language production really be separated out in this way, some sceptical readers will ask? This book demonstrates, I hope, that it can be, but one thing should be said immediately. The separation of language production from its social framework would be a very bad idea in the practice of translation. Translators and trainers of translators should certainly not make such a separation. But theory is something else; its purpose is to understand translation, not do it better. For the theorist, arguments for or against separating out language production cannot be decided by reference to practice.


Some 15 years ago, Albrecht Neubert wrote that "Translation and interpreting are not only, or even primarily, linguistic processes. To be properly understood, they must be seen in their social, cultural, …contexts" (Neubert 1997:5). This statement is no doubt true if the observer is standing to one side and trying to gain as complete as possible an understanding of all the causal processes at play in translation. However, there is no particular reason to aim at all-inclusiveness when theorizing. I am not one of those who think theories should be grand, unified and all-encompassing, accounting for “everything”. Better to focus on each aspect of translation separately. If the aim is the restricted one of understanding translating from the standpoint of the translator at the moment when a bit of text is about to composed on screen—the standpoint of the translating translator—then Neubert’s contention is about as far from the truth as one can get.


When the translator is on the point of speaking, writing or signing, language production is at the very centre of what is happening. Everything else is in the background—the client’s commission, the nature of the audience, the future function of the translation, the need to make a living. Indeed, even the previous sentence may be in the background, for the translating translator is always, first and foremost, attending to and manipulating relatively small chunks of language, one after the other. It is most certainly not the case that if only all relevant factors (about commission, audience, function and so on) are in the translator’s mind, then the translation will somehow write itself. The words do not come out automatically. There is a work of writing—work with the linguistic materials which the translator is able to conjure up to implement some writing strategy.


This work of writing, I want to suggest, consists of a series of transitions from one way of producing language to another:

·      As I translate a medical text, I write in my own style for a while, but occasionally I try to write in a doctor’s style to add authenticity: I switch from writing in ‘my voice’ to attempting to imitate the voice of someone like the medical practitioner who will be reading my translation.

·      As I translate an organization’s annual report, I decide to stop producing my own wording and instead paste in a target-language sentence from the previous year’s report and make a few changes to it.

·      As I translate an in-house newsletter, I find the source text rather boring and decide to liven it up: the source text means “there was a distinguished visitor from headquarters this week” but I write “everyone was wondering who this week’s mystery man from headquarters was”.

·      As I translate a long sentence which I judge to be very poorly written, I decide that one particularly obscure bit of wording in the source text is not very important and simply leave it out of my translation.


In all these cases, I am changing the way I am producing language. Or rather—to put the matter more carefully—I am changing my mental stance toward how I produce language.  


In the first case, I switch not to writing in someone else’s style but to an intention to write in someone else's style (see Chapter 6 on the act called Ventriloquizing). This intention then guides my writing. My intentions may of course not be realized: I may fail, in the view of others, to write in a doctor’s style, for example. But that does not mean I was not Ventriloquizing. This act, like all those to be discussed, is an intention I have as my fingers hit the keyboard; it is not an outcome judged by others.


In the second case, my intention is to translate by revising, that is, comparing an already done translation to the present source text and making adjustments to the old translation so that it corresponds to the present source (see Chapter 12 on Pasting and Revising). In the third case, my intention is to start expressing my own thoughts rather than those of the source text writer, though in the spirit of that writer (see Chapter 4 on Simulating). In the fourth case, when I arrive at the obscure passage, my intention is to  switch from translating “all and only” the meaning of the source to “only but not all” its meaning (see Chapter 4 on Omitting).


This switching among ways of producing language makes the work of translating akin to a singer manipulating his voice (perhaps he is now making a transition from legato to staccato), a painter her materials (perhaps she has been using impasto application of oil paint to achieve a three-dimensional effect and is now switching to a more delicate, flat texture) or a carpenter his wood (perhaps he has just finished turning a square piece of wood into a cylinder on the lathe with a gouge and is now moving on to planing the surface smooth with a chisel). The arts of singing, painting and carpentry lie precisely in modulating the voice, applying the paint or shaping the wood in various ways to achieve particular purposes. This last point is important: obviously the singer does not switch from legato to staccato because he is bored with legato; the switch is done with some purpose in mind that is specific to the occasion, perhaps a shift from a calm mood to an excited or angry one.


Singers have to spend long years learning to control their voices so that the meaning they seek to convey will in fact be conveyed. Art galleries quite rightly post information about the materials the artist used next to each work because it is the shaping of these materials that constitutes the art. Translating is no different: Haas (1962:228) was quite right when he wrote that language is “the translator’s clay”. In this book, I’ll be focusing on what is done with the clay of language.


No amount of analysis by the translator of the social context of a translation can make the words, phrases and sentences of the target language do what they need to do if the translation is to achieve its purpose in the situation at hand. Rather, years of practice manipulating the linguistic raw material are required. In this sense, translating is always a craft (and sometimes an art), specifically a linguistic craft. A principal purpose of this book is to identify the translational counterparts of musical and painterly acts of the sort mentioned above. In the course of the book, I identify some three dozen language production acts.


I have used singing and painting as analogies, but I will have next to nothing to say here about what might be called the artistic moment in translation--a moment that can arise in any kind of translation, not just literary--when the translator finally finds the mot juste or the perfect combination of words. It is doubtful that such moments can be captured in theoretical terms. Certainly one can make a distinction between working from the linguistic surface and working from ‘behind’ or ‘below’ the words; as Folkart says, the literary translator can do “as the first writer did, rather than repeating what he did” (2007:29). In other words, such a translator avoids working directly from the source sentences and instead tries to determine what the writer was doing with the source language materials at hand, in order to do something comparably inventive with the available target language materials.


Once this distinction is made, as well as the distinction between source- and target-oriented translating, there is little more to say by way of theory when it comes to the artistic aspect of translation. There is probably no way of giving an account of artistic moments in terms of some small set of concepts and relationships; all one can really do is tell personal anecdotes about the translation of this or that passage. Such is not the case, however, as I hope to show, with the more humdrum work of the translator. The work of producing rough carpentry, unlike fine cabinetwork, can be usefully analysed.


I will thus be considering the routine work of the translator of non-literary texts, that is, texts written by people who do not see themselves as writers and are not specifically interested in language as such: a psychiatrist writes an assessment of a prison inmate; a forest scientist writes a proposal for a new method of estimating timber yields; an aviation inspector writes a report on a plane crash. I occasionally use examples of literary translation, but since my experience of it consists of translating a single short story some 35 years ago, I leave it to others to consider how my approach might apply to such texts. The same applies to the problems of translating texts from centuries past, or texts from non-European civilizations. I have had next to no experience in these areas, but that does not matter since I do not claim to be providing an exhaustive list of language production acts.


No translational acts

As I came to think about my translating work as a series of various language production acts, one thing that became apparent was that none of the acts is peculiar to translating. All can be found in non-translational writing. How can this be squared with the omnipresence of ‘translationese’, and with the peculiarities of translational language that have been discovered when translations by native speakers of the target language are compared with original writing in the target language? The answer I think lies not in the writing but in the reading aspect of translation. Translational writing is peculiar in that one has to keep stopping to read another chunk of the source text. And I shall tentatively suggest, in Chapter 14, that something distinctively translational happens just after the reading phase: while the translator performs some combination of conscious acts (none of them peculiar to translation), the bilingual brain responds to the just-read chunk of source text by engaging in its own unconscious target-language production, the output of which interferes with the output of the conscious acts.



The experience of translating

In addition to eliding the artistic moment, I will have only a little to say about the experience of translating, since that is a mixture of thought and feeling unique to a moment. As I move through a particular text, I may feel now bored, now frustrated, now pleased with myself, now angry at client, author or employer, now agreeing or disagreeing with what the writer says or with other translators working on the same project, and so on. Sometimes, I am simply sailing along through the text; sometimes I am bogged down in a passage or looking back at a passage a few pages back which now appears in a new light. Capturing my stream of consciousness as I work would be a task for a novelist, though in Chapter 15, I shall suggest a way of capturing translational acts in real time, albeit in a rather crude manner.


Translation can be experienced in several ways. For example, under the right conditions, an individual translator can feel part of a group engaged in a worthwhile social project. However I have never found meaningful those sentimental statements one hears from time to time that attribute some transcendent significance to translation: it does not ‘build bridges’ among societies or point to a utopia of mutual understanding and harmony. It’s hard to see how translating for an invading imperial army or a polluting oil corporation moves us along the path to global harmony. At its best, translating is simply an extremely useful service to individuals; it is then, like nursing, one of the helping professions. I remember a letter I received years ago from a Quebec researcher in the field of atmospheric physics thanking me for translating his latest research paper because it allowed him to write in his own language while still communicating with the larger world of Anglophone science. However this help I gave him does not change much in the two-and-half-century long antagonism between French and English Canada, the two communities which together with the Aboriginal peoples constitute Canada, for that antagonism is not fundamentally about language; rather it has played out in the spheres of economics, constitutional arrangements and ‘recognition of the other’. Indeed when it comes to the interpersonal sphere, translation if anything reduces ‘understanding’ because it is a substitute for language learning, and the direct interpersonal communication which that allows.


Another way of experiencing translation is as a word game: you are given a meaning (your interpretation of the source), a buzzer goes off, and you have to race to find a wording in the other language which expresses that meaning. The ludic translator may also indulge in superfluous activity: simply to amuse myself, I depart, just for a minute, from the time-pressured objective of writing something which meets the client’s need but is rather pedestrian, and I engage instead in a bout of inventiveness, as in the example of the in-house newsletter mentioned above. Having made this completely unnecessary effort, I smile inwardly, and move on.


These days, there is a dark cloud hanging over the translator’s experience as a language craftsman. That dark cloud is improper use of translation memory (sometimes now combined with machine translation). A computer program extracts a target-language sentence from a database of translations (often done by a variety of translators) and displays it as a proposed translation of the sentence currently under consideration. The task is to accept or reject this wording, perhaps making a few changes in it. The introduction of memory programs—a trend driven not by translators but by those who employ their services—is supposedly[2] speeding up the production of translations. However it may well be having the effect of reducing quality, because of commercial pressure to accept sentences proposed by Memory and to not take the time needed to create stylistic consistency among sentences that come from so many sources rather than from one translator, or to fix the linkages between sentences pulled out a wide variety of other texts, or to fix the many mistranslations that are propagated by Memory. Translation Memory may also be deskilling translators, as they spend less and less time composing their own sentences. Most importantly, the job may become exceedingly tedious for anyone who loves making translations rather than revising them. With the spread of translation memory, there may be far less opportunity to experience translating as a personally satisfying word game.


Translation Memory does however bring the composing work of the translator into the spotlight. Of particular interest is the way the translator has to keep switching the method of producing language: one sentence has a translation proposed by memory and calls for revision; the next sentence has no such proposal and calls for composing a sentence in the target language. Switching between acts is very visible with memory-processed texts.


The lone translator

The picture of the translator that will emerge in this book will be that of someone working alone. In reality, text-composing tasks may be carried out by a group of people. There may be more than one person working on a text: it may have been divided into chunks, each of which is distributed to a different translator; a reviser, proofreader, style editor or subject-matter editor may make changes in the draft translation; terminologists and librarians may provide research assistance; other translators or subject-matter exports may provide assistance by email; support staff may run the source text through translation memory or assist with formatting. However, this is not a book about the sociology of the translation workplace. Inputs from others will simply be taken as givens—part of what is in the mind of the translator as he works.


The masculine translator

As he works? When I began working in the Government of Canada’s translation service in 1974, there were more men than women. The changeover to a majority of women took place in 1991, and it does seem that in the world today, most translators are she’s, not he’s. Nevertheless, the lone translator who is the central actor in this book is referred to as ‘he’. That is because, as I write about the production of translations, I am thinking of this work as being done by a particular individual, namely myself. While this is a work of translation theory, it has been written by someone who has been a full-time professional translator for nearly 40 years, and it is informed by that experience at every step.


Thus ‘he’ will be used for generic references to a translator, though of course when I discuss the work of a particular named translator, the appropriate pronoun will be used. For generic reference to the writer/speaker of the source text, I will use ‘she’. In this way I will be able to avoid repeating the phrases ‘the translator’ and ‘the source-text writer’: instead of ‘the translator interprets the source-text writer’s meaning’, I will be able to write ‘he interprets her meaning’.


The theorizing translator

I think relatively few translators are interested in translation theory, and I'm not sure this is because theory has nothing relevant to say, or because of bad memories of theory courses at translation school, or because of lack of time, though these may well be factors. I suspect something quite different is at work. I would guess that only a very few musicians read works of musicology, and few cooks read works of food chemistry. It's simply a matter of interest. Doing something, and theorizing about that something, are two different things, and there is no particular reason why someone engaged in the former would be interested in the latter, even if they thought they might learn something useful from it.


Interest in something does not primarily arise from beliefs about the usefulness of that something. For example, I'm interested in mazes and labyrinths. When I was a boy, I used to tramp out mazes in our back garden whenever there was a fresh fall of snow. Ever since, whenever I find a book about mazes, I buy it or borrow it, even though my maze-building days are long over, and I'm certainly not looking for maze-solving tricks in order to deal with any mazes I come across while on holiday.


My attitude to theorizing about translation is the same. I do it because I'm interested, not because I think it will make me a better translator (though it might, as an accidental byproduct). Since I make my living as a translator, writing about translation is not a job requirement. I am also a part-time instructor at a translation school, but publication is not a job requirement there either. I write about translation because I find it enjoyable. I have discovered, over the years, that as I translate, ideas about translating frequently pop into my head. This book distills some of the resulting reflections. I say “some” because I have reflections both as a practitioner and as a theorist. As a theorist, my interests are primarily not in what should but in what does in fact happen when translators are translating, and in what happens linguistically (not what happens socio-culturally).


As can be seen from the title of the next chapter, the book is about a ‘new linguistic approach’ to translation. Some readers may at first find this terribly old-fashioned. Surely, they may think, the linguistic approach was left behind decades ago. My view is that there is still a great deal to be said under this heading (see Mossop 2005 for more). The topic reflects my own biography, my interests and my experience as a professional translator. Since I was a teenager in the early 1960s, I've been a part of that small group of people who are interested in language for itself. In 1965, when I was 19, I discovered the existence of linguistics, which I had never heard of, and I was tremendously excited to discover that one could take an intellectual interest in language as such as opposed to its social uses. As an undergraduate, I was part of a group of students pushing to bring linguistics to our campus and pry the study of language out of the hands of the literature professors.


Since 1974, I have been a French-English translator for Canada's federal government. Obviously this work is grounded in the social and political context of Canada. But for me personally, that is marginal. What little I have to say about it I said 25 years ago (Mossop, 1989, 1990); since then, I have been more interested in how the workplace, technology and business aspects of translation relate to its linguistic aspect (Mossop 2000, 2006a and b).


The cultural grounding of the French language has never been of much interest to me either. I started to learn French at the age of 8 but I have never become 'bicultural' in either the broad anthropological sense or the narrower arts sense. I don't read French novels or attend French plays (I do listen to the news in French on Canadian radio and television, but mainly because I like the style of presentation much better than the style of the news in English, which has become very irritating, i.e. Americanized, in the past 15 years). I can hardly help being aware of the cultural, ideological and political framework within which I translate,  and the social utility of what I do, but that is not why I still look forward to work every day after almost 40 years. I enjoy translating because it's a fascinating linguistic exercise.



What is composing a translation? First and foremost, it’s a linguistic act. In Chapter 2, I say what I mean by this, and I offer a somewhat speculative potted history of the linguistic approach to theorizing about translation that originated in the early 1950s. In Chapters 3 to 12, I take a detailed look at some three dozen language production acts. Often as a translator, I aim to convey all and only the meaning I see in the source text (Chapter 3), but at times I decide to add or subtract or, if the source text is poorly written, I seek to convey the meaning of what I think ought to have been written (Chapter 4). These things I do in the spirit of the source text (as I see it) but sometimes I ignore what I think the source meant and instead pursue my own agenda or the agenda of the commissioner; I may even deliberately deceive readers about the meaning of the source (Chapter 5). As I write, I inevitably adopt a certain ‘voice’ or style: I may decide to write in “her” style (that of the source), “your” style (that of my expected readers), “my” own style or some other style (Chapter 6). If I don’t really understand the source, I may fudge or guess or engage in something called “glossing” the source text (Chapter 7). As I perform the acts just described, I may mimic the sentence structure of the source insofar as the target language allows, or I may reformulate (Chapter 8). I may also decide to follow a rule that will convert the sequence of symbols constituting the source text into another sequence of symbols, without regard to meaning; this is what is traditionally called transliterating, and one way I can perform this act is by requesting a machine translation (Chapter 9). Instead of translating the source wording, I may simply describe, in the target language, relevant aspects of an accompanying graphic, to which the source wording refers. Alternatively, I may refer the TL reader to an accompanying graphic and leave it to the reader to determine the meaning by looking at that graphic (Chapter 10). Often I will have occasion to simply copy source-language wordings into the translation (Chapter 11), or  to paste into my translation target-language wordings from an existing translation or an existing original document in the target language, which I may then proceed to revise or edit (Chapter 12).


Along the way, I address a variety of theoretical issues: untranslatability, translation versus adaptation, literal versus free, the nature of translationese, and the proper scope of translation theory. To the following questions I devote lengthy discussion: Who is speaking when I am translating (Chapter 6)? Is there any such thing as intralingual translating (Chapter 13)? What distinguishes translating from other kinds of language production (Chapter 14)?





Christensen, Tina Paulsen & Anne Schjoldager. 2010.  “TM Research: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It?” Hermes – Journal of Language and Communication Studies 44, 1-13.

Folkart, Barbara. 2007. Second Finding: a poetics of translation. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press.

Haas, William.1962. “The theory of translation” Philosophy 37, 208-28.

Mossop, Brian. 1989. "'Write Idiomatically and Translate Ideas Not Words': Three Defects of the Prevailing Doctrine of Translation" in C. Séguinot, ed., The Translation Process, H.G. Publications, School of Translation, York University, 7-20.

Mossop, Brian. 1990. "Translating Institutions and 'Idiomatic' Translation", in META 35:2, 342-355.

Mossop, Brian. 2000. “The Workplace Procedures of Professional Translators” in Translation in Context, Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 39-48.

Mossop, Brian. 2005. “Back to Translation as Language” (with E-A. Gutt, J. Peeters, K. Klaudy, R. Setton and S. Tirkkonen-Condit) in Across Languages and Cultures 6:2, 143-172.

Mossop, Brian. 2006a. “Has Computerization Changed Translation?”, in META 51:4, 787-793.

Mossop, Brian. 2006b. “From Culture to Business: federal government translation in Canada”, in The Translator 12:1, 1-27.

Neubert, Albrecht. 1997. “Postulates for a theory of translatio” in Joseph Danks, Stephen Fountain et al. (eds.) Cognitive Processes in Translation and Interpreting. London: Sage. 1-24.

[1] With input devices other than a computer keyboard, a translator might spend more time pondering the wording before composing, since rewording would require rewinding the tape (dictaphone) or crossing out the old wording and either retyping or handwriting a new wording (typewriter). On the other hand, many translators who typed (including me) were not bothered by this since someone else (a secretary) would be preparing a clean copy from the messy one we submitted.

[2] “Most practitioners seem to take for granted that TM technology speeds up production time and improves translation quality, but there are no studies that actually document this.” Christensen & Schjoldager 2010:10