Exploiting a natural resource

2004 May 10
Exploiting a natural resource

Translation and interpreting in high demand By Paul Cochrane Special to The Daily Star In a globalizing world where washing machines are made in China and bought in Lebanon, and conferences are held in a multitude of languages, there is a side to the market that frequently goes unnoticed ­ translation and interpreting. Whether that is translating the relatively prosaic washing machine manual, or interpreting the difference correctly between a sprocket and a socket, these professions are indispensable to modern society.

In Lebanon, translating and interpreting are extremely specialized fields that are in high demand, professions that the country can capitalize on in the region. With only several dozen students graduating each year in translating or interpreting, and only 15 professional interpreters in the country, it is a career with a great deal of work potential.

In Syria there are only two qualified interpreters, so Lebanese interpreters are often used and there is also a demand in the Gulf states. It is not an easy career choice, however, as the university programs are highly selective and once fully trained, skills need to be continuously honed.

Translation, and in particular interpreting, are some of the oldest trades in the world, dating back to the earliest days of humanity, when two language groups came into contact to talk and haggle. Without translation, cultures would not be able to interact with each other, and the classics of world literature and other arts may have only been appreciated by a privileged few.

Translating is the art of accurately converting a concept, whether written or spoken, from one language into another in a written form. Although there are numerous crossovers between translating and interpreting, the art of effective interpretation involves different skills since it is solely based on oral translation.

According to Nayla Younes, a professional interpreter and translation professor at the Lebanese University (LU) and Notre Dame University (NDU), translating and interpreting is not as easy as people think.

«Both are a process of transferring messages from one language to another, but mostly from one culture to another. This is what most people do not understand. They think that it is enough to translate one word from Arabic into English, and that’s it. In fact, you have to take into account the cultural differences, accents, technicalities and so forth,» she said.

The Université Saint-Esprit de Kaslik, University St. Joseph, LU and NDU all offer undergraduate and graduate programs in translation and interpreting. Younes said that applications have doubled in the past few years, «but the standard of students is regressing. We are getting 300 or 400 applications, but we are hardly capable of taking 30 students in the first year.» Of those 30, more than half are likely to drop out by the end of the first year. «This is because people have a false conception that translation is easy,» she added.

Depending on the university, the undergraduate program is three or four years in length, followed by a two-year Masters. «The first three years of the course are common for translation,» Younes said, «building up common knowledge in law, business, geography, history, politics and economics. In the final two years we focus strongly on the three main languages: Arabic, French and English.»

The penultimate years of the course also focus on specialized translation, such as in the medical, technical, legal and economic fields. The norm is to also do a translation Masters, but if students score above a certain average, then they are entitled to take the concours, a general exam. From this test only two or three students are selected for the Masters in interpreting, whereas a larger number study translation.

Most of the translation done in Lebanon is from French or English into Arabic, and in recent years it is increasingly from English. The only problem of translating into Arabic, Younes said, is that the Arabic vocabulary is insufficient to deal with new technical, scientific and computing terms that are continuously being invented. This issue is dealt with through specialized training and translators keeping up to date with new words and concepts.

In interpreting this is particularly essential, as the interpreter needs to have the words at their immediate grasp, unlike translators who can rely on a dictionary.

Simultaneous interpretation for example, which is the most widely used form of interpretation, involves immediately translating from one language into another via audio equipment. This is a skill that requires intense concentration, memorization, and an excellent grasp of the specific languages. «You have no time to think of grammar, the words or the ideas, it has to be immediate,» Younes said. Consequently, two interpreters are required for simultaneous interpreting as concentration spans cannot last more than 30 minutes. This is a requirement established by the International Association for Conference Interpreters, which is applied in Lebanon.

Consecutive interpreting is used for small meetings or where audio technology is not available, and the interpreter can be expected to memorize up to 80 percent of a 15 minute dialogue.

Translation and interpreting in Lebanon is predominantly freelance work, and with a free market there is a harsh selection if skills are not up to the mark. Salaries are also not fixed, with translation usually charged per word or by page, starting at a minimum of $10 and going up to $30 depending on technical difficulties, the language involved and the time limit.

Interpreters, on the other hand, are paid by day. «The minimum for a junior interpreter would be $200 a day,» Younes said, adding that if «you need a senior interpreter, or if the conference is technical or legal, it would range between $250 and $350 per day.»

There are numerous unqualified translators in Beirut who may charge cheaper rates, but whose expertise may be significantly lacking. Effective translation can make or break a company’s marketing strategy, and bilingualism does not guarantee fluency in writing or translating, as the French utility company Electricité de France discovered in 1999. Spending over $150,000 on newspaper advertising the awkward translation, that cost a mere $100, affected the whole campaign with «EdF offers competitive energetic solutions.»

With developments in technology, electronic translators have grown in use, but Younes was critical of the quality, «as you often spend twice as long editing it as you would to translate it,» she said. In October 2000, the Wall Street Journal tested two free online automatic translation services and concluded: «These services are passable for travelers or for those wanting to translate a letter from a distant cousin. I definitely wouldn’t use them for business or anything that remotely requires accuracy.»

The demand for translators and interpreters will continue to increase in this globalizing world, and is a profession that will not be phased out by machines as cultural know-how is intrinsically linked with linguistic capabilities.