Experiential knowledge can be defined as “knowledge gained through experience as opposed to a priori (before experience) knowledge”. In the philosophy of mind, the phrase often refers to “knowledge that can only be acquired through experience,” such as the knowledge of what it is like to hear a sound, which could not be explained to someone born deaf (Wikipedia). Twentieth century Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa expressed this concept beautifully in these two lines from O Guardador de Rebanhos (The Keeper of Sheep):
To think a flower is to see it and smell it
And to eat a fruit is to taste its meaning.
In this article I propose to answer two questions: 1) What’s the role of experiential knowledge in translation? and 2) How much experiential knowledge does a translator need?
To begin, let’s imagine a scenario where we’ve been asked to translate a technical manual to be used in an assembly line of an automobile plant. We know generic names for car parts (e.g. bumper, windshield wiper, etc) but we have no idea of the intricacies of a car engine or its ventilation system. It turns out that one of our translator colleagues used to be a car mechanic in his home country long before he moved to the US and eventually became a translator. In his adopted country, he continued to work in a car shop before he could finally afford an education. Regardless of what first language we may speak, who’s more likely to succeed in this translation endeavor?
It appears to me that experiential knowledge is (or ought to be) the “bread and butter” of the translation practice. In order to fully master the art and science of translation, one needs to know not only the languages involved but the subject area(s) as well. Without wanting to sound biased, I would venture to say that a translator with some good years of translation experience and a sound academic background in the field is more likely to succeed in today’s job market than someone with just one or the other. This goes to show that practice alone is not enough. And neither is formal schooling.
The other day I came across a KudoZ term question in the Portuguese forum asking for help with the translation of the word “telecoil”. This is a technical term that you probably never heard unless you are hard of hearing or knows someone who is and wears digital hearing aids. I think
some people’s first reaction in face of the unknown is to reject it for they don’t know what lies in store for them. So, I wasn’t surprised when someone suggested keeping the term “as is” under the argument that it had never been translated. Now, if we look at most words beginning with tele or any other Greek language prefix, they have been translated (at least into English and the Romance languages). So, when I stopped to analyze the issue from a more critical perspective, it dawned on me that some of us may not be utilizing our experiential knowledge fully to get us through those difficult times when terminology questions arise. And this is what prompted me to write this article.
Being new to ProZ.com (but certainly not to translation), I’ve been working hard to earn those KudoZ points to get a better page ranking and, hopefully, more business. I was ecstatic when telecoil and neckloop popped up on my computer screen. Having worked with assistive technologies for people with hearing loss for over 10 years, I thought to myself, “The game is in the bag unless someone else knows their hearing aids”. When I posted my translation for neckloop, I was told by a colleague that my terminology is unheard of in
her country, which did not surprise me because some of my American hard-of-hearing customers never heard it, either.
A neckloop is an induction loop (worn around the neck, of course) which sends the sound signal from a connected audio source directly to the person’s hearing aid. In other for the induction loop to work, the hearing aid must be equipped with a telecoil and it must be set to the T position. Someone suggested translating neckloop as “colar de pescoço” (lit. “necklace for the neck”). Another person risked “alça para o pescoço” (lit. “strap for the neck”). When I tried to explain, quoting from an online dictionary, that a strap “lifts or holds something in place” but a neckloop doesn’t, the unconvinced translator quickly responded by posting Google images of several neckloops plugged into an external audio source or assistive listening device (ALD). I must admit that some ALDs looked as if they were hanging from the neckloop. Once more, I had to reiterate my explanation, this time by
recalling my experiential knowledge to convince the reluctant party.
Continuing education is a good way to get more knowledge in any given subject area. This is strongly suggested as a way of not only learning new information but keeping up with advances in the field. ProZ.com offers many opportunities in this area, and I’m seriously considering attending some technical webinars.
A good measure of accumulated experiential knowledge comes from our direct contact with the culture/language we are translating to, the so-called target language/culture. In theory, it’s probably safe to assume that an American translator who has spent many years of his life in China is more apt to translate to Chinese than one who hasn’t. Back to the Portuguese forum, a question arose as far as what would be the best English translation for pré-requisitos in an academic setting. Three suggestions came about: pre-requirements, pre-requisite courses, and prerequisites. The first option was clearly out of the question. So the choice had to be between the last two. When I pointed out that prerequisites was perfectly acceptable in its pluralized form, a colleague questioned the source, which happened to be an online dictionary. So here I go again back to my experiential knowledge: “I’ve never seen this terminology (i.e. prerequisite courses) in any course catalogs that I’ve used in the past.” It seems to me that most American students would simply say prerequisites, period. Nonetheless, to add some more credibility to my cause, I referred the doubting Thomas to Merriam-Webster. The bottom-line is that my translation got 6 votes (now 7) versus 1 vote for my competitor’s, which happened to be picked as the asker’s favorite choice! The case is
now open to the community and I have not given up. I encourage you to fight long and hard, especially when
you know your translation is the right one simply because it derives from your experiential knowledge and technical grounding. When everything else fails, hopefully reason won’t:
I defend that prerequisites is the best translation because…
1) It’s more faithful to the original.
2) It had most votes (6-1).
3) It’s consistent with the tendency of the language towards simplification.
4) It’s more universal and can be used in any context. For example, in this sentence it’s the only plausible option: “A minimum of 550 TOEFL score is ** a prerequisite ** to be admitted into such and such program.” (TOEFL is not a course.)
5) I said so. Just kidding…
Why stand up for our ideas? Just think about the possible consequences of a mistranslation in a professional database that thousands of people have access to! Read
my article on some funny and not-so-funny end results of poor translation.
Experiential knowledge is a serious business, but at times it may come across as a double-edged sword. A lack or deficit of experiential knowledge can make us look foolish, especially when we step out of our realm of experience by showing off a knowledge we do not possess. Conversely, too much experiential knowledge may be deemed as arrogant under the same circumstances.
Paulo Freire, one of the most remarkable educators of the 20th century, once said that “education is an act of humility.” I take his words as a guiding principle in my career so I will not pretend to know something that I don’t. But, at the same time, I will not pretend not to know something that I do. There are times when we are called to exercise our experiential knowledge in more assertive ways.
When used in the right proportion, experiential knowledge helps us look good in the eyes of our peers, thus boosting our credibility before them as well as in the eyes of our clients. Most people may not judge a book by its cover, but some will pay close attention to the fine print. And that’s where the difference lies between the good translators and those who are aspiring to get there.
On occasion, we may realize the problem lies with the source text itself and not necessarily due to our lack of knowledge. Have you ever encountered a passage that left you wondering what the heck it meant? You show it to a colleague, then another, and they can’t figure it out, either; in fact, nobody seems to “get the idea”. This is a red flag that the issue may be with the author’s writing skills. Should that happen, we need to be cautious to not try and improve the translation by adding stuff that is not in the original. More specifically, double caution must be exercised in not trying to read the author’s mind in the absence of contextual clues that may help us extract the meaning. Otherwise, translation runs the risk of becoming a dangerous guessing game. There are instances when asking for clarifications is the best rule of thumb. In other words, we shouldn’t feel obligated to translate everything that is laid before us, especially if something fuzzy is not made clear by the author or client. Of course, I’m talking about those sticky passages that only God knows what they mean. Here’s one such example of a marketing presentation in which the presenter pencils an instruction to self or somebody else:
If there are different species groups in the room, participants should work by species groups (emphasis added).
Of course, getting clarifications from an author or client is not always possible, so in cases like this I would recommend keeping the words or passage un-translated. This is probably safer than risking a translation based on mere speculation or guesswork. The end result could be disastrous.
In conclusion, there are times when a sticky issue is beyond our control and may or may not be solved. Other times, it can be quickly resolved depending on the degree of our experiential knowledge. It is our responsibility as translators to ensure that we don’t bite off more than we can chew. If we can’t take a certain job for a lack of qualification, that is a reminder that we may need to acquire more knowledge in the field. We need to constantly remind ourselves that there is no limit as to how much knowledge we need in our profession. Obviously, the more we know and the more deeply we know it, the better it is for us professionally in an ever-increasing competitive job market. As the old maxim goes, “the sky is the limit.”
PS: Upon submission of this article I realized I finally got my KudoZ points for the prerequisites translation.