translation and research

A conversation with a potential client last week has had me thinking about the disjunct between what people think goes into translation and what actually does. Of course, it’s natural that we don’t understand all the nitty-gritty of other professions. I only have a vague idea of what goes on inside a cockpit or how lawyers spend their days, notions gleaned mainly from Studs Terkel’s 1974 book Working (I jest–kind of) and media portrayals. But, in light of AI’s storm on my livelihood (subject for another blog post) and just for general insight into what happens after you, the client, confirm a project, I would like to clarify an overlooked but vital part of the work of a translator: research.

So the client in question, whose target readers are funeral homes and the bereaved, was very rightly concerned about getting the language just right in English. A translation gaffe here could be less on the order of accuracy and more related to conveying the message in a sensitive and culturally appropriate way. The concern here is two-fold: the translator must both find the habits of language used in the rites and rituals of funeral ceremonies and strike the right note of caring and sensitivity appropriate to grief.

The client, who is interested in both translation and post-editing (AI/machine translation followed by intensive proofreading and editing) services, wanted to know my rate for research. This is a wonderful inquiry from a client. On the one hand, it shows a real attentiveness to the message they wish to put forward, and on the other, it demonstrates a true understanding that research takes time–and time is money.

Yet I do not have an additional rate for research, and that is because research is nearly always inherent to what I do as a translator. Research can be as straightforward as hunting down terms in various language resources–general and specialized dictionaries in French and English, linguist forums, Google searches, and so on. It can go more in depth, pushing me down field-specific rabbit holes. And it can be very academic, as I read and scan through journals, books, and periodicals (my early training in academia is a big help here). I may watch YouTube videos or search through images; I may take time to watch a documentary or immerse myself in relevant literature. The strategies and tactics change depending on the project at hand and, to a certain degree, on my previous experiences.

My educational background in literature, culture, and theory makes me particularly well-suited to translating for cultural fields. However, all kinds of life experiences can be brought to bear in this profession. I am surprised by how often I rely on recollections of my first job as a sales associate at Banana Republic or memories of my environmentalist grandparents. Past translation work has also left a strong mark on my practice, including numerous scholarly publications in postcolonial studies and even romance and detective fiction.

Whatever the project, there will inevitably be some degree of research. This, among other things, is what I am evaluating when I ask to see the original text–or at least an excerpt–before generating a quote. Like many translators, I have a sliding rate scale to reflect the time and skills a translation will require. Many criteria go into this evaluation and of course one of the main ones is research. So, rest assured, dear client, when I send you a quote, the research fee is already rolled in!