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The human touch – Elia Together in Berlin

I recently travelled to Berlin for the Elia Together event – a conference which aims to bring together translators (or ‘independent language professionals’ as we were dubbed) and language service companies so they can make connections, forge new relationships and enjoy each others’ company. The event featured a number of presentations, and although the range of topics discussed was quite broad, many of the speakers touched on the importance of communication, and of retaining a human touch in our ever more technologically advanced world.

It got me thinking about a topic that has been at the back of my mind for a while: the English Arts & Crafts movement of the mid to late 1800s, and its best-known proponent, William Morris.

In the age of the Industrial Revolution – just like today – the world of work was changing drastically due to rapid advances in technology. Where before people had worked with their hands and out in the fields, now they found themselves in early factories powered by newly-invented steam engines. And, just like today, people felt threatened by the sheer scale and speed of the changes to the world they knew and their work. As Romantic poet and artist William Blake put it, “England’s green and pleasant land” had given way to “dark, satanic mills”.

The Arts & Crafts movement began as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution. Artists, architects, carpenters and other tradesmen, fearing that real skills were being lost and quality standards were dropping at an alarming rate, began impressing their work with as much craftsmanship as they could, creating intricate, elaborate designs and products. William Morris’ rallying cry was an appeal to the consumers of the day: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

The influence of this philosophy on product design cannot be overstated – the most famous examples are Morris’ ornately patterned wallpapers, but evidence of the work of the Arts & Crafts movement can also be found on the streets of English towns and villages and in antiques shops all over the world. In fact, any product made since with aesthetic sensibilities owes something to the Arts & Crafts trailblazers.


A season ticket for the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society, taken from the V&A Museum website

To return to 2017, one of my favourite talks of the Elia event was given by Rosie Robbins, whose presentation on content strategy was inspired in part by the legendary ad-man David Ogilvy. When advertising began to change the world of work and product all over again in the early 1900s, Ogilvy was yet another figure standing up for the preservation of a human touch. For communicating with people through advertising with honesty and respect.

Rosie said that everyone who has ever worked at the Ogilvy advertising agency has a favourite quote attributed to the man himself. Now, I’ve never worked there, but I do have one of my own: “If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language, the language they use every day, the language in which they think.”

When faced with the inhuman (whether in the form of mass-produced products, trite, dishonest advertising or low-quality, inaccurate machine translation), Morris and Ogilvy tell us that the way to break through is to appeal to the human side. To be creative. To do something that a machine or uninspired advertiser could never come up with. As George Monbiot recently wrote in the Guardian, and as Rosie quoted in her presentation “In the future, if you want a job, you must be as unlike a machine as possible: creative, critical and socially skilled.”

Having heard all of the talks at the conference which touched upon the importance of humanity in communication, it seems to me that translators can draw inspiration from the Arts & Crafts movement and David Ogilvy: to differentiate ourselves from machine translation, we need to apply as much craftsmanship, skill and, above all, humanity to our own work. Yes, a machine can provide a rudimentary translation of a piece of writing. And it can do it faster and cheaper than a human translator. So we have to do it better, putting our humanity at the centre of what we do to achieve results that machines will never reach.

Or, as William Morris might have put it, had he been a translator:



Recently, I’ve been reading… translators in fiction (part one)

A recent article in The New Yorker on Katie Kitamura’s upcoming novel A Separation reveals that the narrator “is a literary translator, a job that appeals to her because of its ‘potential for passivity.’ She could just as well have been a medium, she says.”


Naturally, this raised a few eyebrows amongst professional translators on social media, though in an interview with Jezebel, Kitamura goes deeper, explaining: “I think translation is such a funny thing. One of my translators said to me, ‘I’m looking forward to writing your book in French,’ which is incredibly accurate. I think that’s what translation is; it’s writing a book, translators are co-authors on any book.”

Well, that acknowledgement that should go at least some of the way towards making up for any perceived slight against translators, eh?

Not so fast though, as Kitamura continues “[s]ometimes the authority of authorship is something translators don’t always claim and, I think, that’s something about the way [the narrator] tells her story. She doesn’t necessarily claim responsibility for that authority but, at the same time, she’s definitely wielding it and using it: she’s an unreliable narrator, she’s manipulating the story, she says things that are untrue, she conceals information, reveals information when she wants to, she does things that are morally questionable.”

Now, before we all grab our pitchforks in outrage at the suggestion that translators are manipulative, unreliable and morally questionable, it’s worth bearing in mind that Kitamura’s narrator is far from the first character in a novel who has worked as a translator. And after all, no detail as important as a character’s profession in any serious work of literature is decided “just because” – it’s a carefully selected piece of background information that informs how the reader thinks and feels about the character. Perhaps taking a look at some other fictional translators could be revealing about the way translators are perceived?


Recently, I’ve been reading… translators in fiction (part one):

(Note, this is by no means meant to be an exhaustive list, but rather just some examples that I’ve come across in my own reading. Cath Cellier-Smart has published a very comprehensive list including some non-English language books)

1. Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoevsky


(Quote above taken from the new English translation by Oliver Ready, which I wholeheartedly recommend over other, older translations)

If you thought Kitamura’s depiction of translators as passive and untrustworthy was bad, then perhaps you ought to stay away from this classic of Russian literature, as it is revealed that, while not attempting to avoid the clutches of the law or suffering from existential angst, down-on-his-luck protagonist and archetypal anti-hero Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov occasionally takes translation jobs to earn a little money.

Shortly after Raskolnikov has committed the titular crime, he arrives – seemingly by accident – at the home of his friend, the similarly impoverished Dmitri Razumikhin. Razumikhin reveals that he is currently working on some translations and generously offers Raskolnikov some money and a portion of the work, for which he has been paid up front.

Razumikhin is an amiable, kind-hearted character, but he is also hustling to work his way out of his poverty and as such is willing to commit some morally questionable deeds to make some money. For the translator Razumikhin, these morally questionable deeds include lining up pointless, self-evident texts which he admits are “low-grade quackery” for translation and publication, flagrantly inflating the page count of his translations so that he can charge more to the public, and accepting jobs that he is not really qualified for. In fact, he seems to see it as a stroke of luck that Raskolnikov has stumbled in, as he can take the German translation off his hands, admitting “for one thing, my spelling’s poor, and, for another, my German’s diabolical.”

The already uneasy Raskolnikov seems to find the whole thing a touch distasteful, and refuses the work. Bear in mind that the morally questionable deeds he is prepared to commit for money include robbing and murdering an elderly pawnbroker and her sister with an axe. Yikes.

There is, of course, something more at work here: the offer of translation work blows one of Raskolnikov’s rationales for having turned to murder and robbery out of the water. It was not the only way for him to have made some money, a desperate last resort – Razumikhin is proof that there are all sorts of ways for educated individuals (who are willing to bend their morals a little) to make some quick cash.

And so his guilt-driven existential crisis grows worse. Throughout Crime and Punishment, Razumikhin is held up as a foil to Raskolnikov, and this translation episode serves to show us, by contrast to Razumikhin, Raskolnikov’s lethargy and the duality of his character: he is constantly asserting his own Napoleonic genius, but shies away from actually applying his intellect when a job is offered to him.

The idea of doubles and duality recurs throughout Dostoyevsky’s work (see also Notes from the Underground and, naturally, The Double), and perhaps here he uses bilingualism and translation to mirror Raskolnikov’s cognitive dissonance. In Crime and Punishment, the profession translator is yet another way for Raskolnikov to be two things at once: his ability to speak more than one language another signpost of his duality – after all, there are studies that suggest bilingual people have different personalities when speaking each language and that our morals (which are at the very heart of the novel) may even shift from one language to another.

2. Written on the Body – Jeanette Winterson


Doubling also seems to be a concern for the unnamed narrator of Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body. Here, though, the sense is less of internal struggle, but rather of ambiguity or even a kind of androgyny.

You see, the narrator (who is a translator by trade) never reveals their own gender, offering only suggestions that point one way as incidental details, which are later refuted by details that suggest the opposite. This is particularly surprising in a novel that is so focused on the corporeal and the body: specifically, the body of the narrator’s lover Louise.

As well as serving as a signpost of this sense of doubling, the narrator’s work as a translator is also relevant to their main goal in the novel. Translators take something which they understand intimately and put it into words as faithfully as they can in a language that others can understand, sharing that intimate knowledge with a wider audience. And this is exactly what the narrator seeks to do throughout, attempting to ‘translate’ Louise’s body to the page, right down to a molecular level.

It is a remarkable piece of work, and sometimes an uncomfortable read, particularly when the line between passionate study and obsession seems to blur.

Unmissable for any translator, though, is the hilarious library scene, which will sound at least slightly familiar to anyone who has ever had to take extreme measures to meet a deadline. Translating in an age before the internet and CAT (Computer Assisted Translation) tools, the narrator heads to the British Library in London, where they are tethered to a desk using handcuffs, asking their neighbour to only let them go once their work is done. Unfortunately, he disappears with the key, and the hapless narrator is banned from their main place of work for causing wilful (though they change the form to read “accidental”) damage to library property.

3. The Translator – Leila Aboulela


I’m sure the above description will also ring true for plenty of translators too. That Aboulela mentions her protagonist’s struggles of dealing with less than perfect source texts is typical of the quietly observant nature and gentle consideration that characterises The Translator.

Protagonist Sammar is a Sudanese Muslim living in Scotland, a young widow living on a different continent from her young son. She works as an Arabic translator at the University of Aberdeen, in a department headed by Rae Isles, a British professor of Eastern Studies and Islam. Here, the role of a translator is not to contain a duality, but rather to form one half of a bridge between two distant cultures: Sammar spanning from East to West while Rae spans from West to East. The Translator is about the tenderness with which they meet in the middle.

Though first published in 1999, The Translator is almost uncannily prescient about the ongoing situation of the Middle East and Western interventionism which is so inescapable in 2017. In fact, Rae, speaking about the extremists who have been captured and held in Egypt, who Sammar will eventually be sent to interpret for, mentions that “they have no realistic policies, no clear idea of how to implement what they vaguely call ‘Islamic economics’ or an ‘Islamic state’.”

What is striking about The Translator is the gentle lyricism of Aboulela’s prose, and its gossamer-light touch in depicting the development of Sammar and Rae’s relationship, and of the clash of East and West. In times like these, it could hardly be more relevant reading.

Stay tuned for part two, where we’ll take a look at some translators in the works of Paul Auster, Umberto Eco and Kurt Vonnegut. Got a favourite translator character? Let me know in the comments or over on Twitter!

Quotes taken from:

  • Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Oliver Ready translation), Penguin, 2014
  • Written on the Body – Jeanette Winterson, Vintage, 1993
  • The Translator – Leila Aboulela, Polygon, 1999

How cryptic crosswords made me a better translator

1a  After I missed practice, lambasted for altered language (10)

2d  Sane gulag? Messed up, so to speak (9)

5a The average English dissertation has grammatical symbols (11)

(Answers can be found below, or, if you can puzzle them out yourself then I’d love to hear your answers on Twitter)

I’ve always loved word puzzles. For about as long as I can remember I have enjoyed sitting down with a crossword and a pen – there’s something about it which is just so relaxing to me. Several years ago, while studying for my Translation Master’s degree, I made my first forays into the world of cryptic crosswords. This was pretty challenging at first: the steep learning curve made them more frustrating than relaxing! Once conquered though, I’ve found that there is so much fun to be had and satisfaction to be gained from these little linguistic brainteasers.

But is there a benefit that translators can gain from these exercises? (Other than just a way to unwind?)

I certainly think so!

After all, a good translator needs lots of different skills – far beyond just being bilingual. And one such skill is to have an intimate knowledge of their target language (English, in my case) at their fingertips: something that cryptic crosswords also demand. Of course, doing a crossword a week is not going to instantly transform a translator’s work, but anything that deepens a translator’s mastery of their own language can’t be a bad thing.

When decrypting a crossword, every word needs to be prodded and pulled at from virtually every linguistic angle in order to unlock the hidden meaning behind the clues: does this word have many different meanings? Or synonyms? How about homonyms? Is it a noun, verb or adjective? Is it an anagram? Can it be abbreviated? What’s its etymology? Is it playing on a name or title? Or a double entendre?

The words you are unpicking are often obscure, sometimes so obscure that you have to look them up – all the better! You have just learned some new vocabulary, and very possibly stumbled upon a synonymous relationship that you had never considered before.

In essence, the solver is looking for one word (or sometimes a phrase) which, as if by magic, reveals the meaning behind the whole clue.

If you drew up a Venn diagram of the similarities between translation and crossword solving, “the hunt for the right word” would be right at the centre. While translating, I often have to break a difficult sentence down to its basic elements, figure out what makes it tick and then rack my brains for the best way to express it in English. There are plenty of resources at my disposal that help me to do this: my experience, the skills I learnt throughout my training and career, dictionaries and grammatical reference books, discussions with colleagues on online platforms, amongst others.

But sometimes, particularly in projects that require a more creative touch, I find it helpful to think of that difficult sentence as a kind of cryptic clue, which just needs to be looked at from the right angle to reveal its answer.

Ultimately, cryptic crosswords encourage the solver to be playful with their language – a valuable piece of brain training for any translator.

Have some German words of your own that need decrypting? Why not get in touch to find out what a bit of creative thinking could do for your translation needs.

Scroll down to to view the answers.

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Welcome to Parenthesis Translation

Hello there,

My name’s Ed Callow and I run a freelance translation business called Parenthesis Translation. Here on the blog, I’ll be sharing all sorts of fascinating stories from the world of translation (and maybe a few other things too), so do stay tuned.

But first things first, we should really get to know each other. As means of an introduction, how about a confession:

I love words.

I love English words like phosphorescence, archipelago and ampersand. And I love German ones like Herbstblätterduft (the smell of autumn leaves), strabanzen (to roam) and Kopfkino (images racing through your head). I love how words can make complex concepts and technologies simple, comprehensible and alluring. How they can leap from a screen or page and implant themselves in the mind of the reader. I love the satisfaction of taking German words and finding the perfect English ones to match, and seeing those words help businesses to thrive by communicating their ideas to whole new audiences.

If you want to see how my passion for words and translation could work for you, then why not get in touch or say hello over on Twitter or LinkedIn? I’d be delighted to hear from you.

Thanks for stopping by!