ITA lecture1 2016

You can have a flock of sheep and a herd of cows, a covey of witches and a murmuration of starlings, so why not a transport of translators? This is one of the thoughts that occurred to me in the course of the recent annual Conference organized by the Israel Translators Association. While the Association itself numbers several hundred members who translate into and from a plethora of tongues, not all of them attended the conference, or did not do so for all the three days of its duration. Nonetheless, attendance was relatively good, with some two hundred translators present at any given time. It goes without saying that the organizers did a terrific job and the usually isolated translators were glad of the opportunity to meet one another face-to-face instead of computer-to-computer.

The lectures were many and varied, some extremely polished and professional, others less so, on subjects ranging from the challenges and difficulties of being a medical interpreter to translating works by Jane Austen, with any number of categories in between. Lectures were also given on aspects of business management, technical terminology, making use of MT (machine translation), and what the future holds for today’s translators. That, of course, is not at all clear, as the likes of Google and Microsoft are steadily encroaching on the translator’s turf. One message that came across loud and clear in one of the plenary sessions was that machine translation will take over the work done by individuals who translate like machines, leaving the field clear for translators whose work depends on intelligence. Let’s hope…

At a previous conference a few years ago I gave a talk at about translating financial texts, and was suddenly seized by that terrible tickle in my throat that sometimes haunts me when I’m at a concert. That inevitably arouses nasty glances from those sitting near me. I’m always equipped with strong cough sweets, which sometimes help, though the noise that unwrapping them is sometimes even worse than the cough. At that conference I was able to benefit from the cup of tea brought by the kind chairperson.

After that experience I swore I would never give another such talk, but this year, possibly because I had forgotten my embarrassment or was inspired by the book I had been working on, I offered myself once more on the altar of public speaking. And thus it was that I found myself standing in front of a room half-full of people who had come to hear me speak about the book I had translated. Like the book, my talk was entitled ‘Every Day in Theresienstadt is a Gift,’ and I set out to describe my experience of translating the diary of Martha Glass, a 63-year-old Jewish woman who was deported from Hamburg to Theresienstadt in 1942. Her trajectory was very similar to that of my own grandmother, Regina van Son, the main difference being that Martha Glass survived whereas my grandmother did not. This may have been because Martha was able to receive occasional food packages sent by her daughter in Berlin.

The book was sent to me a few years ago by the Hamburg Council for Political Education, and I decided to translate it from German into English in order to better understand it. There is nothing like translating a text for gaining a deeper comprehension of it, in line with Chomsky’s analysis of deep and surface structure. The insight provided by the great linguist encapsulates what translators do: going beyond the surface to access the deep, underlying sense of a text and then reformulating it in surface structure (which in this case is another language).

Although I had prepared my talk to the best of my abilities, and had been provided with a fine Power-Point presentation by my husband, I felt that I coughed, stammered, spluttered and spat my way through it, even though I had made sure to have a cup of hot water by me beforehand. Yigal and both my sisters were there, as well as several translators, so I felt that I had a supportive audience. When it was all over there was polite applause and a few people came up to me and made comments (mainly positive) and asked questions.

I hope I remember not to let myself in for this kind of nerve-wracking experience again and can content myself with sitting at my computer in splendid isolation.