In Other Words

On the classroom screen, TV journalist David Frost introduces guest Julian Assange and asks the beleaguered Wikileaks cofounder about extradition threats, leak sources, and conflicts between governments and journalists.

The 16 students scribbling notes aren’t preparing to analyze issues of free speech and national security. Instead, each is figuring how to interpret this conversation to a speaker of a target language. Within the classroom are native speakers of French, Russian, and Bengali, and the American students have brought their advanced skills in Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, and Spanish. This is “Introduction to Translation Studies” and it isn’t just the overall J-term Gestalt that lends it a different feel.

For one, this is the first Middlebury undergrad class to focus on translation and interpretation (T&I) theory and practice instead of the workings of a particular language. (The primary difference between translation and interpretation? Text versus speech.) It’s also part of a recently launched minor in linguistics with expansion potential via collaboration with the Monterey Institute for International Studies (MIIS). The teacher, a seasoned professional translator and interpreter, Karin Hanta, is more familiar to the Middlebury campus as director of Chellis House, the home of many women’s and gender studies activities. A native of Austria, Hanta speaks five languages, has lived and worked on three continents, is a doctoral candidate in translation studies, has translated several books on topics such as Holocaust biography and German philosophy, and has written a dozen travel books for major German publishing houses to boot.

Questions arise as each student paraphrases Frost’s and Assange’s comments in English and then translates them: “I’m not sure whether Arabic would use ‘summit’ for a meeting,” says one. “OK, try and talk your way around it; could you use ‘conference’? ” prompts Hanta. “I don’t know the German for ‘extradition,’” says another. “Auslieferung,” Hanta offers. Each student evaluates his or her own progress with the translation; Hanta can fill in vocabulary for German, French, Portuguese, and Spanish, and fellow students of Chinese and Arabic also offer feedback. It’s not a language class, however, so the point is the process.

Hanta wanted to interest students in translation studies through a balance of practical issues, such as copyright and remuneration, and relevant scholarship. The view of the translator’s role has shifted since her own fascination with T&I began years ago. “Scholars often held that the translator should be invisible, subservient to the source text,” she notes. “Newer theories ‘dethrone’ the source and ask, ‘What’s the target text supposed to accomplish?’”

When those “texts” are advertising copy, the translator is expected to marshal marketing and cultural ken that will encourage business in the target country. Discussion of this growing field, “localization management,” gave Hanta one of several opportunities to bring MIIS experts into the class via Skype and videoconference. MIIS alumni are active in this area, translating for Apple and Microsoft, among others, making sure that a software icon makes sense in Russian and a technology term strikes the right note in Portuguese.

“Monterey’s a real gem, one of the best institutions at which to train for this work,” says Hanta, noting that career opportunities are burgeoning. It’s a point not lost on her students, several of whom entered the class considering T&I careers, and now feel they know where to go for personal advice and further training. And they’ve got a head start on the skills they’ll need. As Hanta says at the end of the Frost-Assange exercise, “What you’ve just done took me a couple of years of training.”

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