Perspectives: Translation: the business of innovation

Innovation is a word that can annoy or animate and is used in many ways by many people in a broad range of businesses and cultures. And yet as translators and interpreters, we don’t often see ourselves as innovators.

As a translator and interpreter, I once got into a tweet exchange with someone who claimed that innovation was “the color of BS,” and just another buzzword. There’s no doubt that the word annoys some people and excites others.

We’re immersed in a period of technological change (renewable energy, the availability of numerous personal devices, intense connectivity), enveloped again in a renewed pattern of change. Change is constant — it’s the norm.

What does all this change have to do with innovation? When it comes to tech updates, we continually hear that change is good — the iPhone, for example, sells based on the idea that the newer model is better. So why is innovation “the most overused word in America,” according to a 2013 article in Wired magazine? Plenty of other media outlets have echoed the sentiment over the years, from The Irish Times to The Wall Street Journal.

However, innovation is merely the process of creating something new and to innovate is to make changes to something already established.

Which brings up an interesting question. As translators, are we doing innovation, or are we it? Are we innovation, or are we innovating?

Translators as innovators

As translators and interpreters in one of the oldest professions around, we are innovating all the time. Translation is the job of checking and rechecking one’s writing while producing new inspiration in every sentence created. It’s the job of looking back over history and understanding how crucial the work of communication has been and trying to figure out new ways to make it better, tighter, smoother. It’s the oldest and the newest, all wrapped up in one package.

Lately we have seen language professionals working together for collective causes, forming links with colleagues, looking at how to train the fastest growing sector of the future, using innovative ideas on how to certify language professionals, how to deal with translation environment tools and perhaps even how to create freelance societies where translators and
interpreters are respected and their work understood. This last planet is far away, but we may observe some professionals already orbiting its outer moon, aided by innovation.

Innovation means inspiration, metamorphosis, a process of stimulation and euphoria, trial and error, something better than before. And this is exciting. The word applies to all that is new, better, different and clever — or that is trying to be. For things that are unknown, innovation frames answers where there were no questions; it suggests solutions and flows along channels we might never have investigated. And how perfect that innovatus, Latin for renewal and change, roots the word in classical antiquity, reminding us of its pure meaning.

Innovation is, after all, an improvement on what came before. It’s familiar and friendly because it is faithful to and builds on what was already there, transforming figure and form and packaging them into a sleek, smooth, concise new product.

This is translation, the business of innovation. Every rendering of a text is different; unless we’re talking about recycling old translations, it has to be innovative every time. To translate is to take a text, remain true to its intention and culture, and innovate it into the target language. The process of taking something that is finished and creating something new with those original elements is the very spirit of innovation.

For a translator:

Spanish into English


Precisely where innovation is happening

For an interpreter:

Spanish <> English


Innovation happening here

Another -tion word

Can we embrace innovation as a word and a concept, when we’re already crowded on the platform with two or three other “-tion” words, translation, localization and interpretation? I say yes. Let’s own it, advertise it and promote it as part of what is essential for each interpreter and translator.

Innovation is the fairy dust that makes your translation sing, the attitude and actions implicit in each piece that you manoeuver from one language into another, it’s the problem solving prowess that you hone and nurture with each client. Like any exercise, it becomes a conscious decision you make. And as translators and specialists in communication wizardry, it’s a choice worth making. It’s like the gift of a book that you give yourself, and open again and again to be inspired and motivated.

Thinking of translation as innovation is the key to giving yourself permission to get inside a piece — to jump inside the words, to test the water, and then to start swimming laps that become the lines on the page in a new language.

The concept of innovation helps us reap insight into what translation and interpreting mean. As an interpreter, it means solving a problem right then and there, right when someone is speaking, right in those crucial seconds.

As a translator, it’s a completely original way of speaking written words in another language. Why do we need a new translation of Kafka? Because language changes, because it casts the story in a different light, because it touches readers in a way the previous translations didn’t. Why is this good? Why is this necessary? To stimulate new ideas and conversations about literature.

As translators and interpreters we can fly our innovation flag high. Innovation is human and is inherently tied to the translation and interpretation process. It’s about assessing key points and descriptions, considering their meaning, and reproducing artistically inspired new messages based on another person’s words. 

Innovation is a celebration of our humanness. Machines can translate, but they cannot innovate — this is the rickety axis on which the current state of translation seems to be balancing. But we are not standing on shaky ground. To the contrary, while some may worry about a machine producing rhyming couplets, the real insights and skills necessary to translate are just the ones that produce intricate, meaningful, homonym-filled prose and sonnets, brought to you by an innovative human.