Translation Matters

Industry veteran and Multilingual editorial board member Jost Zetzsche has collected 81 previously-published articles and essays for his latest book, Translation Matters. Their original publication dates range from 2003 to 2017 and they appeared everywhere from Christianity Today to his own Tool Box Journal. There’s even a Twitter exchange with a journalist, put into print format like its own story.

Zetzsche dug through the archives of his writing and chose articles that would age well. “I love this concept of re-finding texts that earlier generations deemed irrelevant but later generations find more important… As translators and writers we create a plethora of content, but the lifespan can be of such short duration,” Zetzsche writes in his introduction.

The essays are arranged into 13 topical segments under headings such as “Getting Paid for Translation” and “Geeking Out.” Many touch on personal themes, such as Zetzsche’s background studying Chinese Bible translation. Others discuss Amazon, data exchange standards and Gulliver’s Travels. The essays are arranged in a way that seemed logical to Zetzsche: “It felt like a good idea to start with something personal,” he said in an email, — then head into tech and end with a wider call to right wrongs and get translation right.

Although Zetzsche typically writes quite a bit on tech, the book’s tech talk is relatively minimal. “For the most part I chose articles that don’t deal with specific features of specific tools, which likely would no longer reflect the current situation and would therefore be worthless,” he writes in the introduction.

Instead, in this volume, Zetzsche studies tech from a more philosophical angle. One essay originally written for the ATA Chronicle in 2017 describes Kató, an open source, customizable, easy-to-use tool created for Translators without Borders (TWB), as well as other tools TWB uses. Similar essays look at the lessons we can draw from tech, without focusing in on myopic details.

Zetzsche looks at machine translation (MT) with a timeless eye, drawing, for example, from a passage in the April/May 2005 issue of MultiLingual. Zetzsche quotes Jaap van der Meer’s discussion of the trashing MT took with the advent of translation memory (TM): “It will take years to convince the community of business translators that post-editing fuzzy matches from TM databases is, in fact, not different from post-editing fuzzy matches from any other MT system.” Although it has been 13 years since these words were written, they’re still applicable.

The book’s earliest essay is similarly pertinent. It’s titled “Are We Stupid?” and looks at tech marketing targeted to translators — marketing that assumes translators are change-adverse, and possibly tech-phobic. “I am curious about the effect of these messages,” Zetzsche writes.

The book is filled with numerous translation-related characters, such as Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky, a grumpy missionary to 19th-century China who typed out Chinese translations on a Roman typewriter with one finger. The characters illustrate adages: “I think we need to be cautious about how fast we rush into adopting new technologies,” Zetzsche concludes in regard to Schereschewsky.

To my obsessive editor’s eye there was the occasional confusing antecedent shift, but overall the book is professionally produced and will continue to be relevant for years to come. It contains many historical anecdotes about the translation industry, both modern and ancient. The practice of selecting the most enduring writing from a 15-year writing career is an intriguing one, particularly in an industry where we assume so often that new is relevant and old is limiting.

The book concludes with a “story from New Zealand where translators really were trying to right a wrong as much as it was within their power,” Zetzsche said. The story in question describes “likely the most costly and perhaps most unfairly carried out translation ever” and finishes with a celebration of a “meaningful attempt to finally get it right.”