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Acquiring writing skills in a specialized area
Thread poster: Mario Chavez

Mario Chavez  Identity Verified
Local time: 21:07
English to Spanish
+ ...
Jul 19

Okay, colleagues, it's me again with a knotty question. As I'm beginning to write up my PhD thesis proposal this week, I'm focusing on the acquisition of writing skills (or composition skills) in a specialized area, say, accounting or automotive mechanics. My potential dissertation advisor has said that translators usually acquire specialization on the go, on the job. I kind of disagree. Without going all Chomskian on anybody, I would like to know:

a) If you have read an academic paper or a book about writing skills for a specialized area (if so, please share the title and/or URL)
b) What your opinion is about the topic (this is not a survey).

Thanks!


Mario Chávez
PhD candidate
Independent translator


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neilmac  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 03:07
Spanish to English
+ ...
Personal experience Jul 20

I agree with your dissertation advisor.
Some clients tell me I'm now an expert in their areas, having worked with them for several years. I certainly never set about acquiring this knowledge, having seen myself in principle more as a kind of jobbing, have-a-go, all-round translator. Basically I can usually judge from a quick skim of a text whether I can tackle it or not. However, I also found out from experience that financial translation is not for me...


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Susan Welsh  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 21:07
Member (2008)
Russian to English
+ ...
Not just "on the go" Jul 20

I think your advisor's position is ridiculous. It takes more than working on lots of translations to be a specialist in a field. You have to really know the subject, and that takes intensive study, whether in a university or while working in the industry or on your own, depending on the field. Would you hire someone to fix your car based on the fact that they have done lots of translations in the auto industry? I am a typical jill-of-all-trades; I have done lots of translations in business/finance, but am by no means a specialist. The one field in which I can claim a degree of specialized knowledge is psychology, which was my college major so long ago that it is mostly irrelevant, and in which I have probably done more translation than any other subject. But to say that I am a specialist in psych, comparable to the PhDs who write the papers I translate, would be a gross exaggeration.

The question you ask, however, is about "writing skills in a specialized area." That's a bit strange, since writing skills are not the same as special expertise, as the readers of users manuals for household products or software know very well. You can know everything there is to know about an automobile, but your writing skills may still be dreadful. Sure, you need to know the vocabulary in two languages for the specialized field, but that's not a "writing skill." I guess the best way to improve your writing skills is to get feedback from others -- professors, editors, readers.


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Chris S  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Swedish to English
+ ...
Knotty but nice? Jul 20

Mario, could you be more precise about what you want us to opine on?

I'd say your supervisor is right that translators generally acquire writing skills (as opposed to subject knowledge) on the job. Where else?

I would, however, also contest that accounting and automotive mechanics are not areas that require writing skills. Basic literacy is desirable but optional.


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Mario Chavez  Identity Verified
Local time: 21:07
English to Spanish
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TOPIC STARTER
Cool feedback Jul 20

Chris S wrote:

Mario, could you be more precise about what you want us to opine on?

I'd say your supervisor is right that translators generally acquire writing skills (as opposed to subject knowledge) on the job. Where else?

I would, however, also contest that accounting and automotive mechanics are not areas that require writing skills. Basic literacy is desirable but optional.


Well, Chris, I'll try to be more specific without being a curmudgeon.

On one hand, one learns to write phrases, sentences, paragraphs, etc. in school. With more grammar and syntax knowledge, not to mention a dash of literature in one's language (I don't mean Shakespeare), one learns in middle or high school to organize those texts into a more meaningful text, like a short or a long essay (“write a book report on...”).

On the other hand, that level of writing skill is not enough to write about a particular process or object in a specialized domain, say, write a report on how higher wages will impact inflation in Burundi, unless there is a great deal of reading on the subject, and I would add, lots of writing practice in that domain.

So, there's the general writing skill level: either I write well or poorly. And the specialized level for writing skills: I may understand the newspaper's article about Burundi's economy, but I don't have enough knowledge of economics concepts (inflation, wages, for instance) to write about that topic. Also, I have little or no knowledge or practice writing in a style typical of articles about economics.

Does that make more sense?

I would contend that an individual or translator or journalist (or technical writer) does not learn about a domain only “on the go.” In my view and experience, the more exposure and writing practice a person has in a complex domain, the readier she is to learn on the go on another complex domain.


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Texte Style
Local time: 03:07
French to English
learning on the job here Jul 21

I specialise in various fields, mostly requiring carefully-honed texts. It's important to know the specialist terminology, and also to make the text flow properly and appeal to the native speakers the text will be read by.

I often translate slogans, base-lines, mission statements, USPs and the like.

When starting to work in a particular line of business (I'm getting quite heavily into sustainable development, doing increasingly technical stuff in renewable energy) I spend quite a lot of time researching, to acquire the terminology but also to get a feel for how people in this field express themselves. Sometimes, reading in my target language, I come across terms and notions that don't seem to have an equivalent in my source language. I explore this to check whether I have understood these terms and notions properly, or whether it's because of a different approach, maybe people in France are way ahead of Brits in this field, or vice versa, or the culture impacts it in some way. I make note of anything striking and bung it in my "think of using" file for future reference.

I have never really had any proper training in translation, I have a Master but acquired it more on the strength of my professional experience and learned strictly nothing in the modules they made me take so they didn't feel like the diploma was worthless. So I can confidently claim to have learned everything on the job.

The first translations I did must have been pretty awful if fit for purpose. I was lucky to work for a good while in a top-rate agency where very exacting proofreaders walked me through my translations, pointing out where there was room for improvement and discussing the best way to improve. I would say it was a great way to learn about the profession and how to improve my skills.


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Chris S  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Swedish to English
+ ...
Unconvinced Jul 21

Mario Chavez wrote:
On the other hand, that level of writing skill is not enough to write about a particular process or object in a specialized domain, say, write a report on how higher wages will impact inflation in Burundi, unless there is a great deal of reading on the subject, and I would add, lots of writing practice in that domain.

But that level of writing *is* entirely adequate. You just add subject knowledge. You've read academic papers. You know most of them can't write. They just jam it full of jargon and get a proofreader to run a spellcheck.
Maybe there is a specific *tone* to adopt in an academic paper or an instruction manual, but nothing beyond "formal" or "simple", nothing that a *writer* of any kind can't instinctively adapt to just from experience of encountering similar documents through their work or research or in real life.
Nobody *teaches* economists how to write. So why do economics translators need to be taught?


I may understand the newspaper's article about Burundi's economy, but I don't have enough knowledge of economics concepts (inflation, wages, for instance) to write about that topic. Also, I have little or no knowledge or practice writing in a style typical of articles about economics.

But there really isn't any special style in these articles. Individuals write how they want to. Some well, most not so well.

I would contend that an individual or translator or journalist (or technical writer) does not learn about a domain only “on the go.” In my view and experience, the more exposure and writing practice a person has in a complex domain, the readier she is to learn on the go on another complex domain.

Not entirely sure what you're saying there, but I certainly can't see how a degree in literature set me up for a career in translating economics and finance beyond indulging an existing linguistic bent...


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Mario Chavez  Identity Verified
Local time: 21:07
English to Spanish
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Second nature Jul 21

Chris S wrote:

Mario Chavez wrote:
On the other hand, that level of writing skill is not enough to write about a particular process or object in a specialized domain, say, write a report on how higher wages will impact inflation in Burundi, unless there is a great deal of reading on the subject, and I would add, lots of writing practice in that domain.

But that level of writing *is* entirely adequate. You just add subject knowledge. You've read academic papers. You know most of them can't write. They just jam it full of jargon and get a proofreader to run a spellcheck.
Maybe there is a specific *tone* to adopt in an academic paper or an instruction manual, but nothing beyond "formal" or "simple", nothing that a *writer* of any kind can't instinctively adapt to just from experience of encountering similar documents through their work or research or in real life.
Nobody *teaches* economists how to write. So why do economics translators need to be taught?


I may understand the newspaper's article about Burundi's economy, but I don't have enough knowledge of economics concepts (inflation, wages, for instance) to write about that topic. Also, I have little or no knowledge or practice writing in a style typical of articles about economics.

But there really isn't any special style in these articles. Individuals write how they want to. Some well, most not so well.

I would contend that an individual or translator or journalist (or technical writer) does not learn about a domain only “on the go.” In my view and experience, the more exposure and writing practice a person has in a complex domain, the readier she is to learn on the go on another complex domain.

Not entirely sure what you're saying there, but I certainly can't see how a degree in literature set me up for a career in translating economics and finance beyond indulging an existing linguistic bent...


Chris, maybe the skills I'm talking about have become so second nature to you that you don't see anything extraordinary in them. But writing skills of any kind are not innate but acquired. There is not just a binary set of styles, for instance: formal and informal, colloquial and formal, academic vs. standard, etc. It is not a linguistic analysis, and it goes a bit beyond text analysis.

For example, which voice do you use the most in your translations: active or passive? Another example: if you're writing a set of instructions (in English), do you start with an action verb, or do you start with an adverbial clause?

Time for my morning coffee


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Chris S  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Swedish to English
+ ...
Ordinariness Jul 21

Mario Chavez wrote:
Chris, maybe the skills I'm talking about have become so second nature to you that you don't see anything extraordinary in them. But writing skills of any kind are not innate but acquired. There is not just a binary set of styles, for instance: formal and informal, colloquial and formal, academic vs. standard, etc.

Trouble is, if I get by without special training just because of my extraordinariness, it follows that if more mortal translators also get by without it, this must be because it just isn't needed...

Mario Chavez wrote:
It is not a linguistic analysis, and it goes a bit beyond text analysis.
For example, which voice do you use the most in your translations: active or passive? Another example: if you're writing a set of instructions (in English), do you start with an action verb, or do you start with an adverbial clause?

I never give any of that a moment's thought. It's instinctive for me as a linguist (aka mimic). I just sponge it up and regurgitate it.
I would suspect that anyone who isn't able to write by the time they finish university, whatever the subject, will never be able to do so.
I don't think it's something you can actively learn, or teach. It's more of an outlook, a way of life. Or illness. Like having second sight, a sixth sense or a third eye.
Some translators clearly lack this innate whatever-it-is. Which, to me, means that they're in the wrong profession.
As am I. I'm clearly wasted here...


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Texte Style
Local time: 03:07
French to English
active Jul 22

Mario Chavez wrote:

For example, which voice do you use the most in your translations: active or passive? Another example: if you're writing a set of instructions (in English), do you start with an action verb, or do you start with an adverbial clause?



I prefer active whenever possible. The French use it far more so I tend to get rid of it as much as possible.

I remember a teacher saying "In English the important word is the verb, because Brits like action. In French the important word is the noun, because the French like to reflect on the state of being"

She kind of summed up what I had already sensed by myself, which was reflected in my work.


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Texte Style
Local time: 03:07
French to English
in the absence of a like button, I agree whole-heartedly with Chris Jul 22

Chris S wrote:

Mario Chavez wrote:
Chris, maybe the skills I'm talking about have become so second nature to you that you don't see anything extraordinary in them. But writing skills of any kind are not innate but acquired. There is not just a binary set of styles, for instance: formal and informal, colloquial and formal, academic vs. standard, etc.

Trouble is, if I get by without special training just because of my extraordinariness, it follows that if more mortal translators also get by without it, this must be because it just isn't needed...

Mario Chavez wrote:
It is not a linguistic analysis, and it goes a bit beyond text analysis.
For example, which voice do you use the most in your translations: active or passive? Another example: if you're writing a set of instructions (in English), do you start with an action verb, or do you start with an adverbial clause?

I never give any of that a moment's thought. It's instinctive for me as a linguist (aka mimic). I just sponge it up and regurgitate it.
I would suspect that anyone who isn't able to write by the time they finish university, whatever the subject, will never be able to do so.
I don't think it's something you can actively learn, or teach. It's more of an outlook, a way of life. Or illness. Like having second sight, a sixth sense or a third eye.
Some translators clearly lack this innate whatever-it-is. Which, to me, means that they're in the wrong profession.
As am I. I'm clearly wasted here...

Yup, I do most of that sort of thing without having to think about it. I had to think about it when I was at university, where I basically came time and again to the conclusion that I had been doing it right all along and was now simply finding out what it was that made it right.

I would say that for a native speaker, you simply need to keep the native mindset, rather than embrace fully the culture of the source language. You need to step back from that culture and think about how your compatriots would react to the text. It's something I had to explain to my proofreading colleague who spoke perfect English but had lived too long in France to have a Brit mindset (by that I mean, she didn't find Monty Python funny )


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Nikki Scott-Despaigne  Identity Verified
Local time: 03:07
French to English
Frank Sinatra Jul 22

Try this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=89GtOJABVS4

After that, the rest in being receptive to what you see, hear and read. It is also about making choices about what you see, hear and read. Therefater, it boils down to working on it. These are a just a few of the activites that will help hone your critical thinking skills, and make you better at what you do. Bringing yourself into question also help a lot.

If you need to adopt a particular style, then buy a book on it. I'm not being cheeky, but seriously trying to be helpful. I went back to full-time study and after having read lots of articles, attended conferences and so on, when it came to writing a dissertation, apart from the acaddemic requirements which were provided, I also bought a book on writing hints for the biomedical sciences. I did the same for neuropsychology report writing.

Some people will go through all of those steps but good linguists have the ability to be good linguists and will work, passively and actively, at being better at it.

Edit to add this: subject matter knowledge can be gained in similar ways. Sometimes working a little outside your comfort zone gradually enables you to access a new field. That way, you are acquiring new knowledge on the job. You can consciously go out there determined to learn it, do a course, read a book, publications, etc. Gaining knowledge can happen in so may ways, formal and informal. But Sinatra still has it on style: you either got, or you haven't got the ability, which will never rule out wokring on it.

[Edited at 2017-07-22 17:42 GMT]


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Mario Chavez  Identity Verified
Local time: 21:07
English to Spanish
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Driving a car - analogy Jul 22

Nikki Scott-Despaigne wrote:

Try this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=89GtOJABVS4

After that, the rest in being receptive to what you see, hear and read. It is also about making choices about what you see, hear and read. Therefater, it boils down to working on it. These are a just a few of the activites that will help hone your critical thinking skills, and make you better at what you do. Bringing yourself into question also help a lot.

If you need to adopt a particular style, then buy a book on it. I'm not being cheeky, but seriously trying to be helpful. I went back to full-time study and after having read lots of articles, attended conferences and so on, when it came to writing a dissertation, apart from the acaddemic requirements which were provided, I also bought a book on writing hints for the biomedical sciences. I did the same for neuropsychology report writing.

Some people will go through all of those steps but good linguists have the ability to be good linguists and will work, passively and actively, at being better at it.

Edit to add this: subject matter knowledge can be gained in similar ways. Sometimes working a little outside your comfort zone gradually enables you to access a new field. That way, you are acquiring new knowledge on the job. You can consciously go out there determined to learn it, do a course, read a book, publications, etc. Gaining knowledge can happen in so may ways, formal and informal. But Sinatra still has it on style: you either got, or you haven't got the ability, which will never rule out wokring on it.

[Edited at 2017-07-22 17:42 GMT]


Nikki, do you drive? If so, when did you learn to drive? Who taught you?

If you learned to drive as a teenager, chances are your driving habits and behaviors are so ingrained and second nature to you that you don't think twice about them. To you, driving is about common sense.

I have eyes. If I were looking to find some obvious aid in my search, I would have already found a book on writing (I have about a dozen on technical writing, medical writing and so on, thank you). I wasn't asking for advice but for links to reference materials or names of articles and books on the topic. Again, I have eyes and I can do my own search for titles and I have access to academic journals.

The point of this posting was not to get into an argument about writing skills but whether someone had read an article on the topic they found useful and worth recommending. It's that simple.


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Chris S  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Swedish to English
+ ...
No, no, no, no, no Jul 24

Mario Chavez wrote:
I have eyes [etc]

Mario, you are seriously out of order here. You do not have the right to speak to people like that. If you spoke to me like that, I would ask you to step outside.

The point of this posting was not to get into an argument about writing skills but whether someone had read an article on the topic they found useful and worth recommending.

But you specifically asked for opinions: "b) What your opinion is about the topic (this is not a survey)."


I wasn't asking for advice but for links to reference materials or names of articles and books on the topic. Again, I have eyes and I can do my own search for titles and I have access to academic journals.

I'll leave the obvious comment unsaid.

I hope you put this right.


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