ATA Conference

In the last week of October, I went to the ATA’s 50th Annual Conference in New York, to speak and to listen. I had lived in NYC until three years ago (I’m now on the west coast) and I have to admit that being at the conference in Manhattan did remind me of why I decided to move. At times it seems that every third person on the sidewalk is swearing into their cell phone. Fortunately, I also spent a few evenings in Brooklyn, which reminded me of why I used to live there in the first place. Brooklyn rocks! The conference itself was a bit on the large side and, being spread out over several floors, I found that it was not all that easy to bump into people and chat. On the other hand, the hotel was fairly nice by conference standards, and there was lots of space for the booths, which were all in one place, so browsing was easy.

I did my presentation on the Saturday morning at 9:00 and had a respectable crowd, despite the hour. I took business cards from about seventy people who wanted to receive copies of the slides, and there were lots of questions and comments, which I generally take as a sign of a happy audience. A couple of people commented on my own enthusiasm and I suppose it is true that I have my share of it. Having done this for more than twenty years now, there are days when a translation has all the appeal of a bowl of porridge without sugar, but it is usually fun. In particular, I enjoy editing the work of good translators, especially where the going gets particularly tough. Sometimes translation is little more than bilingual typing but at other times, where there is a complex linguistic or technical puzzle, I am indeed enthusiastic.

I saw a number of interesting presentations. I think my favorite was probably Legal Translation: Raising the Bar by Steven M. Kahaner, Thomas L. West III, and Alejandro M. Garro. For full disclosure, I have known Steve for a few years and, when we met this time, he gave me a dictionary so big that, on the way back home, the check-in people at the airport had to put a HEAVY sticker on the suitcase that carried it. But that is not why this presentation was my favorite.  What I liked about it was that it reminded me that other people actually do more difficult translation work than me. We patent translators can sometimes get to thinking that we have the trickiest jobs in the field. But these guys — the high-end legal translators — have to do comparative law on the fly. They need to look at the source text (say a court ruling) and produce a target text that can be understood by people who are operating in a whole different system of law (for example, translating a civil law ruling for a common law target audience). That takes a lot more than dictionaries. And while some similar challenges are found in translating patents (for example, when translating for filing under the Paris Convention) pretty well everything you need to know will fit in one book (a big, fat, heavy book, I’ll grant you, but one book nonetheless). For these guys, the range of stuff they might be called upon to know would barely fit into the required reading list of a law degree.  Having seen how the other half lives. I feel happier than ever to be a narrow minded patent translator.

I also saw three presentations from the Japanese  Division. It was fascinating to see the different approaches in two different presentations dealing with translation and interpretation for discovery. In Discovery: What is It and What is the Role of the Translator? by Brenda K. Seat, translators were reminded that they were the eyes and ears of monolingual attorneys. She made the case that the translators are a part of the team put together by the law firm, and therefore cannot consider themselves neutral. In particular, she emphasized the importance of alerting attorneys to inconsistencies and sharing observations based on materials previously seen by the translator/interpreter as well as their own cultural knowledge. I had mixed feelings about this. In some cases it is indeed appropriate, if that is what the attorney has asked you to do. In other cases, the translator knows so little of the details of the case that speculation as to what is and is not important may be a waste of time or even a liability, especially if the opining is done in writing. It is also worth remembering that, when the accuracy of a translation is contested by the other side, the impartiality of the translator is a valuable asset. Your client can choose to manage that asset however they see fit, but if you shower them with uninvited emails with advice for winning the case, they will have a hard time claiming that the translation you certified was prepared from a neutral standpoint. Of course, Ms. Seat is herself an attorney, which changes the equation quite a bit in her particular case.

Meanwhile, Translation and Interpreting During the Discovery Process in Civil Litigation, Kayoko Takeda, Satomi Nishimuro, and Hidemi Harada emphasized a very different approach. Translators were reminded that the job of the translator/interpreter and the job of the attorney were two distinct things. Dr. Takeda also pointed out that, while the translator/interpreter certainly works for their client, they also have an inherent allegiance to their profession. What this means is that not all client requests need to be accommodated, if the translator does not feel that they are appropriate. She pointed out that attorneys themselves have clients, and they certainly will not comply with client requests if they violate the code of their profession. Likewise, doctors receive all sorts of requests from their clients, but quiet often need to say that certain things are not, in their opinion, suitable. The position of the translator is not much different. The presentation also discussed the ethical issues surrounding interpreters providing clarification based on their own knowledge in the course of the deposition. The general consensus was: not very ethical.

The two presentations did not contradict each other, but they certainly focused on very different ends of the continuum of translator association with their client in the discovery process.

Another presentation of note was Translating Patents to/from Japanese, by Taro Yaguchi. Mr. Yaguchi is a patent attorney with an incredible wealth of experience and a frank, straightforward style that was truly refreshing. For example, I have seen Japanese prosecution histories where it was very clear that there had been a mistake in the translation of the foreign specification into Japanese but where, rather than use the provision that specifically allows the translation to be corrected, the prosecuting attorney argues and amends and  ends up with a half-baked wording that doesn’t really reflect the original. Mr. Yaguchi pointed out that some Japanese firms may be reluctant to correct the translation because that would entail admitting that they had made a mistake and not billing the client for the work spent on the correction. Of course! Mystery solved. I was particularly struck by his observation that, if the translation was prepared by a third party (that would be us), Japanese law firms feel no such reluctance to simply correct. This implies that US law firms working directly with translation agencies, rather than entrusting the translation to a Japanese law firm, will enjoy more effective use of the provision in the Japanese patent law that is intended to allow for faithful adherence to the original language.

As for booths, the most interesting thing I saw was the new Computer Assisted Translation program Snowball (I don’t know if it is coincidental that Snowball is the name of the Simpsons cat — get it, CAT). I haven’t yet had a chance to really play with it, but it looks fun and handy. It works at the sub-segment level and does a lot of background processing. I suspect it will be less than brilliant for Japanese, but the approach makes a lot of sense, so I want to try it.

Back home after and insanely busy month, November has been somewhat more forgiving so far. I even went skiing last weekend. Mount Baker has six feet of new snow. So if you were wondering why I decided to move west, I took a picture of the answer from the lift:


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