Going “Back to School” at the ATA Conference

ATA conference

Marcel Votlucka, an author, from the ATA conference has shared his experience and insights from 3 sessions he attended—Terminology, Sight Translations, and ATA preparation.

Marcel has 10 years of experience working as a translation project manager at leading localization firms. Currently, he is a full-time freelance translator. He focuses on financial, legal, and technical translations in two very different language pairs (Japanese to English and Spanish to English). He is enjoying the freedom and flexibility that freelance life affords him, as well as the challenge of wearing many hats in running his business.

Last month I attended the 57th Annual ATA Conference in San Francisco. As a first time attendee who recently transitioned into full-time freelance translation after 10 years as a translation project manager doing translation as a side gig, I relished the chance to connect with my colleagues, build business partnerships, and learn new skills. I learned a lot at all of the sessions I attended, but three in particular stood out to me.

Drill, taladro, broca, or mecha?

This session, presented by technical translator Clarisa Moraña, was about Spanish terminology used in the Latin American oil and gas industry.

Many oil companies in the region were originally founded by the British and Americans over a century ago. They employed foreign technicians who spoke English and local laborers who spoke Spanish and indigenous languages. The lack of a common language and the novel technology led to established Spanish terms ultimately taking on different meanings in different contexts. For example, a Spanish word such as “taladro” that means “power drill” in one country can mean “oil drill bit” in another. I expected technical terminology to be more standardized, but this session showed this is not the case and emphasized the use of country-specific glossaries.

One thing I enjoyed about the conference was the opportunity to attend sessions not just in English but also in my working languages (Spanish and Japanese). This one was presented entirely in Spanish, and was a rare opportunity to give my technical Spanish a workout. I focus mostly on finance, legal, and IT translations, so this session was also a good chance to learn something new about an unfamiliar field.

Sight Translation Techniques to Improve Translation Speed and Fluency

This was one of my favorite sessions. The presenter, Tanya Pound, challenged us to put our Japanese skills to work in a set of sight translation exercises.

Sight translation is characterized by the “first in, first out” approach used in interpreting. Interpreting sessions are fast paced and you often can’t wait until the source-language speaker finishes speaking; you have to interpret each “piece” for your target-language listener on the fly. If the speaker says: “The judge and I spoke on the phone about the deposition a few hours before yesterday’s trial”, you may end up interpreting it as: “The judge spoke to me on the phone…we spoke a few hours before the trial yesterday…we spoke about the deposition.”

This piecemeal interpreting technique can be applied to written translations in order to break down and translate lengthy sentences efficiently. The presenter gave us examples of complex Japanese sentences that we had to translate on the spot. She advised us to read each sentence first to understand how everything fit together, and then translate each component as a separate sentence, starting with the main subjects and verbs, then the surrounding clauses in order of importance. Finally, we joined the translated sentences together and edited them to form complete, fluent English translations.

I am glad to report that I am already applying these techniques in my own translation work. I liken Japanese to English translation to “moving furniture around the room” because Japanese grammar is complex and has little in common with English. Translations in this language pair can take longer because a translator must be mindful not to miss small details that make a big difference in meaning. Sight translation techniques can therefore simplify this meticulous process.

Preparing for the ATA’s Japanese to English Certification Exam

 This was also one of the more useful sessions I attended. It opened by covering major changes to ATA’s certification exam starting next year and then we tackled a sample test translation.

The ATA exam has earned notoriety for its difficulty, partly because the test is handwritten and exam-takers do not have access to digital dictionaries or websites for research. This does not reflect how we work in the real world. But moving forward, ATA exam-takers will have the option to work on their own laptops and use certain online resources. Also, the exam will now only feature general texts instead of a mix of general and technical. This makes sense, as the exam’s purpose is to test one’s overall translation ability rather than technical knowledge.

The exam preparation portion was led by several translators who serve as ATA exam graders. We worked with them in small groups to analyze our translations of a sample ATA exam. As we compared each of our translations versus the original text line by line, we revealed different strategies for approaching the same text. The group leaders also explained the test grading criteria and what kinds of mistakes they look for when grading an exam.

I left the session with valuable insights and more confidence in the prospect of taking the ATA certification exam myself in the future, as it is a helpful marketing tool when approaching translation agencies.

I can sum up my experience at the ATA Conference as like going “back to school”. I enjoyed the lively, collegiate environment and the wide variety of interesting sessions, some of which kept me on my toes as I learned new ideas and techniques. I would recommend all translators with the ability and means to attend at least one conference, whether they are new to the field or have years of experience – you won’t regret it!

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