During Speaking of Translation’s recent interview with Chris Durban (recording online for free, at that link), Chris mentioned an excellent quality metric for specialized translators: the 10-minute Turing test. A Turing test involves a human attempting to determine if he/she is having a discussion with a computer or with another human. For example, many of you probably remember the ELIZA program, which simulated a psychiatric consultation and was often considered as having passed the Turing test. And as a complete aside, if you’re interested in Alan Turing and his era, you really have to read Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, often described as “the ultimate geek novel.”
But back to Chris’ advice. In order to pass the translation client Turing test, she advises that we translators should be able to pass as professionals in our field(s) of specialization for at least ten minutes. For example if you’re a medical translator, you should be able to attend a medical conference and at the end of a ten-minute technical conversation with other attendees, you reveal that you’re actually a translator and the attendees say “I can’t believe you’re not a doctor/nurse/medical instrument engineer/etc.” For example, Chris does financial translation for some of France’s leading corporations. During the webinar, she pointed out that this Turing test goal motivates her to stay on top of the world financial news (i.e. the Greek debt crisis), not just the specific topics about which she translates. This gives her greater credibility with her clients, differentiates her from kinda-sorta-specialized financial translators and greases the wheels of conversation when she meets her clients in person.
Fabulous advice: now let’s look at how this works in practice. About six months ago, I decided that I wanted to deepen my own knowledge of international development, one of my primary areas of specialization. I’m not sure I’m at the “I thought you worked for the World Bank!” point yet, but I do feel like I’m improving. Here’s an outline of what I did, and of course feel free to add your own experiences as well.
- Took some baby steps. I joined the Society for International Development which gets me a subscription to their excellent professional journal, information about their events, and the all-important membership card (wait, maybe I am already an expert!). I also signed up for e-mail newsletters from entities such as Devex, which got me somewhat tuned in to the international development buzz: who’s hiring, who’s working where, who’s in the news all the time, that kind of thing.
- Plugged in to social media. I started following a bunch of international development entities on Twitter, and I also started reading some blogs that I pegged as the more widely-read international development blogs. These included Owen Abroad, NextBillion, Partners in Health, USAID Impact and Global Development: Views from the Center. As Chris commented, I found that these blogs were not exclusively, or even primarily, related to the work that I do. Some of these blogs don’t relate at all to French-speaking countries that receive international development aid. But all of them relate to the sector as a whole, and that’s really helped broaden my knowledge. I also feel much more informed about some of the “hot” issues in international development, such as pay-for-performance development funding, in which countries get aid based on the results that they achieve, not on the programs that they plan to implement.
- Got a teeny tiny bit involved. Over time, I mustered the courage to comment on some of these blogs. I’m not sure that anything earthshaking came of it, but I felt like for once, I had done some actual contributing and networking outside the translation industry.
- Forced myself to do extra research. I’ve been translating French international development documents long enough that I know the terminology pretty well. But on my recent projects, I’ve forced myself to go beyond terminology and do some real research. There’s a big difference between knowing that chaîne du froid means “cold chain” and being able to explain what a cold chain is, why it’s so hard to maintain one in a developing country, what happens when it malfunctions and how new technology like solar power is changing the appliances that can be used in the cold chain. I found this research both very time-consuming and very satisfying.
There’s still room for improvement. I really need to attend some in-person events, and I just couldn’t work my schedule around last week’s Society for International Development World Congress. I also really need to have some one-on-one meetings with people who work in international development to find out how their translation procurement works (most of my current ID clients have come as referrals, or they found me rather than the other way around). But overall, I feel like this effort has really boosted my confidence and competence. Thanks to Chris for this great advice!