Meet the speaker: James Brian Mitchell Reply

James_Brian_MitchellMeet James Brian Mitchell – one of the many talented speakers who will be sharing their knowledge and expertise with attendees of the upcoming conference in France, set to take place on September 26th through the 29th. James is a technical translator and the author of over 120 scientific papers, as well as co-author of a textbook on experimental physics. He has been a professor of physics both in Canada and in France, where he has lived for the last 16 years.

The interview

MK: What was the most important obstacle for you to overcome in building your career as a language professional?

JBM: I really cannot say that I have found obstacles to overcome. I have found that being a member of ProZ has been invaluable and I believe that the work that has come my way has been mainly through this site. Since joining, I have been very active in making Kudoz contributions and I believe that this has helped me. Being a native English speaker also is an advantage as many agencies insist on this. On the other hand, as a freelance translator, I have not been able to work directly with an original customer so have always worked through agencies (or occasionally through another freelance translator).

MK: What is the greatest issue facing translators working in France or with the French language?

JBM: France is an expensive country to work in with social security contributions being so high. This means that to make a living, a translator has to charge rates that are often higher than in other countries and so often one is not competitive. This is a complex issue as you get what you pay for and France has an excellent social security programme. Indeed it is a national issue.

Regarding the French language, France is a country where engineering is the second most respected profession (Chef being first!). The French technical language is very rich and often more rich than English in this respect. Thus one needs to understand how to navigate through this territory. This is one problem but really the worst is the predominant use of acronyms. I recently received an e-mail from a colleague which contained 24 of them. I demanded (and got by return) a list of their meanings. This is a very risky and frustrating area for a translator and my advice is to “Ask the client!”.

MK: Any client horror stories? (without naming names)

JBM: Again I cannot really say that I have horror stories to tell. What can be a bit frustrating is that in general, translators come from literary backgrounds and for them, style is all important. Style in NOT so important in technical translations. Accuracy in terminology is the key factor here, yet one is reproached if your translation does not read like a bestselling novel or worse still, like an ad campaign. This can be frustrating and this is all the more so when the material to translate is a list of items where the noun should come first followed by the adjectives(s). I had an example where the client (a translation agency) thought I had used a machine translation since it seemed so literal. I always remember, when I was in the army, how things were listed. One beautiful example was:

Pot, chamber, white, Delft, emblazoned, officers, for the use of!
Try explaining that to a translation manager!

Actually, the most “dangerous” translations or rather proofreading jobs to take on are when the original client has decided to go cheap and to use his or her rudimentary knowledge of English, but of course backed up by a machine translation (no names given), to give what they think is an excellent translation which will be polished by an agency for 2 cents a word. This can be a nightmare and it would have been better to start from scratch. Of course such jobs are also URGENT. Proofreaders beware!

MK: What is your prediction for the future of human translation?

JBM: If you are talking about boilerplate legal translations, the future is not so good because of (a) machine translation and (b) competition from countries where salaries are low. Indeed Law Firms themselves are being faced with this issue where boilerplate contracts can be farmed out to India for example where there are many well qualified individuals who can provide this type of drafting for a fraction of the cost, let’s say, an American law firm would typically charge its clients.

On the other hand, a technical translation can NEVER be done with confidence by a machine. Would you like to fly in an aircraft where the Pilot’s operating manual had been translated from German or French using a machine translation? One could say, of course it will be checked by an engineer or an expert, but they cost money. Time is money. Better to get a good (human) technical translator to do the job. Which brings me to the next question.

MK: At the upcoming conference in Biarritz, France, you will be presenting on the topic of “Technical Translation: Finding the Right Words.” What can attendees to this session expect to learn?

JBM: Technical translation is a minefield where one is often confronted with choosing the right word from a list of ten possible choices. How do you make that choice? How can you avoid making a mistake in terminology because you have used what you always would when translating a word that you have known all your life, but that in fact may have a totally different meaning in a given context? I shall use as an example of this, the French word “Piste” that appeared in an aeronautics translation I did recently. You cannot have an in-depth knowledge of every field that you will be asked to translate? If you did, you might make better money as an engineer or a pilot. So how to get into the mindset of the person who has written the original document?. I shall try to help the attendees get around this problem using generic examples from translations I have worked on.


The event

Stay tuned for more interviews featuring speakers of the upcoming conference in France. This regional event is the sixth of its kind, and is scheduled to take place from September 26th to the 29th in Biarritz.

You can learn more about this exciting conference, have a look at the program, and register to attend, by visiting the event page:

Leave a reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s