This article appeared in the 2013:2 issue.
During the summer of 2012, I had the opportunity as part of my MSc at the University of Edinburgh to conduct a study of ‘Scandinavian’ translators working with Danish, Norwegian, or Swedish as at least one of their source languages alongside a ‘European’ control group working with at least one of French, German, Italian, or Spanish as source language. Accessing these two groups relied on being able to contact them electronically via various contacts, organisations, and websites. The inclusion of respondent translators in one group or the other depended on self-selection by the translator through initial eligibility questions.
The theoretical objective of the exercise was to examine the impact of receptive multilingualism on practising translators canvassed by means of a distributed survey, and while the translators were answering questions squeeze them for a little further detail on their translating careers. The roots of receptive multilingualism lie in the research of linguist Einar Haugen and his work on the concept of ‘semicommunication’ – the phenomenon of Scandinavian interlocutors speaking their respective mother tongues when talking to those from other Scandinavian countries. Receptive multilingualism has become something of a research trend in the field of linguistics, resulting in a myriad of publications.
However, I noted that it had rarely been examined from a real-life perspective and that researchers had almost never looked at its impact on language practitioners – such as translators. The field of linguistics also appears to prefer studying the phenomenon in its spoken form, ignoring issues of reading competency. The most comparable study available was into interlingual reading competencies between speakers of Dutch-Frisian-Afrikaans.
The situation of this constellation is similar to that of the Scandinavian language constellation in terms of language codification and linguistic proximity.
Thus, the foundations were laid for a study into the impact of receptive multilingualism on translators of the Scandinavian languages, with the opportunity to also paint a picture of the translation profession with a Scandinavian focus.
Translator surveys were compiled and distributed electronically to all corners of the globe in an effort to find translators of the Scandinavian (and four European) languages. I doubtless owe thanks to many readers for their responses.
114 ‘Scandinavians’ responded, of whom 101 were eligible to participate – a healthy return in what is supposedly a niche translation field. The nature of the survey was wide ranging and some of the more interesting results are outlined below.
68% of Scandinavians had English as a target language. Norwegian was the primary source language for 49% of respondents and Swedish for 37%. 60% of Scandinavians reported that they translated from a second Scandinavian source language, compared to 65% of those who had Romance languages as their primary and secondary source languages.
A statistically significant 53% of Scandinavians said they primarily translated literary texts. However, this may have been a quirk of the sample, which was by no means random. Likewise, only around half of Scandinavians felt that translator training was important, quite probably reflecting the literary leanings of many respondents.
Scandinavians in non-literary translation were also keener to make the switch to literary translation, reflecting perhaps a perception of prestige as well as a sense (demonstrated in written responses) that the funding for such work was better.
In terms of reported rates of pay, my data correlated fairly closely to that of the recent major survey of rates conducted jointly by the Institute of Translation and Interpreting and the Chartered Institute of Linguists. Translators of Swedish had a median charge of £88.75 per 1000 words. However, Scandinavians had a median charge 32% higher than their European counterparts of £95 per 1000 words. In comparison to the results of the most recent survey of rates by the Swedish Association of Professional Translators (SFÖ), this median pales into insignificance, with the comparable median rate reported by SFÖ more than 50% higher.
Prior to distribution of the surveys, I had formed a series of hypotheses based on existing research and data. These are outlined below along with remarks concerning their results:
Scandinavians were more likely to translate from additional source languages than Europeans due to receptive multilingualism/ semicommunication. This was rejected – Scandinavians were less likely to work out of a source language they did not speak than their European counterparts. This appeared to partially be an attitudinal issue rather than one of pure linguistic ability.
Scandinavians were likely to be demographically similar to translators of European languages, which was partially rejected – Scandinavians were more likely to be male and less likely to be formally trained.
Scandinavians were better paid, which was confirmed – Scandinavians had a far higher median charge than their European counterparts.
Scandinavians were older, which it was not possible to confirm or deny.
Scandinavians were more likely to be literary translators, which was confirmed – the number of Scandinavians who were literary translators was statistically significant.
My research identified that receptive multilingualism had a tangible effect on Scandinavian language translation, but that it was not as influential as one might have thought. The overview of Scandinavian language translators provided many hours of interesting reading, with enough words to fill a small book written about how and why respondents became translators and speculation on the future of the profession. Some took the opportunity to forecast the demise of commercial translation due to reduced rates, CAT tools, and machine translation, while others believed that the glory years of literary translation from the Scandinavian languages have already passed. Some bemoaned the entrance of new, younger, and cheaper competition to the translation market while others emphasised that this could only be a good thing. What the full written responses definitely demonstrated was that translators are a passionate,opinionated, and diverse bunch.
The full research is available on request as a PDF. Ian Giles can be contacted c/o the Scandinavian Studies department at the University of Edinburgh.