Student member of the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada (LTAC) and PhD student at the University of Ottawa’s School of Translation and Interpretation, Stephen Slessor received a Joseph-Armand Bombardier Doctoral Scholarship for his case study of the politically charged, multilingual, and multicultural history staged by Harry Somers’ opera Louis Riel. He also recently conducted a study on the technological practices and needs of LTAC members titled “Tenacious technophobes or nascent technophiles? A survey of the technological practices and needs of literary translators.”

In Slessor’s background research, he found that researchers reported technology use in literary translation to be largely limited to online resources and Internet search engines. Although computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools are used occasionally, scholars report that they are less useful for literary translation than for technical translation. Since literary material tends to be more unique, tools like translation memories or corpora, which help solve translation problems through the analysis of previous translations, may not be as applicable.

However, the limited number of CAT tool(s) users found corpora to be useful for analyzing the author’s style, locating literary devices, or consistently translating certain sentence structures. As for machine translation (MT), it is less clear whether this can viably assist with literary translation. MT is not ready to take on literary translation on its own and, although literary translators seem to be more efficient at post-editing MT, they reported preferring to translate from scratch.

For his original research Slessor conducted an online survey of the LTAC members, asking about their technology use for processing text, managing terminology, and doing research. The study aims to answer three questions:

  • What technological tools and resources do literary translators employ in their translation practice?
  • How do literary translators use technology to interact with source and target texts, manage terminology, and conduct linguistic and cultural research?
  • What needs do literary translators have for training in technology or terminology management or for new or adapted tools?

The 40 completed survey responses revealed that online dictionaries and search engines are the tools used most widely by the respondents, while few report using specialized CAT tools.

Although about half of the participants reported managing terminology in some way, the formats used (e.g. spreadsheet, on paper, word processing file) are not as flexible nor functional as terminology management software. In terms of research, most participants reported using translators’ forums and consulting parallel online texts, while nearly half consulted printed parallel texts.

Finally, while few respondents were using CAT or MT, those who did were using them in innovative ways that, if shared, could benefit the literary translation community. The survey also found that some translators chose not to use certain tools for the very reasons that others chose to do so. Although this inconsistency could be due to a wide range of types of texts in literary translation, it could also show a need for technology training. Further evidence for a need for training was revealed by reports that some respondents found that learning new technologies was complicated, which became a barrier to their use.

Link to the full study can be accessed here.

Stephen Slessor has kindly agreed to be interviewed by LTAC intern Linda Liu about his study.


LL: How important is it for translators, and particularly literary translators, to be educated in translation technologies (CAT, MT)? Why?

SS: Technology has profoundly changed how the translation industry and individual translators work, and the changes are likely to continue and even accelerate in coming years. Translation schools do their students a disservice if they don’t provide technology training. And practising translators do themselves a disservice if they don’t seek out opportunities for continuing education or self-directed learning on technology. However, it is my view that the training should focus on the principles behind the technologies and not simply on how to use existing software (though experimenting with existing software is of course part of learning the underlying principles). The key, I think, is to teach budding translators what tech can do and how it does it so that they can adapt quickly to the specific technologies required by employers and also make their own decisions about which tools are best suited to the kind of work they are doing. I’d argue that this goes for literary translators as well. It was evident from my survey that we use a broad range of technologies in our work and that our tech choices vary widely. Some of this is due to the simple fact of human diversity. We all bring different personal and professional experiences to our craft. But I believe that the vast range of literary expression is also part of the equation. Different technologies will lend themselves more or less well to different literary translation projects. For example, some projects may benefit from terminology management software, others may involve texts with lots of repetition and benefit from translation memories, and others still may benefit more from technologies that allow for targeted linguistic and cultural research. If literary translators can acquire a better understanding of the technologies available, they will be able to make informed choices about which tools are best for their own ways of working and for their own projects.

LL: Which technology do you think could most benefit literary translators, and what training do you think they would need in order to take advantage of it?

SS: For literary translators, the advent of the internet has been a boon for cultural and linguistic research. I know that I’ve personally spent countless hours scouring the web for information on obscure terms, idiomatic expressions, and cultural references that I come across in the texts I translate. I therefore believe that technology that facilitates this type of research is of great benefit to literary translators. Relevant training could focus, for example, on developing skills in the flexible use of internet search engines and in conducting terminological research using bilingual and monolingual corpora of source- and target-language texts. It is my sense that most translators, myself included, have go-to search techniques and cultural and linguistic resources. For example, we all have our favourite dictionaries and language-related websites. At the same time, few among us make full use of the features available from even the most common tools, such as internet search engines. It is important, I think, for training to provide opportunities for sharing knowledge and practices, which will give us a chance to break our ingrained patterns and discover new strategies, tools, and resources.

In my paper, I suggest that a good starting point for training would be workshops at which translators, scholars, and tech experts could exchange ideas on how they use tech. I also believe that a workshop model may be the best way to teach literary translators about specialized translation technology. My survey showed that few of us are using (CAT) tools. Most CAT tools have been designed to improve productivity by facilitating the reuse of previously translated segments when there is repetition within and among source texts. Although some literary texts may feature repetition as a literary device, stylistic and linguistic variation is more often a marker of literariness. This means that the applications of CAT tools to literary translation may not be immediately apparent. A workshop led by literary translators who do use CAT tools would be a great way to introduce the technology to other literary translators.

LL: How do you see the relationship between literary translators and technology changing in the next 10 years, and how will that affect literary translation?

SS: There’s no reason to believe that technological innovation will slow down any time soon. It’s so hard to predict what those innovations will be, but literary translators will inevitably be forced to adapt, as we have in the past. For example, the switch from producing handwritten or typed manuscripts to using word processing software has transformed the way we compose our texts. Studies show that we now do significantly more editing while composing than we did before word processing came along. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. For those interested in knowing more, Matthew Kirschenbaum’s Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing is a fascinating exploration of how creative writers dealt with and adapted to the advent of word processing. The question that begs of course is what the next technological sea change will be in the way we interact with our texts. Only time will tell.

I believe that communications technology may play a key role in how literary translators work in coming years. With the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen how easy it is to connect with colleagues without leaving our homes. I expect that literary translators will take advantage of this by engaging more and more frequently with source-text authors, with linguistic and cultural informants, and with other translators. I also expect literary translators to increase their presence on social media, for example by creating forums for exchanging advice and seeking help in solving language problems. A few such forums already exist, and they’re likely to multiply. Literary translation—like most creative writing—has a reputation of being a solitary pursuit, so it will be interesting to see how common collective projects will become in this era of digital connection.

If we consider the narrower issue of specialized translation technologies, it is important to note that tool development tends to be driven by market concerns for increased productivity. In Canada, the literary translation industry (if “industry” is the right term) does not appear to be driven primarily by productivity concerns. Few literary translators in this country make a living solely from literary translation. For many of us, the work is more artisanal in nature, driven by love of literature and of the translation process, which I think explains some of the resistance to adopting tech tools designed for the non-literary translation industry. While literary translators do of course care about productivity, we tend to value quality over quantity, creativity over efficiency. I know that I personally would not want to use machine translation to produce a first draft of a literary translation that I would subsequently edit, which is an increasingly widespread practice known in the translation industry as “post-editing.” It would take much of the pleasure out of the work of literary translation, which for me is in the very act of translating. I do, however, sometimes use machine translation when searching for synonyms or to identify possible solutions when I get stuck on particular phrasing, and I would be open to conducting literary experiments involving machine translation. So, for specialized translation technologies, I predict that there will be much resistance among literary translators to using them but that some of us will adopt them for specific purposes and will find novel—and indeed creative—ways of integrating them into our work.

LL: Which of the findings in your study most surprised you, and why?

SS: For the most part, I was not surprised by the findings of my study. Essentially, I found that literary translators use lots of general technology but few specialized translation tools. This is understandable in that existing specialized tools were not designed with literary translators in mind. What most interested me were answers to the open-ended survey questions and comments about how and why translators use certain technologies. For example, I love the anecdote of the guy who uses voice recognition software because he likes the feeling of composing a literary translation on the spot, as if he were a radio announcer. His comment illustrates how we as human beings, in all our creativity, tailor our practices to fulfill our own artistic, emotional, and practical needs. The fundamental lesson here is that technologies are ultimately tools and that it’s up to us as individuals to find ways to use those tools that will serve us best. And we’re likely to discover ways of using tools that their developers never imagined. I’d like to see more literary translators put some of our famous creative energy into exploring how technology can best serve us and into sharing what we learn in the process.

Linda Liu is a student in the Spanish-French-English translation program at the University of Ottawa’s School of Translation. As a new translator, she is very interested in translation technologies and how they could shape the future of this field.