The editor-in-chief of Babel on the global linguistic landscape, June 22, 2016

Frans De Laet sits in an interview in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province, June 18, 2016. [Photo by Chen Boyuan/]


By Jesse Anderson

Since 2014, Frans De Laet has been the editor-in-chief of Babel, the world's oldest international journal of translation. Babel was started by Pierre-François Caillé – the founding father of the International Federation of Translators (FIT) – back in 1955, and the journal has enjoyed worldwide acclaim since its inception. De Laet, who, in his long career, has also taught at the Brussels Francophone School for Translators and Interpreters and served as the FIT secretary general, first got involved with Babel through his friendship with René Haeseryn, the magazine's former editor-in-chief. Babel's reputation in the linguistic community remains strong, and in 2017 it has plans to increase its current quarterly publication schedule to a bimonthly schedule.

In a lengthy interview with Mr. De Laet at the 8th Asia-Pacific Translation and Interpreting Forum held in Xi'an on June 18, we talked about Babel, the development of translation and interpretation education in China, and the global popularity of English.

What kind of audience does Babel have?

Babel has definitely become an academic and scientific journal. In the very beginning, there were two parts in Babel: there was an academic part and there was a kind of professional part with reviews of new dictionaries, reviews of new databanks, etc. There was information for professional translators, interpreters and terminologists. Then, in 1982, FIT decided to create a newsletter exclusively with news for translators and interpreters, and the reviews of dictionaries and databanks moved from Babel to the FIT newspaper, and Babel got more pages exclusively for scientific contributions, for research work. So, since 1982, Babel has been more academic.

What sets Babel apart from other translation journals?

There are many IT journals; we are certainly not the only one in the world, and each journal, of course, has a mission. I can tell you that some journals really aim at publishing the highest quality papers – in terms of academic quality – with contributions coming from highly respected, globally known people. But that is not Babel's mission. Babel is a journal that was created by FIT, and FIT is the International Federation of Translators. FIT covers all the continents: FIT covers Africa, FIT covers South America, FIT covers Mongolia. FIT's mission is to pay attention to the voices of those people, and so in Babel you will find articles from them. Of course, there has to be a minimum of quality. It should not be a contribution for a newspaper, and we're not going to publish an anecdote. There has to be an academic background. Of course, the quality of translation, the quality of interpreting – the standards are different. But there is no reason to refuse these kinds of contributions and submissions if they are well written, if they give a clear state of affairs. Because it's interesting, it's interesting for us to see what we can do for those people. That is one of FIT's missions. So, next to papers that come from highly qualified and well-known scholars, we also include papers from less widely known translation and interpreting associations to show the world what is going on in these places. And that is appreciated, because you have scholars who are looking for that kind of information and they won't be able to find it in the journals that only aim for the highest and the best. And that also helps our ranking, because we are not afraid of including things that others, given their definition of what they would like to do, cannot accept.

Who contributes to Babel?

In general, most of them are academics. We have lots of Ph.D. students who would like to publish their first paper in an international journal. In most of those cases, almost in more than 95 percent of them, the papers have to be guided, because as a Ph.D. student you are still in a kind of study environment. So, we help them, but we do it with pleasure, because we are happy, we are proud that these people send their contributions to us. And we are ready to help. It's one of our tasks, I think. We also have some professional translators, very often literary translators, who write about problems in the world of translation, like "Am I faithful to my source text or should I be faithful to my target audience," and "Why did I opt for this and why did I opt for that," and then an analysis. That is interesting.

What do good translators have in common?

For most translators – technical translators, legal translators, medical translators, court translators and financial translators – the link is the skills, because the skills are the same. It's a kind of approach to the text, it's the analytical skill, and it's the art of having a text in one language and then de-verbalizing that language; to understand the text, to no longer focus on the words of the text, to not open my dictionary immediately when there is a word I do not understand. I had a teacher who said that dictionaries are very good if you want to have some chocolate which is on top of the cupboard, but you can't get high enough. Take a few dictionaries, step on them, and you will get your chocolate. It's a bit exaggerated, but it highlights the idea of not focusing too much on words. Bring your text – the meaning of it – to a kind of intermediate medium, and in that medium put pictures, movies, music and sign language. And on the basis of those images and music and clips, you rewrite your text. That is the basic analytical skill, which is to say that you do not translate words and you certainly do not translate word for word. With literary translation, there is one more element that you have to add, and that is writing. A literary translator is also partly a writer or an author. He's an artist himself. I don't think that a technical translator would be a good literary translator, but a good literary translator who really takes an interest in it might be a good technical translator.

What do you think of the current state of translation and interpreting education here in China?

In China, they have developed more than 200 translation and interpretation programs in just 10 years' time. But they are all doing the same thing. Why don't they undertake a kind of market study? Take Xi'an, for instance. Xi'an is a tourist center, you have full planes coming down here to go and see the warriors and other interesting things. You have six universities here with an MTI [Masters in Translation and Interpreting] program. Why isn't there a university focusing on tourist interpreting, tourist translation? If you have so many MTI programs why don't you try to focus on something that may be of interest for the local place where you organize your MTI, so that your students, your graduates, can at least hope to have access to a given domain?

The students with whom I have had contact here in China – who were all students in master programs or MTI programs – have had a fair, even very fair, degree of English mastery, and that is because the entrance procedure to get into a program is unbelievably tough. If I take, for instance, Beijing Foreign Studies University, they get between 2,000 and 3,000 candidates. First there is a selection on the basis of their portfolio, then they have to go to national exams, then they have to go to oral examines, and in the end 200 get in. And their language skills are extremely high. I could speak German with my students like I speak German at home, I could speak French with my students like I speak French at home, I could speak English with them like I can speak English with you. And sometimes they even had a better way to say something in English than I had. Those students who are motivated, those who are stimulated by their parents, and those who work hard, they have a better level than our students back in Europe.

What do you think of English's current global predominance?

The English-speaking people are not so happy with what happens to their language. At the EU, the English translators and interpreters have to work with English that is spoken and written by non-natives, and there are moments when they do not understand what is written or spoken. When the Dutch held the presidency of the EU, you had the Dutch prime minister who said in a plenary session, "I do not want to cut my hair into two pieces." The English interpreter didn't know what was happening. There was total silence. Only the Dutch interpreter had understood that the prime minister meant that he did not want to start arguing by cutting a hair into two pieces. And it's the same for people who do not speak English as their native language and have to write reports in English. The reports have to be revised by English natives before they go officially out. That's disastrous. And this is only one example. There's also swinglish, fringlish, and dinglish. I don't think that if I were a native speaker of English that I would be proud of my mother tongue or of my language identity and my language culture. Idon't think I would be such a happy man when I hear the way some people speak English.

Do you think there are any languages whose importance may be underestimated?

Not anymore, but Chinese was underestimated for a long time. And now of course everybody would like to do business with China, that's number one. Each country would like to export their products to China because they think there's a huge market over here. The year after I introduced Chinese at my institute it became the largest group in terms of enrollment. You can see that more and more Chinese courses are offered at universities, and also at the high school level. But of course, change takes time. In the 17th century, what was the most important language in the world? Dutch! It was Dutch! There was more Dutch spoken in the world than English. So, change takes time. And Chinese is not going to be the world's most popular language in another 10 years, but you will see a growing interest for the language.

At this moment, you know, we are interested in China for economic reasons. You know, 30 years ago – I do not know what the situation in the States was – but 30 years ago if you said you were going to China for the summer holiday… They'd say: What are you going to do in China? Such a mysterious country, with those dark lakes and all those black trees and those snakes and those tigers and then those strange houses, what are you going to look for in China? It was mysterious, and mysterious was something we didn't want. But people are interested now in discovering China. Tourism in China has really increased, and it works the other way around, too. Many Chinese people travel abroad now. In the U.S., in the UK, in the whole of Europe, which is good.

Do you think a language's importance is based mostly on economic factors?

Language is important at all levels, but of course not all levels have the same importance in society. I would say that the political level is different from the familiar level. If we want to be friends, we try to understand each other. The quality of the language at that moment is inferior to the fact that we can communicate and that we can establish a mutual understanding. On a political level, if you use a wrong term – like for instance, between the Palestinians and the Israelis, the Shoah and the Holocaust – if you make a mistake in terminology, that's a declaration of war. The importance of each level is different. At this very moment, economically speaking, I think that many countries, for the sake of getting in touch with China, are still making quite a lot of concessions in the field of language communication and vice versa. Chinese is accepting quite a lot of concessions, too. But if you want to establish a partnership in the long term, there comes a moment when it is no longer enough to work with an intermediate person. You have to understand each other directly.

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