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Does anyone have a question? – Mari Pakkala-Weckström

The Electronic Journal of the Department of English
at the University of Helsinki

ISSN 1457-9960

Volume 4, 2009

Translation Studies


© 2009 Mari Pakkala-Weckström


Mari Pakkala-Weckström

As a novice teacher of translation at the University of Helsinki, I used to have nightmares about students bombarding me with questions I wasn’t able to answer. Relatively soon these fears gave way to a frustration familiar to any teacher, created by the oppressive, pregnant silence that falls into the classroom after the teacher encouragingly enquires whether anyone would like to ask a question. I learned to welcome even the difficult questions, which I really wasn’t able to answer, as a vastly preferred alternative. I discovered that the teacher does not necessarily have to be omniscient, and that it was actually OK to carry along a grammar book or a dictionary for quick and easy reference, or even openly admit that I couldn’t provide an answer until I had looked it up somewhere (later in life, I have become bolder, and sometimes – particularly if the question is not exactly to the point – I make the students look up the answer themselves.) But all in all, it seems to me that students take very kindly to a teacher who occasionally pleads ignorance; this appears to make it easier for them to ask their so-called stupid questions.

Furthermore, in my opinion, students’ questions are rarely ‘stupid’ – at worst, they can be irrelevant, but in many a case, fruitful conversations, or even debates, have started with a simple question posed by a blushing student who half expects to be laughed at by teacher and peers alike. Actually, this is one of the reasons why I have a bone to pick with those who wish to restrict the admittance of ‘mature’ students; even just one confident adult among a group of youngsters fresh from high school can make a huge difference in getting conversations started.

It is also refreshing to see how teaching groups tend to ‘come together’ in a while – the length of time this will take seems to depend on several different factors, but in most translation groups I have taught, it has eventually happened. In fact, I can only think of six exceptions; four of them were groups that I taught in 2005 when the Department of English experimented with a seven-week intermediate translation course; the other two were 10-week course groups that met at 8.30 a.m. – based on this meagre evidence, I would suggest that Finnish students need more than a half-term to bond with each other, and that early mornings are not their most productive or innovative moments. However, usually the atmosphere will relax at some point, and after that, questions will be asked and conversations will arise – and new, unexplored aspects of the day’s text and topic will be discovered by not only the students but often the teacher, too.

At the Department of English, translation courses are evaluated by an end-of-term exam, and the students’ performance in their translation groups has no bearing whatsoever on their final grade. As a result of this evaluation system, old translation exams tend to be favourite homework among students. Thus a particularly tricky text may well be used over and over again – and yet it seems that almost every group I have assigned the texts has come up with new questions and fresh angles.

However, the ‘best’ questions always tend to be the ones that catch you unawares. On one occasion, I was giving last instructions to a group of students for the Department of English translation exam, listing all the things the students in the group should remember, when a student asked me: “But what if you were only allowed to give us one piece of advice – what would it be?”

Several extremely important points immediately came to my mind, some of which I had already mentioned: beware of the time, you only have two hours; don’t get stuck if you don’t recognise a word or an expression at first sight, but finish reading the whole text and chances are it will come to you; indeed, do not ever even consider starting translating before you have read the whole text; and most importantly – in the true spirit of Douglas Adams – whatever happens, do not panic.

But the answer I gave was none of the above. I told them to carefully consider the purpose of the text: who had written it, to whom, and, perhaps most importantly, for what purpose – to inform, instruct, entertain, mock, criticise, evaluate? That should be the frame within which to place their translation. (I know now that several authorities – e.g. Reiss & Vermeer, or Nord, – would give the same answer, but at the time I thought I had invented the wheel…)

Another excellent question was asked by an interviewee at the entrance exam interviews at the Department of Translation Studies, in Kouvola. Every interview was usually concluded by us – the interviewers – asking whether the candidate might have a question for us. When they did (which was rarely), their questions usually revolved around the admittance procedure (“when will I know if I’m accepted?”), but on this one occasion we were asked if we could name the one most important quality that a translator should possess.

Well (I thought), a translator should obviously be fluent in all the languages she translates from and into; but it is equally important that she should be familiar with the cultures she translates from and into. This profound knowledge of languages and cultures should also be continuously updated, since languages and cultures change all the time. This train of thought drove me to question what kind of a person does this voluntarily, willingly even – and thus my final answer concerning the one most important quality a translator should possess could have been, almost was, ‘curiosity,’ meaning a natural, innate thirst for knowledge, a hunger for text – any text, anywhere. But then I came to think of the countless times when well-read, confident, linguistically and culturally confident, text-hungry students had got it all wrong – what was it that they lacked? It was, it is, humility, that is a translator’s most important quality: the capability to admit that I can never know everything, that somebody out there is always ahead, that languages and cultures will change and develop at their own speed, and all I can do is to be curious and hungry and thirsty and most importantly, humble, and try to keep up with all the growing knowledge as best I can.

These answers came to me in authentic, real-life situations. They may not have been unique but they were revelations to me and perhaps also to the students at the time. Most importantly, they were inspired by students, and by the results of their active participation in class or an interview situation – so the most important lesson I have learned in teaching is that by allowing and encouraging students to ask questions you will learn more than you could possibly ever learn outside the classroom.