community building

Interview with Krystian Aparta, TED volunteer translator

Krystian Aparta is a translator living in Krakow, the town I have made my home. As someone who is actively involved in both voluntary projects and translation, I asked him to answer a few questions about TED, and his views on translation.

What motivates you to be be a translator.

At first, it was the idea that sometimes I would not be able to communicate how great something was without expressing it in a different language (movies, lyrics, books, poems). When I started translating professionally, I also found that I am motivated by the need to investigate terminological mysteries. It’s great fun to work with lyrics, although I don’t get to do as much of that kind of translation as I would like to. As far as subtitling goes, I love movies, so I find it very rewarding when I can figure out a way to express a piece of dialog in a form that is succinct enough to work as a subtitle. Also, as a freelance translator I can make my own hours, and that is the way I like to work.

Do you see your interest in sign language as “just another language” or more than this?

A lot more than this. I am very kinesthetic in the way I think and communicate, so I suspect that initially added to the attraction. However, the reason I first became interested in ASL was that I saw it as an element of a fascinating culture with a view of the world that could be partially different from my own, and with a cool language that was different in a few ways from spoken languages. I later got interested in PJM (Polish Sign Language) after I realized that Deaf people were discriminated against in Polish society. Sign language was banned in deaf education in Poland for a long time, and discouraged as a means of communication outside of the school. This barred thousands of people from access to a first language. Even now very little has been done to bring Polish Sign Language to its rightful place as the language of education and communication in the Polish Deaf community, and Signed Polish (“System JÍzykowo-Migowy”), a constructed language, is being promoted instead. However, there are efforts in place to support PJM, part of which was the summer PJM course that I was lucky to participate in. I can’t abide ignorance restricting people’s right to communication and suppressing the unbridled mental development in a social environment that comes from communicating in a first language. This is why I became interested in Polish Sign Language.

In your interview on the TED site you refer to the shock of a move within Poland. do you see Poland as a single country or a country with strong regional differences.

Country, culture, land, region are all abstract concepts that our mind uses to organize concrete ideas, such as memories of physical interactions with particular people. I don’t like generalizing in this way. What I can say is that I am aware of the differences between people that are constructed in a diglossic society based on language. I know about this from growing up in Silesia, and I could recognize all the same patterns when I was learning about diglossia in a sociolinguistics class. The right accent or turn of phrase can immediately categorize you as “one of us” or stick you out of the group. This actually happens even within one language as well, but with diglossia, it happens all the time, in every linguistic exchange. I am sure that this experience is not common in Poland, as only a few places in this country have more than one language or dialect, and that may be considered a strong regional difference.

What are your thoughts on translation as a career

I believe that when you consider anything you’re doing a career, you should check your priorities and direct them to something more concrete and human. That said, I think that working as a translator has a few perks, like being able to make your own hours if you’re freelance, or often being able to choose a job or a client based on what you currently feel like doing. One downside is not working physically with other people, and as a social person, I sometimes miss having that forced on me (although there are times when this does seem like a blessing). I think that as long as you continue to develop your craft and remain ready to question your choices and learn, plus find a few niches that you specialize in, you will probably be fine. Working as a freelancer can be risky, since an uninterrupted flow of jobs is not always a guarantee, but I must admit that even this aspect can be somewhat exciting.

The comment that many translators dream of doing works of literature and poetry and end up doing contracts and instruction manuals might reflect the gap between what translators do and what they want to do – do you agree? any comments.

Why can’t you do both poetry and instruction manuals? If you are good at what you do, I am sure you can find the work you need, and possibly make opportunities for yourself if the job market is not calling for you. Literary translation may seem more glamorous to some, but literary translators still need to respect deadlines and do research. I can’t imagine somebody really motivated to be a literary translator and good at what they do failing to find a job. Perhaps it’s an issue with their job-seeking strategy more than with the industry itself. It may be the case that there is just more demand on the market for non-literary text, and so more need for people to translate it. Starting out doing both and gradually moving into more specialized work that you love most may be a good idea for those who want to start out by making a living as translators.

What motivated you to be a TED Translator?

I watched a talk and realized that I couldn’t share it with friends who did not speak English well enough to follow. I wrote TED saying that putting subtitles on the videos would be a good idea, not only for the sake of the global non-English audiences but non-hearing viewers. I got no response. When I wrote them again a few months later, they asked me if I wanted to contribute to the Open Translation Project that was just being rolled out. I believe in increasing access to knowledge, because I think it is potentially beneficial to humanity, now and in the future, when new technology is able to make use of the stuff we are putting online today to bring even more learning to people.

What arguments would you use to persuade someone to do TED translations, or get involved in other pro bono work such as Khan Academy work .

We have been brought up to monetize effort, so it’s easy to forget to disassociate the money from what motivates us. I think that it’s easy to motivate volunteers to participate based on their principles. If you see that your effort helps to fortify what you believe in, you will be drawn to the work, and I think that most people can be persuaded to get involved when you explain to them that their work can bring ideas that are significant to them to more people in the world. There are also more traditional perks, more easily relatable to the usual economic motivations. Volunteer work can be included in CVs, and there will probably be no confidentiality agreement, so one can freely share information about the work one has done. This is not so in regular translation work, where some degree of confidentiality is usually involved. Volunteer translation work can also be a way to hone one’s skills, especially in setups with a review process, where the translator can receive feedback.

Where would be the best place to find volunteer translators.

English philology and translation courses at universities and translation industry websites like or

Do you use translation memory software – if yes do you encourage other translators to learn it.

I used MetaTexis for a few years and then switched to SDL Trados Studio. CAT software does not help much with literary translation. If you do any other kind of translation (instruction manuals…), I strongly encourage you to learn it. It makes translating text with a lot of recurring parts more convenient, and is helpful in trying to keep style and terminology consistent across translations. Your translation memories grow with every project, so it’s best to start using the software as soon as possible.

What is your view on the competitiveness of automated translation like Google Translate,

There is zero competitiveness. I hope that automated translation will grow more useful and context-sensitive, because it could make human translation easier. But I don’t think it will replace human translation any time soon. I am a Trekker, and recently I gave a talk on the impossibility of Star Trek’s Universal Translator. The Universal Translator is much more advanced than our automated translation, and probably more advanced than human translation itself, since it can read concepts directly from the speaker’s brain. However, in my talk I discussed a series of selected reasons why the UT would not work even assuming that the technology were possible. The UT wouldn’t be able to avoid problems that human translators face in their work. One simple example – when an Englishwoman says “You are here,” does she mean “pan” or “ty” (the “V” or the “T” form)? Because the distinction is not lexicalized in English, we cannot expect that when faced with a social interaction, the mind of a native speaker of English will always contain the information that triggers the V/T distinction in the mind of a person whose language does code for it. This is one of the many setbacks for the Universal Translator, while the automated translators are a few (fictional) centuries behind. However, if one day automated translators are able to do all or almost all of a human translator’s work, huzzah!

Do you think that the world will need ore or less human translators over the next generation?

This is impossible to predict. Perhaps with increasing international mobility, there will be need for more interpreters. On the other hand, more multilinguals will be created too, so maybe fewer interpreters will be necessary? Prognosticating is a futile activity, since it always consists in simply dancing with one’s imagination. It may be a better idea to sit down and spend that time translating a TED Talk.

Another interview with Krystian is here