17th Century French philosopher Blaise Pascal famously wrote, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”
Brevity takes effort. More effort than verbosity. We don’t realize this as kids. Take Lucy’s book report on Peter Rabbit. Yet as adults, it should be a skill we all aspire to, in writing, in wit, and in translation.
Corrine McKay in her blog Thoughts on Translation discusses the subtleties and sticking points of billing by the word. She mentions how an English translation of a text in a Romance language should be up to 30% shorter.
Still, I don’t know how many times I’ve reviewed translations from French or Italian or Spanish that are actually longer in English than the original! And as in Pascal’s case, I’m willing to bet these are often cases when the translator did not have, or spend, enough time to do it correctly.
Of course, there’s no incentive to whittle down a translation and make it sound like real English if we are paid by the number of English words. Everyone wants to spend less time making more money, not the reverse. Which is why billing by the number of source words will slowly win out, despite the fact that the legal translation industry — where imperfectly countable originals are still the norm — is adopting the practice more slowly.
Let’s put it this way. The following two translated sentences essentially say the same thing:
1. The members of the Committee executed the management of their tasks in a competent manner.
2. Committee members competently managed their tasks.
I would like to find a way to pay the translator of the second sentence more.
Tags: style guide · writing style
“The reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is that they aren’t reading the prose of either one. They’re reading Constance Garnett,” Joseph Brodsky once proclaimed.
Style or individual voice in literature is paramount, and whereas we often contrast style and substance, some would argue that in Literature with a capital L, style is the substance.
But how about commercial translation? You’ve worked hard to distinguish the look and tone of your website from the competition. But if you choose a translator based on his vast experience translating the websites of the other players in your industry, will your brand identity all of a sudden be washed away, blurred beyond your control?
Good literary translators try to disappear. A good advertising translator? Some of your company’s message draws on your industry’s conventional terminology, or terms of art used to discuss the technology you apply to help your customers. But some comes for your unique point of view and position within that industry. Will your translator know the difference?
Tags: client education · writing style
November 12th, 2010 · 5 Comments
How concerned should we be about formatting in a meaning-driven profession?
On my morning bike rides, I ride by — ok, stop at — a donut shop in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, my somewhat elevated heart rate helping to persuade me that, ten miles into the ride, I’ve already pre-burned the calories. Mike’s Donuts is outta this world, especially when the donuts are right out of the oven. But I never would have noticed it if a foodie friend hadn’t pointed it out. Crammed between a deli and a middle-eastern market, Mike’s awning is dingy, its sidewalk littered and its window smudgy with a mishmash of hand-lettered signs.
Prompted by a reaction to my last post from a translator who contends, “We’re employed to TRANSLATE the document not to make it look good,” I’m hoping to discuss the importance of presentation to translators and their customers.
I come from the old school of legal translation where both the format of the original and the urgency with which the translation is needed very often require creating a Word file from scratch. Now, I’ve seen translators who know their way around all the formatting features of the latest office software out there. And others who might as well have typed it out on some pre-DOS machine. The worst was a translator who tried to format but used only the space bar to do it. No tabs, no tables, no attitude.
But, who cares what the document looks like? The meaning is what counts. And yet, easy access to formatting tools has certainly raised expectations, so a translator who makes not the least effort to indent properly, not to mention italicize and bold, risks looking like a real amateur even before the reader narrows his focus to the content.
A translation teacher of mine once said, “remember, you’re selling a document,” which I took to mean, the whole package counts, and maybe formatting most of all. This was certainly good advice for new translators, for one because our actual translation skills were still a bit rough, and two, our first clients were going to be translation agencies.
A translation agency uses at least half of its brain to sell a product, and that means they care very much what a document looks like (and in my experience the other half of their brain unfortunately does not always recognize solid translation anyway). A translator on the other hand, is usually about 90% focused on the quality of the translation.
But if a beginning translator can save the agency precious formatting time (using tables, creating an actual ToC, using real footnotes, making things like autonumbering and footers behave, etc.), he may get a second chance even if his translation is not first-rate. Of course, if the translation is really good, and the formatting is bad, the translator might want to consider a quick Microsoft tutorial. If both translation and formatting are bad, fuggedaboutit!
“You don’t expect your car mechanic to vacuum your floor mats, do you???” I can just hear translators retorting. No, but if the mechanic down the street has comparable workmanship and prices and they vacuum the mats, not sayin’, I’m just sayin’. If, on the other hand, you’re sure your skills slaughter all the competition, you’ve got nothing to worry about, right?
By the way, Mike’s Donuts is catty-corner from a Dunkin Donuts and I once asked Mike if he knew how his competitor’s business was doing. With no perceptible smugness in his voice he reported that that particular Dunkin Donuts franchise gets resold about once a year, if that’s any indication. Chalk one up for pure substance.
Tags: opinion · translator education
The art of polishing a translation
Translators are, most often, paid by the word. Now this may or may not be the fairest pricing system to both translators and their clients, but one thing it seems to encourage is haste.
Translators have to work fast. They need to know the subject they translate and write well enough that the sentence is pretty much the way they want it the first time they type it.
Need for speed
With rates kept low by increasing competition, making a living can be a real challenge, and the oft quoted industry standard production of 2,000 words per day seems far too little both to make ends meet, and to satisfy the speed and volume many clients demand.
Something’s gotta give. To produce the kind of volume required of today’s translators, the first thing to suffer is often a thorough review of one’s own work. I’m a firm believer that, no matter how good the translator, an unrevised translation is only half done.
And primarily what lacks is the fluency. Meaning is usually intact (although clunky phrases have a way of distorting meaning, too). Translation is this bizarre skill–for those who have not tried it–that requires you to be fully engaged in grasping the meaning of a source text while at the same time disengaging to report on what you see. You have to be two people at the same time: an understanding self and a writing self.
Because if your understanding self takes over the whole process, you’ll end up with translated words but it will read very much like a translation. Of course if your writing self steals the show, the translation will read beautifully (although I wouldn’t rely on it in a court of law). Assuming both roles simultaneously is tricky — akin to a driver parking his tractor trailor in a tight space only looking in his mirrors. Some part of him has to ignore his what he sees, and mentally step around to the other side of the mirror.
For the translator, this is very rarely a one-step process. The all-important second step, revision, gives the translator the chance to view the text from the other side of the mirror. And it always needs minor adjustments.
Beginning translators are doubly encouraged to get into this habit. Read the translation aloud, too, if you can. We as translators can be too quick to say, “that’s what it says in the original.”
Sometimes this is true, for many source documents are clunky themselves, but more often a thorough rereading of the translation will reveal not just arbitrary meanings or grammar mistakes–which all speakers of a language commit–but constructions a native speaker would never make. Only a two-step translation process will bring these to light.
Tags: translator education
According to ReadWriteWeb blog, Twitter’s plans for international expansion will need to include translation, and just like with Facebook, it will likely come from free translation work. “We’re pretty sure Twitter would have no problem finding some Chinese speakers to translate the login page and the account settings and whatever else, pro bono,” writes ReadWriteWeb’s Mike Melanson after discussing Twitter’s future plans with Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey.
I know Twitter has been instrumental in helping many non-profits, fundraising efforts, grassroots movements, etc., but now they must have decided to become a charitable organization themselves. It’s the only explanation I can think of for why they would try to get their site translated for nothing. Even so, I know of no charitable organization that would risk an otherwise elegant and streamlined website like Twitter to just “some Chinese speaker.” Strange.
Tags: in the news
A [h]istoric confusion
You can read paragraph upon paragraph of British English and not even notice a difference. And then all of a sudden, someone bites into a butty or gets struck by a lorry and you feel an ocean dividing us. A British colleague years ago stopped me dead in my tracks when she said something or other was “really hotting up.” Whaaa? Did you just make that up, I asked her. That can’t be allowed where you’re from, can it?
We all know there are differences. Yet keeping them separate is not as easy as it seems. Subtle usage borrowings slip back and forth. Gray and grey are used interchangebly. Periods or commas falling within–or outside–quotation marks are ignored. Pretentious dads in my neighborhood refer to their kids’ soccer uniforms as “kits.”
Yet outside my job, I’m not a stickler for correct usage. I could care less how people write or speak (ironic error intended). I find languages fascinating yet I’m really more interested in descriptive than prescreptive grammar.
One thing that often bugs me though is the an before historic when spoken or written by an American. Those who have studied phonetics will recognize the diacritic for the aspirated h in the subtitle of this post. Because we in the US aspirate the h–giving it a consonant sound–the correct article is a not an.The rule is based on sound. Conversely, a Londoner pronounces the word “istoric” and needs the n to avoid the unnatural and disruptive pause in his sentence.
But who knows, maybe over time the an will force a pronunciation change that will in turn justify its usage. Language is fluid. And even more fluid since the internet. As we translators who research terms on the web know, an alternate universe of mistranslation exists, so a term that was once clearly wrong, now has tens or even hundreds of thousands of google hits to corroborate its validity. So we’re both blessed and cursed with the mountains of information available today, and must be more vigilant than ever. But as translators, I suppose that is our speciality [sic].
Tags: style guide
February 24th, 2010 · 6 Comments
The changing rules of typography
Two spaces after a period. Period! OK…maybe not anymore. The first time I was told to break this rule was about 15 years ago in an office entering bibliographies into a database. The office computer guy informed us the proprietary database didn’t like double spaces, and added that one space would be the new rule in the computer age.
No more underlining! Never in a printed document, according to the typographyforlawyers.com blog. Wayne Scheiss concurs that for legal writing underlining is out, italics are in, despite the Bluebook’s delay in catching up.
Quotation marks are yet another typographical element computers have upended. From the ambidextrous “dumb” quotes we’ve used since the days of typewriters to the curled “smart” quotes that Word almost always gets right, typography has come a long way.
The translator of course has more constraints in terms of typography than does the writer. The main one being the original. Slavishly copying the bold, italics, underlines, caps, etc., of the source document — even if the original drafter was completely careless, or the file 50-years old — is often the rule.
But when should we override the conventions of the original? I mean it is in a different language. We’re obviously not going to follow the Spanish question marks, or the French quotation marks. So why italics, bold and underline? Are we creating a look-alike document or a counterpart document?
Tags: style guide
November 23rd, 2009 · 8 Comments
The October issue of the American Translators Association’s ATA Chronicle features an article by Diane Howard called Ethical Codes: Where Are We? The article, besides being very clear and well written, made the argument that much more precision is needed in ATA’s Code of Professional Conduct and Business Practices, which is currently under review.
One point Diane made that I’d like to focus on is this: none of the professional codes cited in the article — the British Institute of Linguists, Association of Translators and Interpreters of Alberta, Australian Institute of Interpreters and Translators, and the ATA’s own — covers translation skills. That is, when these various codes speak of skills a translator needs to know, they talk about language skills and subject area skills but not specifically translation skills. As Diane puts it, “The ability to analyze a source text, to apply translation strategies, to articulate the translation process — these elements are either assumed or discounted.”
So the essential skill of the translator–the skill that sets him apart from the millions who know a second language and even those who are conversant in a specific discipline–has not been codified. Yet we know it exists. How do we know? Because it irritates us when someone tells us their brother-in-law speaks a few languages so, naturally, he’d make a good translator. “Maybe you can send him some. He has a free weekend now and again.” Hey, come to think of it, maybe I’ll let him work on my car over the weekend, too. He has a few cars, doesn’t he?
Could this be the source of the lack of respect translators often feel from people who don’t understand their profession? That the whole is no more than the sum of the parts? Pehaps. I do know that anyone who’s given translation a serious try quickly finds there’s more to it than knowing two languages.
One big discovery for beginning translators is that languages were not made to interlock like Lego pieces. Sure, there are plenty of words that have a one-to-one correspondence, more or less. But there are so many more that are slippery. The image that comes to my mind every time I translate is of two sheets of plastic with glue in between. You try to slide one around on top of the other–making tiny adjustments–while the glue is still wet. By the time the glue dries (the deadline!) we hope the two texts align as closely as possible, albeit never perfectly.
I overheard a translator friend arguing with a lawyer about who makes the best translator: a seasoned legal translator, or a law student with a language background. You can see from this post which side I was on, but it was an interesting — if infuriating — conversation to listen to just the same.
We, as translators, put our best foot when we talk about our essential skill, not just the accessory skills needed to perform our job. Now if we can just update the Code accordingly.
Tags: client education · translator education
I happened upon a New York Times blog post listing the 100 things restaurant staffers should never do — part one and two — and thought the idea good enough to steal (somehow, “no stealing” wasn’t high on our list). Despite the title, many of the don’ts apply more to agencies and their staff. Some to individual translators. And some to any service related job.
- Never forget to thank the client for requesting a quote (even if you don’t get the assignment).
- Never assume a new client has used translation services before, or the converse. Some customers are new to the experience, and some are savvier than you’d imagine.
- Never leave a request for information without a response. If you were on vacation/your computer crashed/you’re thinking of a career change, respond to all inquiries no matter how late. “I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner. I hope everything worked out alright,” confirms your reputation as a professional.
- Never try to impress a client by using industry jargon or acronyms. TRADOS often means little to those in the outside world. In emails and conversations, always use the full explanation of a term the first time it is mentioned.
- Never tell a client, “That turnaround time is not possible.” Instead try, “Here’s what I can do in that time,” or offer to start delivering parts of the project within the deadline. Chances are good that your client’s deadline isn’t wholly within their control. Instead of relaying to their manager that you said the deadline isn’t possible, they will pick up the phone and call another provider.
- On the other hand, never promise a deadline you know you can’t meet. You wouldn’t want a plumber promising to fix your only toilet within a few hours knowing he can’t do it until three days later.
- If a deadline seems tight, do not forget to inquire why it is so. If your client needs to quickly review a document for content, you may be able to deliver a translation “For Informational Purposes Only” by their deadline, and follow up with an edited version shortly after.
- Never respond to a request for services with an emphasis on how busy you already are with other assignments. You might succeed in showing how in demand you are, but you will likely make them think twice about calling again. Thank the caller for their consideration and drop them a note when your workload lightens up.
- Never hesitate to be truthful when necessary. “You may need to use another vendor for that assignment,” shows sincere concern for your client’s project and will encourage them to contact you again. This applies to individual translators — who are more accustomed to the practice of referring colleagues — and to agencies too. Offer a lead if you are able.
- Never let your client hear you denigrate other translators or agencies. Although it is important to get today’s assignment, it is vital to leave a positive impression if you want the client to recommend your services to others.
- Never miss the chance to show respect for your client’s knowledge of their industry. Focusing primarily on your knowledge of translation may indirectly belittle their input.
- Never assume you already know everything you need to know about your language pair(s) or specialty(ies). Translation is one of those professions where you can continue to learn and grow if you remain open-minded.
- Never make excuses for your rate; you are offering a professional service. Do the homework to make sure your rates are within industry standards.
- Never increase your rate based solely on your perception of the client’s wealth or budget. Their budget is subject to change from month to month, and you might unwittingly price yourself out of a long-term relationship.
- Don’t be too rigid about turnaround times or pricing. After an initial quote, there are often ways to negotiate your services to save the client money. Ask the client to prioritize price, schedule, and quality, and offer to work around those priorities.
- Never offer a firm quote without looking at the WHOLE source text.
- Never forget to ask a client for a style preference or style sheet on especially long or ongoing assignments. It is your job to know that these exist.
- Never wait to look at the source text. Examine it as soon as possible even if you are in the middle of another assignment. Two hours before the deadline is too late to ask for a more legible copy.
- Never assume your client has thoroughly examined the source text. You may discover text already in the target language, which is good news; or you may discover text in a third language, which is not.
- Never contact the client the first time you come across a discrepancy in the source file. The answer you seek may lie somewhere later on in the file.
- Never barrage your client with petty questions, like “Which do you prefer, “AM” or “A.M.”? Have your own default in-house style guide. If you want to check the client’s preference for small stylistic issues, send a note with the finished translation leaving the client the option of not responding. For example, “I used ‘AM’ in the translation. Let me know if you’d like me to change it.” Although you may be finished with the project, it’s probable that your client is not and does not have time to discuss such matters.
- Never let the client intimidate you into changing a translation you know is correct. Offer to consult a colleague regarding the proposed changes.
- As a translator, never charge for reviewing your own translation. It’s a given. As an agency, be clear about what your price includes in terms of editing, proofreading and other QC procedures.
- Never forget to ask the client to confirm receipt of the delivered translation.
- Never forget that human translation is an organic product. Be open to reviewing completed translations, be willing to admit mistakes, and be prepared to defend yourself with solid resources beyond, “I’ve been doing this a long time.” You may have been doing it wrong for a long time.
Tags: translator education
Who is your audience?
Or should I say, Who are your audience? I’ll have to defer to M Lynne “Lynneguist” Murphy over at separated by a common language for that one. Lynne delves into the minute linguistic variations between our side of the pond and hers, which can be surpisingly practical when you’re considering whether to wear your vest under or over your shirt. Her latest post includes mashed potatoes, which I, for one, always eat in the plural.
Country-specific particularities are merely the most obvious consideration when we gear a translation to a specific audience. And most translators never even have to worry about it, because they translate only into the variety spoken in their own country. They are not qualified to do otherwise.
When we say audience, we are most often asking why we are translating something. Contract? Sure, but is this a draft yet to be executed or an exhibit in a litigation? Press release? OK, but is this for the company to ensure their message is intact, or will it go straight from our desk to publication? Medical brochure? For the doctor or the public?
Does the reader want to know what it says, or what it means?
Which is not always the same thing. Or would the client prefer we ignore the original altogether? We who work in legal translation are usually on a short leash. The author may have wanted to convey a certain message, but if he went about it in an awkward manner and ends up clouding that message, we usually feel we should retain all the awkwardness and make it just as cloudy for our reader. We don’t want to go sticking our neck out, and, how someone said something may be as important as what he said.
Of course we need to distinguish whether the writing is obtuse or if in fact the source language allows for much subtler turns of phrase to convey the same thing. In other words, if the original means something to a speaker of the original language, the translation better mean something to a speaker of the target language. Legal translators or not, we are not slaves to each word to the detriment of meaning.
Erring on the literal side of translation is not the legal translators only mode. We must also ask the purpose of the translation. This could determine how we treat everything from word choice to currency symbols, translator’s notes to formatting.
Of course each discipline has its default mode with its corresponding sense of freedom. The advertising translator wants to make the ad sell and often takes many liberties to do it. Someone who translates technical manuals wants to ensure the user understands the device even if the author of the source did not. Still, he often must check his creativity at the door.
The legal translator wants to be able to defend each word he puts on the page, sometimes despite his client’s wishes. He’s faithful to the text; not always to his customer. Each mode falls somewhere along a spectrum from word-for-word translation at one end, to adaptation at the other.
Beyond asking the general question, “Why do you want this translated?” we can narrow it down in more specific ways:
- What country or region?
- Is this for filing or for informational purposes;
- Is this for publication/presentation or for informational purposes;
- Is this for the expert or the layperson
- Shall we follow the author’s style or give it a new style?
Etcetera, etcetera. And knowing the answer to these questions will help us to provide what our audience ask for.
Tags: translator education