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.