November 2nd, 2009 · 2 Comments
Because the American Translators Association celebrated its 50th anniversary conference in New York City, I was able to take time away from my office without too much trouble to attend some sessions and visit with colleagues and translators.
Overall, I found the conference excellent, and the turnout extraordinary. Over 2,300 attended and at times, it looked like translators had entirely overtaken the Marriott Hotel.
Although I was not able to attend as many sessions as I hoped, I wanted to mention a few I found to be particularly well done and engaging:
- Grant Hamilton held a pre-conference session on untangling the linguistic knot that is administrative French. His steady hand as a translator nudged us all in the direction of extracting the meaning, leaving behind the structure, and feeling the freedom to rephrase into beautifully readable English.
- François Lavallée’s session on translating slogans from English to French was not only amusing, it was unexpectedly informative. Unexpected because I was doubtful one could codify something that on the surface looks as instinctive and spontaneous as slogans. But François’ careful observation of French and English slogans over the years uncovered many underlying “rules” for slogan writing. I might also mention François’ comic timing, which made the hour fly by.
- On a more serious note, the session on legal translation presided over by Steve Kahaner, Thomas West III, and Alejandro Garro, was packed with useful information for the legal translator striving to develop the requisite experience to master this challenging translation field. And with Steve and Thomas both heading up well regarded translation agencies specializing in law (i.e., the competition), it gave me a chance to reflect on how to improve our offering here at Yndigo Translations.
While not all conference events and sessions were equally interesting or fruitful — as can only be expected at such an enormous event — the four days were, from my point of view, an overwhelming success.
October 29th, 2009 · 1 Comment
The 50th annual conference of the American Translators Association kicked off in earnest yesterday in Times Square.
It was interesting to learn that the 25th Conference held in 1984–also in New York City–saw its events program dubbed “ATA Silver Tongues.” I did not attend that year. Nor did I find out yesterday if “silver” had anything to do with the silver anniversary. If it did, this year we should rightfully be called “Golden Tongues,” even if it has the ring of a bad translation.
Whatever we call ourselves, we’re growing in numbers and confidence judging by this year’s conference. What an incredible turnout and amazing schedule of events!
October 19th, 2009 · 8 Comments
A lot has been written about the threat posed to the professional translator by machine translation. Some dismiss it as a distant threat. For others, like Jussara who recently commented on one of my old posts, it’s like global warming: it’s real and it’s already happening. And Jussara claims most translators are not even good enough to compete with it.
But another force is at work in the industry: fungibility. And it’s a trend that is also being driven by technology.
Of course, the internet has made it possible for businesses and individuals to specialize like never before. This means we don’t have to shop at a store that sells every car part under the sun if the selection of floormats is better at a store that sells nothing but mats. And we don’t have to use a general translator if we want someone who really knows car engines or the environment. I would say this a good trend. It leads to better translations and it rewards translators who dig deep into their subject.
Driving us in the other direction however — away from specialization — is translation as big business. Large agencies often have large databases, filled with thousands of translators from accross the globe. By plugging into such a vast network, these agencies are able to promise speed and capacity that others are not.
But when it comes to executing these fast or high-volume jobs, translators often get an anonymous email, one that has clearly been sent to tens, even hundreds of his or her peers asking how many words they can do over, for example, the next 24 hours.
A quick message, a click of a button and the project manager has made his job so much easier than his pre-email counterpart could have ever hoped. This is a disturbing trend. Not only does it drive down quality, it can mean a breach of confidentiality if, for example, the project manager attaches a file to an email spread far and wide.
And that’s just just the risk to the client relationship. This practice can can also hurt the agency’s working relationship with its translators. Some have resigned themselves to the practice as the modern way of doing business, thus they try their best to respond as quickly as they can. But this puts translators in competition to see who can be the most available and accessible, not the most qualified.
Translators have more experience than I do with this though, so let me ask them: have you seen this trend grow? Is there an upside to it?
September 24th, 2009 · 4 Comments
I just signed up for this year’s ATA conference in New York City, which is convenient because I live and work here (well, I’m in Brooklyn but I go to “the city” often enough that it doesn’t feel like a major schlep).
I’m looking forward to the conference, not only to see old friends and meet translators I know only by email or phone, but also in the hopes I run into my fellow bloggers so they can give me some tips on blogging stamina. I could use it!
Oh, and also I hope to learn a few new things about translation, just haven’t figured out which seminars and sessions I want to attend.
Hope to see you there!
Confidence and Experience in Translation
Watching the French Open finals this morning between Dinara Safina and Svetlana Kuznetsova, I heard “S’il vous plaît, mesdames et messieurs” come over the loudspeaker to quiet the crowd before play (By the way, when did the wave make its transition to the tennis stadium?).
My very funny wife Jen echoed the French with her intentionally awkward and accented, “If it PLEEZES you, laideeez and zjentlemen.” I don’t know why it made me laugh so much.
Of course we don’t dissect the phrase like that when we translate. Just like we don’t literally render the close of a letter, “Please agree, Madame, to the assurance of my distinguished sentiments.” We say “Yours truly” or “Sincerely” or some other anglified formula.
Pretty obvious to translators. Yet, many still resort to the old “That’s what it says in the original” when dealing with less formulaic phrases. If it is correct and fluent in the original, it should be correct and fluent in the translation. And even when it’s not correct, we don’t always have an excuse. Because although it’s common to find grammar mistakes in the original document, they are often made by a native speaker. Thus the idiom is still native, and the translation should be native too.
Here’s an example: native English speakers often say, “Between he and I.” This is an example of an attempt at hypercorrectness and it’s wrong. Yet people born and raised speaking English do it all the time (in fact, I doubt a non-native speaker would make this same mistake unless he spends too much time around us!). We cannot translate this into French as “Entre il et je” because no native French speaker would ever say that. The only solution is to gloss over this mother-tongue mistake.
And when the source document is free of errors, there’s simply no excuse at all for a less than fluid translation. I read a translation last week that was frankly horrible. The translator just couldn’t be bothered to put words into their English order or even rout out false friends. Or spell-check for that matter! (one of my pet peeves). I think he knows better in fact, just didn’t review his work. He left far too much work for the editor. He was fast. I’ll say that for him. But not worth it.
Often a translation that sticks too closely to the original is the result of a lack of confidence. There is what I call “the steady hand” in translation, a translator — often seasoned — who is able to cut through the dense source idiom. These individuals, while never taking liberties with key terms, don’t get tripped up by the inherent “differentness” of the source language. It takes a nuanced understanding of the original to gain this sort of confidence. Along with years of experience solving how to put it into another language.
Tags: translator education
Somehow advertising in every form — TV, radio, print, internet — has really turned me off lately. Maybe the economy has made it all sound more desperate but every ad is the same. All the marketing copy I read might as well be written by the same person. Long unswayed by marketing, I remained impressed for a time — especially when I was trying to start my own company — when a new whole-grain-snack or locally-made-T-shirt or retro-fixed-gear-bike start-up company branded itself in that differently modern, wholesome and understated way. No longer.
In a post on the French-language blog Not Just Another Translation Blog, Laurent talks about translation agencies with blogs and asks weather this new openness is just a marketing ploy or weather it signals an authentic altruistic effort to share their knowledge with the masses. My reply in the comments field, briefly, is No, true altruism doesn’t exist in business.
I’ve thought about that reply since. Sounds like capatalism burnout (or maybe a new sales ploy based on hyper-honesty). Either way I’ve reconsidered and already come up with two examples where those that sold best were not trying to sell at all. (and you won’t be surprised if you’ve read me before that they’re both about bikes!)
To anyone involved in the DIY side of bicycles, Sheldon Brown is a household name. The inveterate tinkerer was also a prolific writer. He wrote about bike building, bike maintenance, bike parts, and bike humor. He contributed thousands of posts to cycling forums to help those of us who couldn’t figure out why our Italian bottom bracket wouldn’t thread into our British bike frame.
Sheldon Brown blogged before blogs existed. His website was a frequently updated encylopedia of bike knowledge. As the guru of biking how-to, he put the small Massachusetts bike shop that employed him on the map for an international audience.
Even after his death last year, Sheldon’s site rises to the top of Google’s rating system because so many others on the internet have pointed to him as the expert. He gave good advice. He gave free advice, and most of all, honest advice. And people knew his advice was entirely separate from the products in his store. And many of us felt compelled to buy from his higher-priced store because it came with the gift of his expertise.
Back in 2001, I wrote to Sheldon in the hopes he’d tell me if the e-bay asking price of a bicycle was fair. Despite receiving thousands of emails a day, he wrote back in 10 minutes to say, “If it’s your size, grab it!” I did.
I met Peter Reich briefly at an open-house in his hole-in-the-wall shop near the Gowanus Canal. Peter designed and has been building the Swift Folder bike for 15 years now. Error Ink. describes Peter’s world pretty well.
I don’t know for sure but after having met Peter I was certain someone talked him into holding an open house. He was one of the most reluctant salesman ever. Otherwise very likeable, getting information about his concept and the details of his bikes was like pulling teeth. Every sentence was uttered in mild tones and with the utmost humility. Just spending 30 minutes at his shop, it was clear he never tried to sell a single bike and still, there was a 6-month waiting list for his hand-built machines.
I don’t know if the old adage of “love what you do and the money will follow” is always true. I do know that I DON’T want to buy from someone who tries to sell me something. I want to buy from that person who is so engrossed in their work they haven’t given a moment’s thought to how to sell it. In short the best marketing comes not from the person who builds the bike or does the translation for that matter, but from others.
An artist renders an image. A cook renders fat from a duck. A court renders a judgment. A translator renders a translation?
I’ve always said “produce” a translation. Rather mechanical I know and a testament to my stiffly commercial milieu. The blog transubstantiation has a thought-provoking post asking readers to choose one definition from a first list of four words, and one from a second, and then, by melding and contrasting these terms, to attempt to deepen their sense of just what translation is. The ensuing discussion is great.
Render is far more formal in English than the everyday rendre in French. I won’t for example be rendering anything unto anybody anytime soon the way a French school kid commonly has to rendre his friend’s stylo back.
This definition of render means “to give back.” As opposed to what the cook does, which is “to extract.” On the other hand, who knows? The cook — or the translator for that matter — may not play such an active role here. Maybe he’s just the facilitator. Maybe the sense of verb render has broadened over the years to also mean “to cause to give back.” For it is the duck that “gives back” its fat, and just maybe the source text that “gives back” its meaning. Kind of like the block of marble that needed Rodin only to divine and release the scupture within.
On a much lighter note
Rendering either as a collocation or synonym of translation must carry through to other languages too. While I was clicking through translation blog links, I stumbled upon one of the — unintentionally — funniest posts I’ve seen in a while. It was a list of “Rendering blogs” borrowed from Lexiophiles’ Top 100 language blogs, and then re-rendered either by a machine or a new English learner.
Yndigo was included, as a “blog on version with both penetrations and insights.” I suppose “concealments” is only natural with that type of content. But hey, if it gets us more traffic, I’m all for it!
About Translation has always been good about sharing tidings and thoughts about professional version, yes siree!
Jill at Musings from an overworked translator, although the link to her page is missing, will be happy to know that her reflexions life on both the main industry and the rendering industry have not gone unnoticed.
The parole exportée, whether “keeping it up,” or “maintaining it upwards” will be uplifted by the recognition, I’m sure. (Maybe she could use some concealments too)
Now, I was certainly aware that Corinne at Thoughts on Translation was an expert on the rendering industry, but nobody told me she was “going a transcriber.” You go, Corinne!
And let’s not forget, under “near miss,” the Masked Translator who seems to be moonlighting as a masked transcriber now too. Last but not least, Translator’s Musings whose “nigh missies and the tips for all those postulate versions from English to French” are always welcome to francophiles like me.
Of course the “Dire Missies” didn’t make the cut, but what a great name for a band, no?
I think my translator is unfaithful
I wrote this article for Yndigo’s blog in my native French language and asked her/him to pursue the translation of it into English for posting, but my gut tells me she/he took some liberties. Like Pevear and Volokhonsky’s recent translation of War and Peace, I wanted to use the word “wept” several times in explaining how hard it is to come up with an original blog post, but he/she insisted that wouldn’t look right in war or in peace. I also wanted to misspell “Cheator” in the title and you can see who won that battle.
Naturally, my translator is a native English writer, and I don’t (or do not) argue with the fact that I am not. Where we differ is his or her use of “translator’s license” to give my post a more “native English feel” to it. I wept when she/he told me that! My writing shouldn’t have a native English feel to it, it should feel like French, sacred blue! It would benefit mankind if translated works such as Tolstoy, Dickens, or my web post sent readers back to the original or back to language class so that they could read in the original language. What a tragedy if a translator’s liberties sent the audience to Google the translator’s other writings. The translator is supposed to be transparent, my God!
Fortunately, I am still living and can check back to read this post after the translator has submitted it but before he/she is paid. But what about works of deceased authors? Who will stand guardian of their true and authentic meanings? Perhaps in the near future, we’ll all be so grateful that anyone reads anymore. We won’t have time to regret translators who take liberties. Or time to [cry softly yet uncontrollably].
I was editing a particularly spectacular translation the other day. Creative turns of phrase, source meaning fully intact, and just beautifully readable English. The translator obviously had a nuanced understanding of the source language paired with a level of comprehension of the subject matter that usually betrays an industry insider. My editing was moot. Any retouches apart from the two or three real-word typos that spell-check didn’t catch could only have brought it down.
After editing hundreds of translations over the years–good, bad and everything in between–this translation did a couple things, besides making our client happy, that is. It reconfirmed my faith in human translation (alright that’s a bit over the top perhaps; I hadn’t really lost my faith in human translation, I just tend to forget how far superior it can be), and it led me to consider that too often we let the machines win.
It’s become cliché in translation to say computers will never figure out how to truly replicate what we do, yet between some translations I’ve read and machine output there really isn’t a lot of daylight. Machines are catching up. But please, let’s not go meet them halfway.
Now you may claim with the workload and the price pressure — much of it caused by those same machines — how are we supposed to have time to craft translations that make the client say, “Wow, I’m glad I hired a human!” Good question. The daily grind can sap much of that creative juice that made us choose this career over accounting* way back when.
First, let me say that most translations I come across are better (and quite a bit more accurate) than machine output. However many translators skip the one step that can most efficiently help them leave machines in the dust: Re-reading. While downright essential for new translators, it should not be overlooked by old-hats either.
I know when I’ve translated I often feel I’ve written the most fluent English sentence, only to go back and discover it doesn’t sound like English at all. When we re-read we really discover the translation for the first time as a native speaker. Because, when we’re translating, we are tethered to the idiom of the original and can find it very difficult to take the ideas while leaving the original language structure behind. It’s a two-step process (sometimes more) when done right. When an editor claims a translation wasn’t done by a native speaker, often it’s just that the translator did not re-read.
Of course there are different levels of re-reading. You can look it over quickly to make sure there are no errors or you can read aloud until all the little seams are ironed out. Either way it’s the best way for both beginning and experienced translators to improve and to continue to make the client choose them over the machine.
*I apologize for perpetuating the stereotype of the uncreative accountant. With the state of Wall Street over the past few months, it looks like the accountants have been quite creative in fact. Whoops, now it seems I’ve called them underhanded too…
Tags: translator education
February 5th, 2009 · 6 Comments
Translation as learning process
Not all projects go perfectly. The following describes a recent job a friend at another agency told me about (I know — sounds like, “Doctor, my friend has this problem” but it’s true). I too have my share of past failures to learn from, but this was a doozy.
The project: almost 2,000 files due in two weeks! Yes, you read right. Not words. Not pages. But 2,000 files. A lot of them were one page in length. Many were rather longer. File types included Excel, Word, PDF, PowerPoint, html, and a few jpegs for good measure.
The language pair was overwhelmingly Spanish to English with a handful of others thrown in to make the job especially fun. On top of that, existing English in the source files would make the per-word billing particularly cumbursome. The only silver lining was the general subject matter.
Now why would any agency accept such a job? Why promise success when the chances of success seem so slim? The answer of course is simple: money. And the justification, automatic: “if we don’t take it, another agency will.”
I don’t fault them for thinking this way; I’ve had occasion to believe that my team has the experience to handle any translation job as well or better than other agencies. “If someone’s gonna do it, it might as well be us.”
On the other hand, since I opened my own agency, I’ve taken a measure of pride in the fact that we don’t accept just any job, particularly if it cannot be, humanly, done well. Though we often push the limits of volume and speed, we do try to educate the client on what it will take to do the job right. But as we know, client education notwithstanding, sometimes a deadline is a deadline.
And, in these difficult economic times, refusing jobs based on feasibility seems a quaint throwback to better days, so I am especially sympathetic. My criticism of the agency’s decision to accept the job is therefore limited. Its execution however is something I will address.
The major problem in this case was that the agency was never able to assess the full scope of the job before they leapt right in. And there was never time to catch up. From my experience this has become the biggest no-no. If you have a hundred pages due in 3 days, you must, as a project manager, take the first hour to look at each page — no matter how loud the clock is ticking — to foresee complications in terms of subject matter, formatting, consistency, etc., before deciding how to assign it. The mistake here was a shortage of project managers.
A project manager generally handles 5 or more projects at one time. Here, one job should be handled by 5 people, especially in the first couple days. Put enough resources on it — even if you have to hire them on the spot (a luxury the poor economy actually does afford us), so that a set of eyes can see the content of every single file. Otherwise, the last couple days will be full of surprises.
According to the metrics performed by an agency where I worked, a good project manager can handle the equivalent of 200,000 words per month, maximum. So with the two-week turnaround, this project would have constituted a 4 to 5-project manager job. A smaller profit for sure, and an anomaly in this do-more-with-less economy, but using additional resources smartly might have made an affordable world of difference.
Most additional problems on the project — there were many — stemmed from this initial failure to allocate enough management resources to it. Translators must take some of the blame here too. Some failed to look up from their work to see if they could indeed handle all the files they agreed to translate. Still, 95% of the translations were delivered by the deadline, a rousing success under the circumstances, and priceless in the learning process.