Back with a vengeance

There are many a translation-related blog out there, all competing for your eyeballs. While experts will tell you that keeping a successful blog requires regular (i.e. daily or weekly) postings, I believe in writing meaty and insightful comments on topics that I feel very interested in and that, hopefully, you also share.

Having said that, apologies are in order for my prolonged absence.

In early 2013, as I was preparing my first online technical translation course for New York University students in the Spanish-to-English pair, I thought that I could easily handle the class, the task evaluations, my blog and my day-to-day translation projects. Soon afterwards, in May 2013, I was retained by a premier Internet security company to translate their technical documents, glossary entries and other material for their overseas partners. The contract stipulated 40 weekly hours, which I was able to meet consistently until the end of the contract last February, 2014.

Ten months working on shaping the Spanish terminology on Internet security, handling an untested workflow with LingoTek engines and a machine-translation component, linked to a CMS (content management system) web portal, was quite a challenge, which I welcomed with open arms. I learned a great deal, especially because we worked in a team fashion with Korean, French, German and Chinese colleagues. The experience, far from being just a regular telework contract, left me with a taste for more about Internet security, what with the snowdening of NSA classified information, weekly cybersecurity challenges and now, the Heartbleed event (Canada mounties seem to have aprehended one culprit).

Getting my life back in order to resume blogging for you, my devoted reader, took me a bit longer since February, as I was readying my Spring English-to-Spanish technical translation course for NYU (now winding down) and preparing the preliminary syllabus for the second edition of my Spanish-to-English technical translation course this summer. On top of that, I started working with an IRB (independent review board) for medical translations and I attended a SecureWorld event in Valley Forge, PA, last week. More about that later.

I have many things to share, all in due time. Some events are part of my website at http://www.wordsmeet.com and others will be penned right here.

Thank you for reading!

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Mario Chávez, Spanish translator

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2013 in review for the Wordsmeet blog

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,800 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 47 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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When your bilingual employee needs help

Human languages evolve at a rapid pace, especially in some industries. For example, I just learned that temporary stores built by a store chain are called pop-ups. And I thought that pop-ups were just those annoying Internet ads.

diccionarios para blog

Bilingual staff usually resort to off-the-shelf dictionaries. Career translators use specialized dictionaries, like the blue one on the right.

Companies in need of translation services usually go in house: they look for a bilingual employee to do the job. To professional translators, this is anathema because they’ll say that bilingual employees lack the proper training and expertise. They have a point, but a company behaving in that fashion —resorting to in-house help— also has a point; it is behaving in a pragmatic way. If there’s only one marketing brochure to translate in a foreign language, there is no point in outsourcing it in most cases. A long-time employee is likelier to know the industry lingo and some of the foreign customers. It makes economic sense.

What’s more important, it makes economic sense to me, a career translator. Why? Because I was there once.

Back in the late 80s, I was working as an administrative assistant at Abolio & Rubio, owners of La Paulina line of milk products (powder milk, whey, cheeses, dulce de leche, etc.). With more than 30 years in the domestic market, they wanted to expand overseas. After a modest success in Brazil, they decided to set their sights on the United States of America and beyond. One of the first steps taken was to send telefaxes to prospective customers. As the telefax operator, I was asked to write up letters in English to promote our company. That was 1987 and I was a 3rd year college student at a School of Languages pursuing a degree in translation. So, I was just a bilingual employee. But I was eager to learn and inquisitive to boot. I cared a lot about good writing, which was my main skill.

So, even if I was not familiar with the industry lingo in English or with the accepted correspondence formulas and templates in English at the time, I was tasked with writing letters (the equivalent of our emails today) and calling prospects on the phone to introduce our company. Soon I was asked to help with editing a video in English to promote our factories, writing up recipes to drum up interest in our cheeses and sending out correspondence in our letterhead to contacts. I was loving every minute of it. From assistant and telefax operator I ended up using our only IBM Selectric typewriter —worth $2,000 at the time— to write up our letters in English.

Of course, the story didn’t end there and I was asked to do a lot more, including serving as traveling interpreter and translator for our sales manager on a trip to the U.S. in 1988. I was not a professional interpreter either. During that trip, I was asked to write up factory processes and I was not even a technical writer.

Naturally, it would be silly to infer that every willing bilingual employee is destined to become a career translator. That’s not realistic or desirable, especially for a company. As a starting point, however, using one of your bilingual human resources to fit the bill may work in the short- or medium-term. When the amount of media to translate or convert to foreign languages exceeds the scope of a temporary project, it’s time to call in the big guns.

Certified Management Accountants (Canada) found a visual way to differentiate CMAs from amateurs.

Certified Management Accountants (Canada) found a visual way to differentiate CMAs from amateurs.

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Filed under Bilingual staff, Customers, Translation as value added, Translation as writing, Writing skills

I’m not an entrepreneur and I don’t head a startup

I carry a love/hate relationship with networking events. Among the methods I have come to love is the 2-minute swap networking as carried out during the 2012 ATA Conference in San Diego last October. Dreading the worst —we introverts dislike gatherings with large groups of strangers— I sat in one of the long tables facing another colleague…one more stranger.

When the whistle blew, we acted as instructed: talk with your neighbor in front of you for 2 minutes, then stop and move to the next seat to your right. I didn’t need any prompting: just the thought of introducing myself and asking my colleague facing me what he or she did was enough to keep the ball rolling. Sometimes, 2 minutes were insufficient to wrap up an otherwise interesting conversation. Business cards and smiles were exchanged. The entire affair was over before you knew it.

I attended an annual business meeting/networking event at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History last Thursday (January 17), hosted by COSE (Coalition of Small Enterprises), an organization that connects its members with more than a dozen chambers of commerce. The business meeting highlights: a professionally made video and the awards ceremony. However, the networking that followed was not my cup of tea. I was looking to spend up to 3 hours with strangers. In this and other similar events, I noticed that, regardless of whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, you will find that most people are already engaged in conversation by the time you approach them to strike up a discussion.

A solitary home office

A solitary home office

This is the Upper Midwest, after all. People are cordial, courteous and willing to meet you. But the format for this networking activity is all wrong. You can’t possibly network with even a 10% of all of the people there. I did, however, manage to encounter a fellow translator who lives in Vermillion, as well as representatives of a couple of ad agencies, with whom I discussed a bit of typography and graphic design topics briefly.

Another contact I made was a COSE staff member who is involved in the marketing committee. He mentioned that his committee is going to introduce new services in March 2013 for startups and entrepreneurs, all COSE members. After listening to him for a few minutes, I volunteered my thoughts about the words “startup” and “entrepreneur.”

-I think these words are being overused today. I don’t consider myself an entrepreneur or a startup, even though I have my own small corporation.

He considered my words carefully and went on to expand how COSE had thought about using a word other than startup to refer to small businesses, to avoid the former’s negative connotations. He added that COSE had started to use the word “solopreneur” (a cringeworthy term in my book) to replace “entrepreneur.”

First and foremost, marketing people are not etymologists or linguists, nor should they be required to be. But so-called ordinary words, such as business owner or company manager or even sole proprietor carry more proven weight than faddish words such as mompreneur, solopreneur or any other feeble attempt at me-too linguistic pioneering for marketing or sales purposes.

How do other business owners see a startup? An IT outfit? A young company? What about their view on an entrepreneur? In the eyes of a well-established business owner, does the word entrepreneur carry the cachet of motivation, creativity and inspiration…or a can-do attitude? The more we use an otherwise particular or special word, the soon it becomes stale and obsolete, yielding an anemic impact. Which brings us to a topic of import: writing. Say what you want about the printed media or the impending death of newspapers and magazines, but no amount of slick YouTube videos or well-crafted Facebook page likes will ever replace a well-written message. Even if that message is a one-word label that you choose to apply to yourself or your company.

We may think it’s all semantics, but words, the written word, is the second most important invention since the wheel. We live and die by the word.

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Filed under Branding, Buzzword, Etymology, Marketing, Networking, Public Relations

Translation craftsmanship and the culture of quality

What do the terms quality, accuracy, precision and perfection have in common? They share an almost mathematical trait of exactness, of measuring by numbers. They also point to something concrete, tangible, almost physical. Days can be measured in hours and seconds. Cargo space in cars can be measured in cubic feet. Even unseen things can be measured, as the gravity of an asteroid or planet or the wattage of an electric current.

The above list of terms, which bring to mind a rhythm of their own so grounded in facts and data, reflects more of an industrial or technological domain. Within an industry, sets of instructions can also be measured by quantity, length and even objectiveness. Any technical writer worth his ink will tell you that a technical document containing instructions to install a boiler cannot have personal opinions on the make and model of the device or whether it’s painted in pretty colors. Simply put, those attributes are foreign to the goal of a technical document.

I recently watched how a Western-style mounting saddle is being made on TV: the different rawhide pieces, sheets of tin to provide strength to the seat, the kinds of needles and strings used to sew leather, the warm-water treatment of the main piece of leather to make it pliable and flexible, etc. revealed the work of highly skilled artisans and saddle makers. The kinds of tools a saddle maker uses have their own names and unique purposes. Never mind the specialized terminology. Just the step-by-step portrayal of such an involved and logical process gave the viewer a sense of pleasure and completion, even to someone who doesn’t ride horses, far removed from the realities of saddle making. The craftsmanship is there for all to see and appreciate.

The same could be said about other industrial processes: beer, waffles, bread, the soon-to-be-extinct Twinkies, bricks, cars, boats, etc. For example, we seldom see craftsmanship in the making of a car because most automobile plants are virtually robotized and human workers only assemble parts, install electrical harnesses or push buttons and pull levers. Their function is important and essential, but denotes no particular creativity because everything has already been designed and determined in advance: the length of a certain panel or the number and color of knobs on the dashboard. Putting them together and running  some quality tests afterwards is all they have to do.

But if you see an industrial process involving some secret sauce or combination of ingredients, or some unrevealed temperature at which something is forged, baked or heated (because it’s confidential), you can see a glimpse of craftsmanship. Someone —not a machine— thought about the different proportions of a certain formula or the best temperature at which to subject a certain material for best results, and decided on a formula by trial and error or because it has been handed down from generations past. That’s craftsmanship, the human touch, the unmeasurable attribute.

To use the word “quality” to try to measure such handiwork is almost patronizing. Granted, we speak of good quality whenever we feel a perfectly smooth and polished leather in a pair of boots, or the lack of burrs in a polished skillet, or the soft border of a very good sheet of paper that doesn’t give us a paper cut. We speak of high quality pictures on a TV when we detect no dead pixels, no smudgy black transitions. Can we speak of high quality poetry or fiction writing? When we read a paper on a topic we care about, like job reports, climate change or safety in public places, do we judge them in terms of quality…or whether they address those topics properly? To me, using the word “quality” in any degree to describe the attributes of a piece of writing is akin to using a stainless steel spoon to measure and weigh the love of a child.

I propose we return to basics and leave alone the bad metaphors based on the making of solid objects. I propose we talk about translation craftsmanship. When we view translations written from the viewpoint of a craftsman, we may appreciate their unique character, even their so-called flaws. We begin to focus on how well written a translation is and not on the number of errors we seem to encounter. The actuarial obsession with which some companies seem to focus on an error-free translation, creating splashy graphics and mind-numbing statistical models to explain how each error in grammar, terminology and syntax should be counted, measured and measured again to provide a picture of quality is a slippery slope to numbing criticism of translations.

Have you ever encountered a completely error-free handbook, speech or clinical trial report in English? Talking about translation quality sometimes feels like talking about the natural imperfections of the wood made to build a cabinet or a table. We lose sight of the whole picture as we focus more on errors and how to avoid them. We make less intelligent judgments about what constitutes good writing in translation because we are too busy counting words, lines of text and commas. We end up thinking like a calculator rather than a human being.

When was the last time you wrote something and felt happy with the final copy? When was the last time you sat down to write an email reply that actually had a coherent subject line on top, a proper salutation and not just “Hi,” and addressed all the points requiring an answer? Do you feel qualified to critique someone else’s writing style? Why, or why not? After all, if you can read complex texts, why shouldn’t you be able to write them and weigh how others write them?

Shouldn’t we start with ourselves and cultivate good writing in order to recognize it in others? Craftsmanship means taking pride in your own work and recognizing good work and giving credit to others for it. Craftsmanship means doing purposeful, complete things with your hands and your mind. Translators are writers, wordsmiths, artisans of the written word, not industry drones that slap words together in other languages.

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Filed under Technical writing, Translation as art, Translation as value added, Translation as writing, Translation errors, Translation testing, Writing skills

The promise of speed in service

Imagine yourself in the driver’s seat of a Bugatti Veyron, the world’s fastest automobile. The rush, the adrenaline pumping into your temples, the tunnel vision and the blurry sides of the road as you travel at 267 mph. Imagine running your business the way you’d run in this beautifully designed car. Is speed desirable in both scenarios? Maybe not.

The Bugatti Veyron Super Sport

Noted former Olympian and motivational speaker Vince Poscente wrote that the rules governing the well-known triangle of time, quality and cost have changed in what he charmingly calls The Age of Speed. He maintains that you can get top quality at the right price, and fast because new speedy technologies make this possible. More on this in a jiffy.

Like New York City’s skyscrapers, speed awe us the higher it goes. When I first visited the Big Apple and saw the Brooklyn Bridge and some of Lower Manhattan’s man-made towers of steel and mirror glass, I was amazed and nothing else seemed to beat the size and grandeur of this spectacle, an ongoing show for the masses.

We all like speed in different settings, from the gearhead with his love for fast vehicles to the bungee jumper to the fighter jet pilot. Speed can be measured in time and distance, and time is our main concern here as business owners. Time to get a loan approved, time to hear back from a prospective customer, time to market our new product, etc.

My goal in this article is not to tell you how to do your job faster or better. In the short space of a few paragraph, I hope to persuade you to stop and think about the priorities in your business that call for additional time to accomplish —and you already know they take additional time.

Back to the age of speed, Mr. Poscente is, like most motivational speakers, half right and obvious. Of course some things can be made with a higher level of quality, faster and cheaper. But services or certain products are not things. These things are supported by craftsmen, people who love their job, people who are making this world a better place thanks to the services they provide.

Take your most recent client: how long did it take you to bring him in to use your services or buy your products? Maybe weeks, months or years, correct? Regardless of the medium of contact or communication, from zippy email campaigns to ubiquitous phone calls, some businesses relationships cannot be rushed into being. Consider the following example.

I recently visited the Best Buy store in Avon looking for a netbook. A helpful employee dressed in traditional Best Buy blue garb greeted me and answered my questions in a clear and professional way; then he proceeded to push a thin folder with Geek Squad material into my hand, prompting me to take it. I said I didn’t need it or want it, but he didn’t listen. What happened next?

I’ve been a Best Buy customer for many years, so I won’t let an improperly trained employee steer me away from the shop. Perhaps he was motivated to do or achieve something fast, like how many Geek Squad folders he could deliver to walk-ins.

You may have recently read about the arrival of the iPhone 5 in a few weeks from now. It’s designed to be speedier and take advantage of 4G LTE networks, much faster than the old 3G or 4G networks of yore. But faster is not necessarily a better trait in a technology, and some technologies provide counterproductive results if they perform faster than desired.

Consider the newest A6 core designed for the iPhone 5. A technical analysis, as reported by Ars Technica[1], revealed that the core blocks were put manually, not by using software, which would be the so-called more intuitive way of speeding things up. Notes iFixit’s Miroslav Djuric, as reported in the Ars Technica site:

“It looks like the ARM core blocks were laid out manually—as in, by hand,” iFixit’s Miroslav Djuric said via e-mail. “A manual layout will usually result in faster processing speeds, but it is much more expensive and time-consuming.”

In physics, there’s a concept called terminal velocity. In layman’s terms, an object moving at a certain speed achieves terminal velocity, which is a constant value of speed, when confronted with the opposing force of say, a fluid or the force of gravity. Let’s look at this from a business point of view. Suppose your secretary types at 75 words per minute. You hired her because she’s a fast typist at the computer, knows how to compose business correspondence and makes very few, if any, typos. There are people out there who can type faster than that, and slower than that, like 40 words per minute, which is the acceptable minimum in most workplaces. Suppose now that you need to send out a very important letter to a client in France, in English, within 30 minutes. You met this prospect at a trade show, shared business cards and struck up a positive and enriching conversation. He wanted to receive some samples, but that time was not the right time. Today you received an email requesting said samples.

As an experienced and effective business owner, you can’t possibly just reply with a short email saying “Confirmed receipt of request for samples. Expect them next week. Your signature.” You are dealing with a new client, a promising prospect overseas, and he wants to see samples of your products! A hastily made email won’t do him justice, wouldn’t you agree? A letter, even if it is emailed as an attachment, is your best shot.

So you write up a draft for your secretary to type up, format in company template with logo, letterhead, the whole bit. You will then have it printed out in laser color, sign it yourself, scan it and send it to your French customer as an enclosure in a return email. The question is, do you want your secretary to hurry up and type it faster than usual?

Rome wasn’t built in a day, goes the saying. Tasks and projects that require attention to detail can seldom fulfill their goal if done faster than it is advisable to do. Big decisions in business require quality time set aside to make them, but only experience, trial and error and focus can help us weed out the inconsequential decisions from the really big ones.

I work with words every day, and I have to choose them carefully for my customers. I can translate some documents very, very fast and produce a highly efficient product. But other documents require more research, more reading, more formatting and more consultations with a client. With an eye set on what my client needs and not what my clock is looking like, I hope to continue to serve my clientele with the same gusto and drive that moved me to write this for you.

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Filed under Customer relationship, Research in translation, Value added

The promise of speed

I am an avid reader of science for public consumption. I am also an observer of ads in different media. Let’s face it, most of us dislike commercial messages interrupting our favorite TV show, but it’s a love-hate relationship. We want to be entertained more than informed.

One particular area of advertorial entertainment is the slew of auto insurance ads on TV. Shticks abound, such as the Farmers Insurance University with talented J.K. Simmons as their instructor with characteristic dry humor. Then there’s Dennis Haysbert in the Allstate spots, but he’s too serious for my taste. However, Allstate has Dean Winters, the very funny “Mayhem like me” star. Let’s not forget two of my least admirable characters —Flo of the Progressive ads and that irritating reptile in the Geico commercials.

For the State Farm singing skits, I haven’t forgotten them. “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there!” I am sure many people find all of these entertaining and valuable in different degrees. They all promise one thing: comprehensive insurance that is easy on the wallet. And speed in taking care of your insurance claims.

Science shows that serve up facts with a side of personality are big business: Morgan Freeman in Through the Wormhole is one example. His voice lends credence to otherwise dry and dusty facts. I’ve been following Mr. Freeman’s career through several of his memorable and not-so-memorable roles, from The March of the Penguins to the forgettable Wanted. It’s the delivery, the cadence of voice that brings in a spectator, a reader, a buyer.

How do you want to capture your listener’s attention? You speak more slowly, with added emphasis in subtle ways. The opposite is true if you want to scare away listeners or viewers. Consider this: how many times have you understood the speech of the actor reciting the legal disclaimers in those TV commercials? Have you ever bothered to read the legal disclaimers in the same commercials? Why not? The font is too small, even in a big flat screen TV.

What does this say about the speed of delivery? Faster is not always better. In fact, faster may act as a repellent instead of an attractant to your ad, your service, your product, your reputation, your brand. You.

I remember an impromptu meeting of engineers, developers and translators at Intergraph in Huntsville, AL, in mid 1999. The manager in charge of software localization wanted to push the simultaneous release of the next version. In the past, he said, software localized (i.e., translated) in foreign languages waited for about 3 months to be released, which affected sales. The decision was then to shorten the localization time, making it a simultaneous delivery of software releases with all its attendant —and unintended— consequences.

Shortly after leaving the company, I still recalled that episode as an event where speed was more important than excellence. Faster deliveries seem to guarantee faster deals and shorter sales cycles. The cellphone industry is one prime example: Samsung brings to market a new model every 2-3 weeks by my calculation. In contrast, Apple debuts a new cellphone model once a year. Yet the iPhone’s market share is 15%. Not bad for a phone introduced in 2007. Nokia and RIM’s Blackberry, however, have been losing market share over the last few years. Yet the market pressures to come up with new models ever so often are too great to ignore, and the temptation to speed up products is very great.

Along with these faster products, documentation in multiple languages is rushed out the door. Unlike math calculations, that computer can perform increasingly fast, documents can’t be written in infinitely shorter times. Consider a short email of 10 words…you still need at least 30 seconds to write it. Maybe you type fast and can send out a 10-word message in 10 seconds. Good for you. Was that enough time to think about it? Maybe, maybe not. If all you needed to do was to acknowledge receipt of an important piece of information, all you had to do is type “Yes” and hit the Reply button. Nothing to think about. However, we can all agree that some of the most troublesome and dangerous emails contain a few words and were thoughtlessly sent out in the Internet ether. Once sent, you cannot easily undo it. So much for the benefits of speed.

Speaking of emails, I am reminded of a classical Apple ad published in 1985. Back then, modems were just a little faster than walking by today’s standards, but the capability of 1200 bits/second was a blazing speed at the time. Apple promises instant access in the ad published in the June 1985 issue of National Geographic:

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Apple promises instant access by using an Apple modem with the Apple II computer.

The concept of speed has become the concept of now. But this is nothing new. A proverb such as The early bird gets the worm accentuates the virtue of speed. But, is this really a virtue? Is it really advantageous to rise early always? I recently closed one of my most “productive” days last Friday by clocking in at 5 a.m. and clocking out at 40 minutes past midnight. I handled at least 4 projects in 4 different platforms, from SDL Trados to Adobe Illustrator. Was I feeling proud of myself? Sure. But nature charged me extra for the privilege by making me sleep in the next day: I woke up at 10:30 a.m.

That is not to say that promising speed does not have its place in business. Four days ago, one of my customers required a quick turnaround inside 21 hours for a 25,000-word project and offered me a portion of it. I ventured to offer up to 9,000 words in that timeframe, which was humanly possible and professionally feasible to me. Did I deliver on time? You bet. But that meant sleeping only 2 hours to meet the deadline without putting my mental abilities at risk.

We all know our strengths and weaknesses. We can be speed demons in some tasks and slow as a snail walkers in others, and that’s good. Our minds and bodies tell us, if we listen, when we can push ourselves to the limit and deliver in a speedy yet responsible fashion without abandoning excellence. Please notice that I haven’t used the word quality, not even once. I prefer excellence.

Today, where speed is king, let’s pause for a moment, smell the roses, take a cup of joe and consider that excellence is best achieved with calculated, measured pace. Suetonius’ invitation, Festina lente (more haste, less speed) could be more relevant today than we think.

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Filed under Advertising, Reputation, The business of translation