Be a translator or interpreter, but not both

When I was in college, I had a romanticized outlook on interpreting —UN interpreters were the only kind to admire. I admit, it’s a Hollywoodesque assumption, since there are many kinds of interpreters: ASL interpreters, court interpreters, Social Security Administration interpreters, federal interpreters, escort interpreters, and so on.

Again, when I was in college pursuing my BA in English and Translation Studies, I firmly believed that I was acquiring a foundation on both professions, translation and interpreting. I should have known better, since interpreting-related classes were relegated to the last couple of semesters in my four-year university syllabus.

Most educated Americans know the difference between a translator and an interpreter; if the media misuses either term, it’s either because of an innocent semantic error or simply done on purpose, correctly assuming that the ordinary reader knows what an interpreter does as separate from what a translator does. I see no serious problem here, and only the curmudgeons among us linguists will object.

What I’m concerned about, however, is the comingling of both roles in classifieds directed at translators and interpreters. I think businesses and other organizations that seek out translators to play the role of an interpreter instead of, or in addition to, that of a translator are doing themselves a serious disservice. Catholic Health Initiatives recently posted the following classified:

Medical Interpreter-1400017915

This position will provide interpreter services for patients, families, staff, visitors, physicians, and others regarding consents, medical treatments, discharges, instructions, and other concerns as needed.  Also responsible for the process of identifying, prioritizing, and completing translation of documents from English/Spanish, Spanish/English. May also facilitate the translation of documents in other languages as well.  Other duties include assisting the supervisor in problem-solving with patient and family communication needs and proactively identifying opportunities for improving services to our limited or non-English speaking patient and family population

big_earWhy not call it what it is, medical translator and interpreter? By analyzing the job summary above, one may reasonably conclude that they are, in fact, looking for an interpreter, with ancillary translator duties to be fulfilled. What I see is a blending of not two but three roles here: interpreter, translator and community facilitator.

Another institution, Borrego Health in El Cajon, CA, is seeking a behavioral health translator (Arabic). The classified reads thus:

JOB DESCRIPTION

Borrego Health is seeking a Translator for their Behavioral Health Department.  The Behavioral Health Translator will be responsible providing translation services for the Behavioral Health Department.  This position will work closely with the Behavioral Health Department in providing mental health services to a particular clinic.

QUALIFICATIONS

  1. Several years experience in the medical field preferably psychiatry/psychology.
  2. Certified Translator preferred, in Arabic.
  3. CPR Card from American Heart Association.

Here’s the problem: there is no such thing as a behavioral health translator in the same way there are behavioral health medical counselors or nurses, for which candidates surely have solid credentials in the medical field. Not so translators, unless you consider physicians or nurses who happen to be, and work as, translators. Borrego Health should rename the position to behavioral health assistant/counselor with interpreting skills for the sake of honesty. In addition, Borrego Health would do well in consulting the American Translators Association (ATA) for the current state of the art of translation certifications, since there is no ATA certification for the English-to-Arabic language pair at this time.

Different roles demand different skills. The crux of the matter is that different sets of skills are required to perform as a translator and as an interpreter. Given the nature of the printed or written media, translators need to be more analytical and precise, as well as use the right presentation to display their translated texts. On the other hand, interpreters have to be quick on their feet and deliver the interpreted phrases almost simultaneously or in quick succession; therefore, they do not have the luxury to be too analytical about what they’re hearing. Their delivery is situational and very close to what the author of the original phrase is saying. That immediacy is a keen advantage to an interpreter because he or she can quickly use the feedback gotten from audience observation and adjust the delivery according to the audience needs.

Translators don’t have the benefit of proximity to the creator of the original text. Because of that, the original text is far more structured than a verbal statement and demands precision and research for successful delivery. While you may be all too familiar with translators who work as clinical or court interpreters or vice versa, very few translators have the inner resources to succeed as interpreters, and vice versa. It is not a matter of knowing and speaking two or more languages. Professional translators are trained to write well, whereas professional interpreters are trained to speak well.

I once had an interview with a powerful Silicon Valley company in 2011 regarding a position that involved translation with marketing flavor. In other words, they were looking for a Spanish translator who was well versed in marketing materials and with experience and/or knowledge of Spanish in marketing materials in different countries. During the interview, I realized that they weren’t so certain about the profile: were they looking for a marketing specialized in Latin American markets who happened to be also a translator, or vice versa? Given the responsibilities described to me during the interview, I couldn’t see how they could cover both roles with just one candidate.

Some people may call that thinking outside the box or even say that this company was disrupting the traditional role of a translator by placing him/her in a powerful marketing position. Whatever the case, you can’t expect to hire a plumber who also happens to be an interior designer, or a phlebotomist who can also operate an X-ray machine.

When a company seeks a translator fluent not in 2 but 3 or 4 languages, well, the pool of candidates will be smaller but asking for a Spanish-Portuguese-German translator is not an unreasonable request. What is unreasonable is the compensation part, as if writing translation in more than two languages were a matter of using a dicitonary and filling up pages with different words in the allotted time, 8 or 9 hours a day. Languages, especially for writing, are not some sort of costume you wear for a certain occasion or a Dremel attachment. If a company wants a translator (or interpreter) to perform double duty —and there are some fine candidates that can do it— make the compensation match that requirement. Or else hire a part-time translator and a part-time interpreter if you are so budget conscious.

There are lateral roles that a translator or an interpreter can reasonably perform, such as that of a project manager (for translations or for interpretation assignments) or an interpreter coordinator, who makes sure to match the right interpreter with the assignment. Some translators and interpreters can grow into a managerial role. Keep in mind, however, that most interpreters are outgoing individuals who enjoy being in the thick of things and help out other people with communication issues. On the other hand, translators are mostly —but not necessarily exclusively— reserved and enjoy working alone or in small teams. More importantly, translators need space, both physically and mentally, to perform well.

Translation has a different pace. Translation requires deep concentration and marshalling several mental skills to write well the first time and with almost no errors. The faster you ask a translator to do his or her job, the more errors he/she is likely to make. So, give them the space they need, away from inopportune and unnecessary distractions. That’s why translators perform better in silence. That’s why bullpens or open offices are not conducive to good translation work.

Translators who want to work as interpreters (and vice versa) need to make an honest assessment of their skills. Switching from interpreting to translation —and vice versa— takes an enormous amount of mental energy. Play to your strengths: if you are excellent at writing, stick with it. That doesn’t mean that a translator can’t turn in a good interpretation performance. In fact, some interpreters do mostly interpreting and a small portion of their job is translation. I’m the other kind: 95-99% of my work is translation and translation-related activities, and only the occasional interpreting suits my fancy and my schedule.

Another point of misunderstanding about what is involved to perform either translation or interpreting is the all-too-common requirement of high school education in many online classifieds. Most high school graduates aren’t prepared to write at a college level, either in English or in a foreign language. How can an employer expect a high school graduate to have the education and experience to turn in a well-written page?

It is imperative that a business has a clear image and a clear concept of the role of a translator and/or of an interpreter. American businesses have the right information at their fingertips, starting with the American Translators Association, which publishes free brochures explaining these positions in more detail. Businesses can use the ATA as an information clearinghouse and avail themselves of its resources, especially the directories of translators and interpreters. Also, translators affiliated with the ATA are bound to a code of ethics and are more likely to live up to professional standards than the average bilingual worker who may apply for a job for opportunistic reasons.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Bilingual staff, Classifieds, Misinformation on interpreter role, Misinformation on translator role, Writing skills

Please be patient with us translators

Translators and translation agencies are an interesting bunch. Sometimes we act like second or third children too eager to please our elders. Every single website promoting translation services almost invariably offers the same thing: hundreds of languages and thousands of translators and interpreters at your disposal. No subject matter is too esoteric or insignificant, no document too small or too unimportant. We aim to please.

Some of this eagerness is wholly sincere: we do care about languages and about precision in writing the best translation copy for you. But this desire to meet your demands may also betray a deep insecurity: we swim in a sea of saturated language service providers, with many bilingual amateurs and self-aggrandizing entrepreneurs looking for the next success story and fighting for customers like you, attaching to your business like remoras. We are afraid to be undervalued, underappreciated and ignored by you.

This insecurity drives us to show a little resentment towards amateur translators and Johnny-come-latelies who will snatch clients from us. It’s like a Cold War movie or a poor man’s John Le Carré novel: we want to rescue you from them as James Bond, but we end up being a copy of Johnny English instead.

The translation industry is highly fragmented, with very large language service providers (LSPs in our jargon) gobbling up the large government and corporate contracts because they have the marketing muscle and the human resources for them. In America, as well as in many other industrialized nations, the bulk of the translation services providers consists of small businesses, 5 to 50 strong, some being general-purpose agencies and some boutique translation companies. The rest is individual practitioners. Unlike milk producers in California, our industry does not have a slogan like got milkand TV campaigns to bring awareness to the powerful resource we can be for your company.

In this sea of confusion, it’s commonplace to see providers overpromising, overreaching and sometimes underperforming, which hurts other, better prepared providers. So, if that has been your experience, your new, better qualified translation provider may have to start from scratch to rebuild your trust in our services. Hence my request to be patient with us multilingual folks.

I recently penned a comment to a colleague’s sincere plea to improve and unify our public relations efforts and remind others out there that human translation is far better than machine (or software-driven) translation. This is what I wrote:

Subscribing to the right trade and business magazines and newspapers also helps to be aware not just of what’s going on with translators and interpreters elsewhere, but also with sister professions, such as graphic designers, information designers, technical communicators and writers, and so on. Many of our struggles as a profession are not unique to us, and knowing what other trades and professions are doing in the public arena can be very informative, educational and helpful.

After reading an article by graphic designer Ilise Benun in the HOW magazine, regarding how to negotiate fees for freelancers, I contacted her for permission to use parts of her article in my blog (wordsmeet.wordpress.com). She graciously granted it, and she’s now one of my LinkedIn contacts.

We need outside speakers at our ATA chapters and annual ATA conferences to learn what others are doing to bring not just attention but honor and respectability to our profession. We are too isolated. Isolated people tend to believe too much in their own fears and paranoia. We become so hungry for solutions that anyone with a megaphone and charisma can sell us their agenda.

I don’t think we should approach PR from our fears of being undervalued or ignored as a storied profession, as any fear-based campaign can become a self-fulfilling prophecy and undo our best intentions and efforts.

So, next time a translation company or translator comes knocking, please be patient. They’re trying to be as helpful as they can in a competitive and fragmented world.

Leave a comment

Filed under Customer relationship, Public Relations, Public relations in translation, Reputation

Judging a translator by his rate is like judging a book by his cover

You must have seen them by now: dozens of websites of translation companies and individual translators strive to drum up business by bringing the fees discussion front and center.

There’s nothing wrong about transparency. After all, you, the translation client, may not have the time to haggle over prices when your multilingual or bilingual project is on the clock. This move seems to be responsive to the time needs of customers: more time discussing the particulars of a project, less time discussing about prices and price comparisons. When I was doing project management for a New York-based translation agency, the policy we were given about this was as follows. I’m paraphrasing from memory:

If the client tells us that he found a better price elsewhere after we gave them a quote for the project, invite the client to produce the alternate quote, point by point, and we will match it.

This sounds more like a challenge, doesn’t it? A gentle nudge to say If you can spare the time to bring that quote to us, we’ll match it! and hoping that you’ll accept theirs instead.

A small and yet unscientific sample of translation companies offering their prices for all to see include the following:

icanlocalize.com offers rates upfront.

icanlocalize.com offers rates upfront.

Aussie firm Straker Translations offers fees.

Aussie firm Straker Translations offers fees.

1Translate.com' sampling of its fees

1Translate.com’ sampling of its fees

Naturally, you can draw your own conclusions. While reading the spiffy descriptions of these companies, I found this for 1Translate.com:

1translate was founded in 2001. Prior to that, translation was our hobby. We translated a few web sites and did some work for Google when they were just starting. We soon realized that there was a lot of demand for language translation services.

Quite telling, isn’t it?

Publishing rates in this fashion is, to me, a disservice to the customer. When cultivating a relationship with a customer, it shouldn’t be about shoving a menu of prices. The long-time customers that I have been cultivating and who still come for me for their Spanish information design services (including desktop publishing and voiceover services) usually send me an email to let me know they need me to do this or that job for them. Our mutual trust is such that there’s no discussion of prices, unless it’s something that has to be rushed or that entails a very peculiar treatment. Time is of the essence. The most important thing for these customers (among which I count Sesame Street and Trumbull Industries), the first thing they want to know is When can you do this for me? Fees, rates, etc. are a secondary consideration.

Leave a comment

Filed under Customer relationship, Negotiations, Rates

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!

Image

Mario Chávez, Spanish translator

Leave a comment

Filed under Translation as writing

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Translation as writing

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.

Leave a comment

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.

4 Comments

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