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.

1 Comment

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

One response to “Translation craftsmanship and the culture of quality

  1. I’ve been watching the TV programmes on Claridge’s Hotel – where it’s all about quality, quality quality. You can forgive them the high prices, when you see the attention to detail, craftsmanship and sheer hard work that goes into it all.
    Qualities which, come to think of it, also apply to translation!

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s