What’s so disruptive about “disruptive”?

According to Google’s Ngram graph generator, the phrase “disruptive technology” appeared in print in the mid 1990s. Another phenomenon appeared at the same time: the dot.com bubble.

Douglas Rushkoff, author of Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity, recently wrote an article titled “Startups are not as disruptive as they appear,” adding:

“…the rapid growth of companies like AOL and Amazon —no matter the strength of their underlying businesses— whetted Wall Street’s appetite for exponential growth. And young founders took the bait, prioritizing inflated valuations over sustainable business models. The ideal shifted from building a company to getting it acquired.” (TIME magazine, March 21, 2016)

My readers might surmise that I’m about to indicate the correct Spanish translation for “disruptive”.  Alas, Fundéu has already done it:

disruptive-disruptivo-fundeu

I disagree, since we can use innovador, radical, revolucionario among other terms. As useful as Fundéu is for us translators and language users, I don’t just grab the first option. First, let’s see how the word is used in contemporary English. The American Heritage Dictionary (online version) defines disruptive thus:

disruptive-definition-ahd

In this short analysis of the adjective disruptive, specific lexicogrammatical coordinates are required. It is not enough to define a word but to see what other words can be used in its stead. Here’s a list of conventional synonyms from Thesaurus.com:

disruptive-synonyms-thesaurus-com

We find more up-to-date information in the online MacMillan dictionary. The new usage for disruptive appears as “showing approval; original and new in a way that causes change.” But, doesn’t the English language have words for that already? Examples: innovative, radical, revolutionary.
macmillan-dictionary-disruptiveIt is clear that we can arrive at more intelligible options that are not buzzwords. Buzzwords can be part of an argot (casual vocabulary) or jargon (professional vocabulary). They aren’t just communicating a message (“this new memory chip is revolutionary!”) but also a philosophy. Let’s remember, however, that a company’s or manufacturer’s philosophy (so enshrined in their Mission and Vision statements) mask the reasons why the consumer should buy their products.

One of the features of a translation is communication, but it is hardly its only function. A translation can convey beauty (a poem), lifesaving information (hazardous material datasheet), instructions to achieve a task (repair of a water heater) and much more. To say that translators are communicators is as reductive and pedestrian as saying that a piano keyboard makes sounds.

A translator consulting Google for frequency of use of a certain neologism as his primary method of determining the right word in a translation is not doing his job. You, the end user, the project manager, the customer, the company owner, advertising manager or marketing copywriter, deserve better. After all, you also have access to a web browser and connection to the Internet. You could have arrived at the same conclusion by doing a search yourself. So, why are you paying that translator after all?

Being bilingually skilled to work with words is not enough. Pre-Internet, a rush search for an equivalent in a foreign language would involve consulting a dictionary. But a dictionary definition can only do so much. Reading actual usage of that word in the real world, in the here and now, requires a more empirical research method, and that necessitates reading relevant texts. For a translator, searching for the equivalent of our mot du jour, “disruptive,” should include not only reading the relevant English texts but also the French, Spanish or Chinese texts that are also relevant and specific.

A word about relevant texts: the translator will need to select the texts that show word usage with the least load of intentionality. Put it another way, a relevant text for our research purposes is any text that is not trying to sell you something (an idea or a product). With practice, a translator will learn to identify relevant texts and discard irrelevant ones. Now, back to being “disruptive.” As you may have surmised, the exposition of definitions, synonyms and arguments above is part of my own research of this word to better understand not just what meaning it carries but also how it (the word) interacts with other parts of speech, with other texts and with other meanings.

The previous paragraph may sound like a headache to the average person, but all those processes happen inside the head of a properly trained professional translator or terminologist. We are just seeing the product of those processes in this entry to illustrate how the complex may seem simple and quick, but only on the surface.

Any translator worth his salt will tell you that a proper translation will carry the original meanings over to the receiving language: your slogan will sound as peppy and impactful in French as it does in English; your technical descriptions will appear as clear and purposeful in the foreign language just like your technical writer or engineer made them in the original language. Your English advertisement will be as persuasive in Chinese. But let’s be careful: a translator is just the intermediary, the bridge between you and your end user. There is no need for the translator to adopt marketingspeak or advertising lingo. Yet that’s exactly what some translators, judging by what they write on blogs or industry publications, seem to have done with “disruptive.” They have become besotted with the promises behind that adjective, and that becomes a problem. Instead of being translators, they act like product evangelists (buzzword use totally intended). Like a faithful interpreter, a translator should act agnostic to the meaning or message he is carrying over for you to another language and culture.

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Filed under Buzzword, Diccionario Real Academia Española (DRAE), Fundéu BBVA, Neologism, Online dictionaries, Qualified translators, Research for translators, Research methods, Thesaurus, Word search

Terminología española or how to make better dictionaries for US Spanish speakers

If you are traveling to Spain or Mexico, but do not know the language, chances are that you will pick up a pocket English-Spanish dictionary at Half Price Books, Barnes & Noble or at your local library. Publishers like Collins, Merriam-Webster and Random House are well known. There are also bilingual phrasebooks. Pocket dictionaries are intended for casual users, naturally.

Students who are taking a language course will need a more robust solution, where the dictionary shows parts of speech and usage examples in practical situations. Again, major publishers have that need covered. Then you have more specialized dictionaries containing definitions and highly detailed notes on usage. Even large bilingual English-Spanish dictionaries, however, are general-purpose publications. In the United States, the focus is on bilingual glossaries or dictionaries, not monolingual ones. In the case of English, the United States markets are saturated with a vast array of proper English dictionaries. If you are a student of a foreign language, French, Spanish or German, you need a proper monolingual dictionary in that language. Most such dictionaries are imported, however. In essence, language students and tourists have their needs covered by the existing dictionaries. What about the local Spanish-speaking residents?

In the case of Spanish, it’s not a foreign language anymore, since more than 37 million speak it in America. And many more will speak it in the years to come. Why is it, then, that it is a language only visible to us when we hear it spoken or seen on cable TV telenovelas (soap operas)? Readers can avail themselves of the many Spanish newspapers, such as the El Diario La Prensa (New York) and El Nuevo Herald (Miami, FL), as well as weeklies and magazines. Books are also being published in Spanish in the United States, according to the Publishers Global website.

County-level map of Spanish language use in the United States in 2012

County-level map of Spanish language use in the United States in 2012

The Spanish language is being taught in schools, community colleges and universities. Bilingual workers and professionals —those using Spanish and English— are found across many industries. So, why am I still concerned for the lack of monolingual Spanish dictionaries being published natively in the United States? Although there are efforts to catalog, promote and/or describe specific Spanish uses, such as Ilán Stavans’ Spanglish and RIUSS‘ work on estadounidismos (Spanish words or expressions that take on new meaning in the United States), there are no lexicography projects involving Spanish in the United States that I know of.

At this point, I want to make a clarification: the numerous university translation certificate courses being taught have a terminology component, which is basically a list of domain-specific words, such as financial or medical terminology, along with the basics on how to build bilingual or multilingual glossaries. But this area of terminology is not lexicography, which is the craft and discipline of dictionary making.

Dr. Francisco Marcos-Marín, a professor of linguistics and advisor to RIUSS, has written a brief report on Spanish lexicography. Spanish lexicography is also the focus of a master’s program sponsored jointly by Universidad de León (Spain) and the Real Academia Española. Sadly, candidates to this unique graduate program on Spanish lexicography cannot be citizens of the United States, Equatorial Guinea, Philippines or Spain. Yet it is precisely here, in America, where Spanish lexicography is most needed at this time.

fundacion-carolina-master-lexicografia-hispanica

The two examples cited, Spanglish and the RIUSS projects, are isolated projects that pursue very different approaches. On one hand, Spanglish reflects a lingua franca for some Spanish speakers (there are examples of an incipient Spanglish literature), but Spanglish is not Spanish and it is not useful for communicating with other Spanish-speaking populations or nations. On the other hand, RIUSS has for objectives the study and promotion of formal Spanish usage and plain Spanish language in health care and similar public services. These projects might use word lists and glossaries to achieve their purposes, but their objective is not lexicography per se.

Why would Spanish lexicography be necessary or desirable in America? I can envision a few reasons:

  1. Promotion of Spanish as another language (not a foreign language) in use in the United States beyond translation and imported literature
  2. Creation and publication of US Spanish dictionaries
  3. Complementary and solid research beyond the politics of statistics
  4. Stronger and more effective visibility of United States Spanish usage in written and spoken form

Spanish speakers and other users of this language already have dictionaries published by the Real Academia Española, but this is not enough to foster and cement their linguistic ans sociocultural identity. Think tanks like the Pew Research Center, political parties and cultural observers may talk about Spanish and Spanish speakers in the United States but this is not enough. I hope to start a conversation.

 

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Filed under Lexicography, Spanglish, Spanish language, US Spanish

There and Back Again: Changes in the world of translation

There are as many definitions of translation as there are people in the world. Or, at least, as there are people who want you to hear their definition of such a pedestrian profession. Age gives you a new set of goggles to see the world every few years if you are gracious enough to let Time give you advice, that is.

Let’s assume translation has one main role, that of allowing one culture to be understood by another, and vice versa. In that sense, translation’s goal never ends as long as human cultures endure towards that end horizon we never seem to reach. That one culture needing to be understood in a different one possesses attributes, nuances and colors foreign to the receiving culture is a given. That cultural differences may be different, even shockingly surprising, is a fact that does not change. So, what does change in translating them? Processes, procedures, workflows, sales tactics, terminologies —What exactly?

The school of translation I attended in my youth was formerly called a school of languages, which reveals the fountainhead of ideas guiding the teaching of translation, imposing the models that are to be copied and passed down to professors and students, and offering up lists of authoritative books on linguistics, dictionaries, theories, etc. A closed world, you might say, almost like a serpent pursuing its own tail. Why? Even though translation was being (and continues to be) taught for several language pairs (Spanish>Italian, Spanish>German, Spanish>French, Spanish to English being the most popular), this academic bubble keeps on churning out translation graduates to an ever-encroaching global world. During my stay in Córdoba (Argentina) in 2005-2007, translation students graduating with little or no knowledge of how to present themselves to the world or understanding on the use of CAT tools was the common complaint I’ve heard. The emphasis in translation teaching was squarely set on language, grammar and texts.

My alma mater, the Facultad de Lenguas de la UNC

My alma mater, the Facultad de Lenguas de la UNC

From that school of translation of the 1980s to the Aughts of the 21st century, I saw a significant change: a university offering hundreds of Spanish, French, German or Italian translators to a nonexistent local market to the same institution offering an increasing number of Spanish translators to a globalized local market. And that brings us to a second change, that of the local or urban market, quite well defined in its physical, commercial and intellectual boundaries, converting, voluntarily or not, to one more affiliate of the global machinery of commerce. As a company, big or small, you no longer have to send representatives to foreign countries… you send your translated literature to those lands!

Moving on to an aspect with a different scope: translation itself has changed. The forces of globalized commerce, rather than bringing together different cultures, languages and cities, have brought them into closer proximity via two distinct vehicles: the English language and consumeristic technologies. In the 70s and 80s, the translated literature accompanying a product was something of a luxury or an option, but it was certainly not a commodity. In fact, if memory serves me well, reading the Spanish translation of some consumer pamphlet or manual was a singular experience that enhanced the purchase, or “purchase experience” as the marketers of today are wont to say.

This purchase or acquisition was enhanced because the translation itself revealed a level of writing, of composition, an arrangement of texts that we no longer see in assembly-lined texts produced within companies where simultaneous release or production is prime priority. The excellence in writing a piece announcing the new car model, computer or coffeemaker, for example, has been replaced with so-called quality statistics, colorful infographics and PowerPoint slides. Translations have lost their soul.

I still remember the care I needed to place on writing a single-page introductory letter to prospective buyers of the milk products my company was making for local markets, which were no longer sufficient for expansion. My boss, the sales manager, had to approve my drafts before I could commit a single word to paper via our IBM Selectric typewriter. Now companies rely more on robomail, Word templates and slick stock photography on websites to introduce themselves. Where’s the writing skill? The individualized text has become the commoditized content.

In the face of such challenges, companies intent on penetrating new and foreign markets —or that want to reintroduce themselves ­­— ­­­­would do well in securing the services of translators who are very good writers first and language experts second. People and individuals, all consumers in one way or another, still want to feel personally welcome, distinctly touched by your writing, even in the Age of Emojis.

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Filed under Commodification, Quality in translation, The business of translation, Translation as value added, Writing skills

El traductor como lector-autor

El siguiente es un ejercicio en redacción en mi primer idioma natal, el español. Quizás algunos lectores se sientan obligados a pedirme la versión en inglés (háganlo, si así lo desean).

Note: this posting is an exercise in Spanish writing, and Spanish is my first mother tongue. If you’d like to read this post in English, kindly ask me via a comment or email. Thank you.

Algunos de mis colegas ya saben que estoy matriculado en un programa de doctorado en traducción y terminología. Aclaro que más me interesa la traducción que la terminología; esta última es una disciplina multidisciplinar (como lo es la traducción o los llamados estudios de traducción) que merece su nota de bitácora por separado.

Una de las cuestiones que ha venido aguijoneándome desde hace años es la enseñanza de la traducción. Y el móvil de estos pensamientos surgió en un rincón inesperado: la redacción técnica en inglés. Allá por 1997 me había matriculado en una clase (tres horas crédito) dictada por un profesor de origen armenio o persa, muy afable y organizado. El programa, ofrecido por Cal State-Fullerton, se centraba más en los principios de redacción técnica más que en los programas informáticos que más de moda estaban entre los comunicadores técnicos del momento, como RoboHelp, DreamWeaver, FrontPage y Quark Xpress.

¿Acaso podemos enseñar a otros a escribir? La pregunta es un poco tautológica y también se contesta sola en caso afirmativo. Todos aprendemos a hablar en la cuna cultural que nos toca. En esa aula de la vida y la familia, aprendemos los sonidos que refieren a esos glifos y símbolos que llamamos ya sea letras, palabras, idiogramas o pictogramas (según seamos de ascendencia europea, china o polinesia, etc.). A medida que aprendemos a dominar el encadenamiento de sonidos y palabras, vamos nombrando ideas, sentimientos, cosas y conceptos, en medio del ensayo y el error. Claro, cometíamos muchísimos errores, que a nuestros mayores a veces les parecían graciosos, encantadores, tontos o una combinación de todo ello. Siempre me maravilló pensar en que un niñito que yerra mientras aprende a hablar y a expresarse poco le importa que se rían de él. Es más, toma las risas y bromas como parte del aprendizaje, sin internalizarlas ni guardarlas. Comparemos esa circunstancia con la del adulto cualquiera que reacciona con un gesto ofendido cuando se le corrige la escritura, la puntuación o la gramática.

Aprender a leer es ese puente que todos cruzamos a tientas hasta que podemos expresarnos por escrito. Es una labor ardua y disciplinada que nos lleva mucho más esfuerzo que aprender a hablar. Y hay varios estadios de aprendizaje y de dominio, desde el nivel del tercer grado (por un ejemplo) hasta la categoría universitaria y más allá. Descubrimos, de adultos, que el habla y la escritura se especializan cada vez más tanto por razones tanto tribales como profesionales.

Aprender a escribir es una actividad continua que nos lleva toda la vida. A menos que decidamos quedarnos en un estadio, como el del trabajador en una fábrica de zapatillas, contentos con lo alcanzado y sin que nos interesen otras áreas del conocimiento, siempre necesitaremos armarnos de nuevos vocabularios y nuevos recursos retóricos para expresarnos por escrito.

Hay quienes están satisfechos con dar el siguiente parte sobre las vacaciones de una semana tomadas el verano pasado: “La pasé muy bien/Me divertí muchísimo/La ciudad era espectacular/Hice muchos amigos/Visité varios museos” y así sucesivamente. Los parlamentos se acortan, aunque desestimo la primera razón que nos parece obvia: que estamos apurados en la vida. No, no lo creo. Otro ejemplo es responder al amigo o pariente que nos ve luego que hemos visto una película de estreno. Solícitamente nos pregunta: “¿Cómo fue la película? ¿De qué se trataba?” Y le contestamos con frases remanidas como “¡Estuvo fantástica!/Era un drama basado en hechos reales ocurridos en la Alemania del siglo XIX/Era una de aventuras con Hombre-Araña y Tor; me gustaron las actuaciones y los efectos especiales”.

Y ahí se terminan nuestras habilidades redactoras.

Uno de los ejercicios que daba a mis alumnos de traducción años atrás era el de escribir un trozo de 150-200 palabras en el que me describieran un paseo, un monumento, una visita a una ciudad, etc. En lugar de recurrir a las expresiones cuasineandertálicas (si se me permite el humor), estos alumnos se veían entre impulsados y forzados a describir, armar oraciones complejas, usar varios tiempos verbales, además de adverbios, frases preposicionales y otros recursos conocidos pero caídos en desuso. Claro, algunos de los trabajos se leían como relatos formulistas y preenvasados, pero era un buen paso.

Traducir es leer y (re)escribir lo leído. Para que la traducción no se lea formulista ni tenga todas las características de un texto zombi, hay que cultivar buenos hábitos de lectura, los cuales siempre informarán nuestros hábitos de escritura. Es indispensable ir más allá de leer textos en nuestros idiomas natales; hay que seleccionarlos con cuidado, sin temor a equivocarnos. Ya sean libros, revistas, artículos, ponencias, intervenciones, libros, folletos, afiches, almanaques, tarjetas, etcétera, todo es útil. Que nada escape a nuestro ojo crítico.

Nuestros ojos son como un segundo cerebro que desempeña actividades tanto cuando están abiertos como cuando están cerrados. ¿O acaso no han cerrado los ojos cuando escuchan una melodía o después de leer un pasaje, a fin de visualizar lo escuchado o lo leído? Los ojos no son simplemente faros ni detectores de modelos visuales (pattern scanners). Es posible desarrollar y cultivar una vista estereoespacial, a la manera del sonido estereofónico, donde podamos aprehender diferentes pieles textuales, distintos matices y colores en las palabras. Si aprendemos o reaprendemos el arte de la lectura, más allá de su obvia utilidad cotidiana, estoy seguro de que podremos aprender a escribir con una soltura aún por descubrir, en la cual nos podamos reconocer.

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Filed under Grammar, Lectura - Reading, Lectura contemplativa, Redacción - Writing, Writing skills

Taking the pulse of translation theories

If you are a translator or interpreter going to the upcoming ATA Conference in San Francisco, USA, consider performing this unscientific but social experiment: ask any of the veteran translators at the hotel lobby if they have a preferred translation theory.

If you get a hesitant reply, a stare or a shrug, don’t be discouraged. Or surprised. The more veteran the translator is, or the more steeped he/she is in the latest technologies or sales pitches for translation services, the less interested our colleague will be in (insert a derisive pause here) any translation theory.

Why is that? Glad you asked, because one of my current objectives as a PhD student at the Universidade de AveiroUniversidade de Nova joint doctoral program in Translation and Terminology is to listen to, learn about and discuss relevant translation theories. By relevant theories I mean concepts that ordinary translators can apply in their workflows. For example, Eugene Nida’s literal-and-dynamic (or functional, as Nida claimed in later years) equivalence theory is rooted on biblical translations, a subject hardly relevant to commercial or technical translators today. That doesn’t make it irrelevant, however. But that’s a discussion for another day.

The writing of a translation is where the translation theories (i.e. our writing choices) are often applied.

The writing of a translation is where the translation theories (i.e. our writing choices) are often applied.

And why, you may ask, translation theories should be relevant to the most important people in our profession —namely, our customers? They are, I would say, indirectly relevant to them. They don’t need to know them, but we do in order to base our translation decisions and provide adequate explanations for them.

One reason why exposing a customer to even a basic discussion of translation theories is unadvisable is that it can be dangerously confusing. For example, some customers already (and inadvertently) conflate two concepts: word-for-word (or literal) translation with a translation that is faithful to the original. While a customer may ask you to do a faithful translation (faithful to the meaning or spirit or intent of the original text —which, in Nida’s view, would be called a functional translation or, in Christiane Nord’s words, an instrumental translation— the selfsame client may bristle at not finding the same words (sometimes they’re false friends or false cognates) in your translation.

And some terminologists and terminology software advocates tend to muddle things up in this scenario by overemphasizing the importance or hierarchical relevance of a wordlist or glossary, or worse, by overselling the consistency between texts.

Studying and discussing translation theories and their specialized (i.e. arcane) terminology is par for the course in academic circles for translation studies. I recently expressed my view to one of my professors (in my very poor Portuguese, mind you) that we need to be the bridges between the world and the translation studies field to share these translation theories in an accessible language. I was given a reply that best attests to the surprise of making translation theories more accessible to the layman (“translation theory does not have esoteric language”). Still, that’s one of my objectives.

If you are a buyer of translation services, you may not need to know translation theories but you already know whether a text is well written or not. If you like to write, if you enjoy reading a well-composed document, you’re already knowledgeable in writing theory. The main bridge I propose for you to meet me half way is writing well for its intended purpose. I hope to meet you there soon.

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Filed under Business of writing, Consistency, Customer relationship, Literal translation, Misinformation on translator role, Translation theory, Writing skills

Nondisclosure and noncompete agreements: some practical advice

Remember back when the only contract you had with a customer was your word of honor? Recall that time in the nebulous past when word-of-mouth meant someone recommended you (as a reliable translator, accountant, electrician, publisher, typographer, designer, etc.) and you got a new customer’s ear to start working on a new project?

Translators: Remember those days when all you had to sign was a one- or two-page agreement with a translation agency?

The more complex the organization, more paperwork has to be read, signed and dated. Having been in the marketplace as an independent professional and an employee translator for several software companies since the late 1990s, I’ve learned a thing or two about agreements, what to sign, what to return unsigned for clarification, and when to dispute a restrictive clause. When I wrote a weekly column for a Lakeland newspaper in 2004-2005, I was required to sign an agreement with the actual owner of the newspaper (a large New York-based company with the word TIME on it). The agreement basically took all my intellectual rights away in exchange for the paltry sum I was going to get paid. I challenged the highly restrictive language —after all, it meant, in part, that I couldn’t use my columns on other publications, websites, books or media. However, I had to relent because I was told that it was a standard agreement. My priority was to get published, not to challenge a point.

In large companies, signing nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) is par for the course because any employee working on a product (even writing translations for a product or service) may come in contact with privileged, confidential or proprietary information. Trade secrets have to be safeguarded, the logic goes. If you are an independent contractor, you might fear not signing everything that the company is forwarding you because you think you’d lose the client. Some companies have a right to impose highly restrictive NDAs. I once worked for a translation company specializing in clinical trial documentation; having been recommended by an esteemed colleague, I was in and started working for them in less than a month. One of the conditions, however, was that I was never to disclose the name of the company in any way. Since this particular limitation did not restrict my earning power or jeopardize my intellectual rights, I signed it.

I have worked with dozens of translation agencies over the years, and I have developed a kind of yardstick to gauge for which I would consider signing any agreement at all. Basically, the more paperwork a translation agency gives you to sign, the warier you should be. I mean, why the paranoia on the part of the agency? Why lawyering up to a professional translator or interpreter? If you have been burned by a motormouth translator who gave away confidential information or by an interpreter who tweeted key case data, the solution is not to add more restrictive operational clauses to your agreement, but to choose your translators and intepreters more wisely.

Another sticky issue is that of noncompete clauses. I remember signing a couple of agreements with translation agencies where a noncompete clause was included. In short, I was not to pursue business with the agency’s clients for 12 or more months after the agreement’s termination. I didn’t see the harm in signing on such clause, but reading comments from fellow translators about this kind of language gave me pause. Several colleagues had pointed out the unenforceability of noncompete clauses.

A recent article published in The Wall Street Journal (June 15, 2016, B8 section) shed some much-needed light on the matter. Publishing company Law360 and the New York Attorney General’s office reached a settlement under which noncompete provisions should be removed from employment contracts.

noncompete agreements quote 1

Similar situations are taking place elsewhere (see quote about sandwich chain Jimmy John’s below). Even the White House has expressed an opinion. These precedents are highly relevant to practicing translators, proofreaders, technical writers, graphic designers, interpreters and other so-called knowledge workers. Remember that noncompete clauses and nondisclosure agreements are just some of the many aspects in a contractual relationship with a customer or employer. You are encouraged to do due diligence, learn the main legal concepts and terms involved, read an agreement before signing it, ask sensible questions, challenge any clauses you disagree with and, if necessary, walk away.

noncompete agreements quote 2

Translation educators should also take part in the discussion. Along with the requisite business skills that any professional should cultivate, the legal knowledge necessary to navigate through these and other agreements and contracts is essential to nurture a professional image and foster genuine cooperation with your customers.

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Filed under Confidentiality of information, Customer relationship, Fairness in agreements, NDA, Noncompete clauses, Punitive clauses

The myth of the rush translation

Faced with a rush translation? Just say no.

To the neophyte translator, who is still struggling to find regular clients, the words urgent and rush sound like an invitation to test her skills, her ability to meet deadlines and, most importantly, land a new client. These words are part of the stable repertoire of a customer’s manipulative language. At times, these rush translation requests come with an overt quasi promise of more work. And the inexperienced translator falls for it. I know because I did it on several occasions during the first few years of my career.

I am not disqualifying every single claim to a rush or urgent translation, because I have also faced bona fide rush requests from well-established clients. The difference is that there is no manipulative language, no empty promises of more projects coming up. As an in-house translator, I had to drop everything in order to address the occasional urgent request for a translation.

Napoleón Bonaparte quote - vísteme despacio que tengo prisa

In addition, reliable customers who request bona fide rush translations offer to pay extra for your trouble and don’t usually haggle: they’re in a time crunch and they come to you because you are reliable too. They’re willing to pay top dollar for your services. Other than that, rush requests belie a pervasive lack of organization that comes from project mismanagement and unrealistic expectations set by sales, marketing and/or product managers at the end-customer side. Translation companies big and small, desperate to please and earn money, accept these rush projects without question, thus becoming part of the contagious lack of organization I referred to earlier.

But said translation companies protest: “The customer is always right.” This is one of those proverbs that are rather a self-fulfilling prophecy than a rational statement of fact. No, not all customers are always right. In fact, some customers are usually disorganized, unfocused, distracted, etc. Behind every corporation or small business, there’s a very fallible human being who can’t be always right even if his (or her) life depended on it.

Translators could use some of the scientific method approach: look for the root cause, investigate, experiment, fail and fail again, examine all plausible causes for a particular result, eliminate the improbable and arrive at the truth. So what if a client says I have a rush translation due tomorrow, 3000 words from a contract or a list of parts for a blowout preventer? Whether you are a single contractor, a 10-staff translation agency or LionBridge, you have a choice. Learn to say no.

In our minds, we all sometimes entertain an ideal dialogue with a client, trying to elucidate the causes for a rush, delay, lack of proper deliverables, attempting to resolve conflicts and miscommunication. We all sometimes wish that our client were more understanding, had more time to talk on the phone, actually gave us the materials we requested to do our job instead of wasting our time. But these are ideal scenarios that play out only in our heads. We have no power or authority to go into a customer’s organization, talk to the befuddled managers on how to insert the translation process into their processes and workflows instead of leaving translation as an afterthought. We cannot change their behavior. But we do have the power to say no. Let me play a scenario for you.

If translation companies, from government contractors to the lowliest of the lowly and lonely single translator starting out as such had the courage, the presence of mind, the firmness of will, the determination to say No, I can’t do your rush translation, then clients may start to reassess their workflows. We can be more detailed in our answer: No, I can’t do your rush translation under the circumstances you describe. If we acted this way, maybe, just maybe clients will reflect and play a fairer game, because good writing, good translating cannot be rushed.

There are other sad considerations behind a rush translation, aside from a chaotic workflow on the client’s side. Does the client really care for the end user who will use the translation? If not, why pay for it? I recently faced the following situation: a lighting manufacturer wanted some bilingual instructions to be translated and laid out as soon as possible, almost urgently, because their Chinese partner was sending new fixtures sooner than expected and shipment to customers had to be accelerated. Even with suitable translations, a proper document layout cannot be just rushed, slapping images on pages as some artists does with scraps to make a photo collage. What was so urgent about inserting the rushed translation into the fixtures’ packaging? What if the instructions, properly translated and typeset, were given adequate time and then end users were directed to download those instructions from the manufacturer’s website instead? There wouldn’t be any need to rush a translation. If we compared the rush time to a regular lead time for translation delivery, we would be talking about a few days. What will a few days’ delay make against a company’s quarterly sales?

Software developers and makers rush products all the time in a highly competitive marketplace, trying to outdo each other with new features and reach the market before the other. But, why sell buggy and mistranslated (mislocalized) software in the first place, knowing that correcting those bugs and mistranslations cost added time and money to the company and to the customer? My 7 years in the software business have shown precisely that time and time again. Where’s the rational workflow, the proper product and project management in that?

The point here is that mismanagement and chaotic workflows don’t just affect translations and translators but products, services, time-to-market schemes and, ultimately, profits. Easy does it, the saying goes. Speed is not a virtue but an obstacle, like any other. Anything worth keeping, buying, investing in, admiring and valuing is truly worth waiting for. Don’t rush it.

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Filed under Customer workflow, Negotiations, Rush translations