Consistency, that undefinable umbrella term

If you are a translation buyer, you are probably concerned that a translation should be consistent across the different documents it involves: marketing brochures, PowerPoint slides, technical descriptions, even sales items and press releases. It makes sense to keep a unified message out there.

If you are a translator like me, you’ve heard it too: keep the terms consistent; maintain consistency across all files.

I think translation buyers, translators and project managers are meaning different things when they request consistency and I’ll attempt to clarify it here.

First, let’s get the obvious meaning out of the way: when people talk about consistent things, they mean use the same terms: a bolt is a bolt, not a carriage bolt. A partition is not necessarily a wall anymore than a white blood cell is a blood element. The more technical a document, the more consistent it should be, because using ambiguous terms might mean using the wrong kind of steel or injecting the wrong dosage of a certain drug.

But I think consistency refers to a more important fact: comprehension. And for a statement to be easily understood, the same exact words do not always need to be used. An example:

A) Provide stainless steel self-tapping metal fasteners to attach the metal panel system to the bathroom partition.

B) Affix the metal panel to the bathroom partition using stainless steel self-tapping screws.

Both sentences above, A and B, are giving exactly the same instructions. Notice, however, that B is shorter, crisper and clearer. Imagine that the user’s manual has sentence A while a maintenance manual has sentence B: the sentences differ, but they are consistent in meaning and purpose. And that’s worth remembering.

A translator doesn't just substitute words like code characters.

A translator doesn’t just substitute words like code characters.

The other side of the consistency coin is terminology. Many people, including translators, use the word a bit carelessly without fully understanding what it means. In civil engineering, an overhead panel ceiling is the same as a panel ceiling system, or a panel ceiling. Some people like to show off a bit and call a heater a heating unit or a heating system, but they are all one and the same in the real world.

Translators should concern themselves more with doing proper word and concept research to support their translation choices rather than promise a fuzzy idea of consistency. They should know better about using glossaries, dictionaries and other sources rather than floating the word terminology so casually. Why? Because terminology is more than just building a glossary of specialized words; proper terminology also involves developing the right criteria to use those words. Terminology is not about foreign word substitution because languages are not software codes, not easily amenable to a simple search and replace action or a copy and paste method. And a seasoned translator who changes a word doesn’t necessarily do it out of preference but out of precision and, ironically enough, to preserve the much-valued consistency.

Then, what to do with consistency? Call it something else, for starters. As a project manager, I learned that the best time to ask questions about expectations is in the beginning, before mistaken assumptions cause costly mistakes and delays. The first expectations to be clarified are those of the translation buyer, i.e. the client. What are her priorities? Once priorities are stated and fleshed out, begin from there:

Is there a company glossary to use as reference? A responsible and expert translator does not promise blind conformity with a glossary without taking a good look at it first. Also, it’s also a translator’s best practice to tell the customer that the most updated, industry-specific and appropriate terms shall be used, and that those terms may or may not come from the company glossary. If this potentially sticky point is handled at the beginning, then expectations shall be clearer for all concerned and any questions of consistency will be resolved.

If the translator earns the customer’s trust about his performance in writing excellent technical translations, then nitpicking about this or that word usage will be very rare. When this trust is not established from the beginning among the translator, his customer, the customer’s reviewers and even the project manager and fellow translators working on the same project, then the entire team will spend time arguing over terminological issues, preferences and so-called consistency. Chances are that, in this chaotic environment, an otherwise well-written translation will be questioned for the terms it uses.

As an aside note on consistency, I think universities and colleges engaged in teaching translation and interpretation should teach lexicography basics rather than terminology. If we want to prepare a new generation of competent translators, we need to show them the basics of dictionary making, the process of word formation and the principles of empirical research aimed at finding the right terms and expressions in a given industry or specialization. Otherwise, we are selling them just an empty shell of knowledge —after all, terminology is widely (and mistakenly) understood as the process of building glossaries for a given industry. But, as I hoped to show above, that’s only part of the story.

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Filed under Consistency, Lexicography, Research in translation, Terminology, Vocabulary, Writing skills

The awkward departure of a former ATA media representative

The American Translators Association, a non-profit professional organism with a membership of approximately 11,000 in the United States, Canada, Europe and other countries around the world, is undergoing another set of growing pains. Its Board of Directors is made up of volunteers, most of whom are independent translators or small business owners like the readers of this blog.

Established in 1959 by a small number of New York City translators, ATA grew almost exponentially in the following decades. It currently has strong programs to reach out to novice translators and schools. Its media and public relations program has achieved important milestones in the last 15 years, thanks to driven people such as Chris Durban, Lillian Clementi and Kevin Hendzel, the latter becoming ATA spokersperson.

However, the ATA PR machine has undergone some painful internal motions in recent years, which culminated with the sudden resignation of its spokesperson, Kevin Hendzel, in 2012. He was replaced by Dr. Jiří Stejskal (no the ice hokey goaltender), a small businessman, owner of CETRA, with main offices in Elkins Park, PA. Mr. Stejskal is also a former ATA president.

A recent article published in the online site of The Economist quotes Mr. Stejskal thus:

“Machine translation” is the next step. Computers learn from huge databases of already-translated text to make ever-better guesses about how to render whole chunks from one language into another. Translators used to scorn this, seeing their human judgment as irreplaceable. Now, says Jiri Stejskal of the American Translators’ Association, it has won respectability.

This seemingly innocent statement caused a firestorm in the Yahoo! ATA Business Practices forum and in LinkedIn’s ATA discussion group this week, initiated by Mr. Hendzel:

Hendzel 1

When I first saw it, I assumed that it was sharing a link to an article about the ATA. Many translators did just that. It wasn’t until days that the reactions began to appear. Some commented on the outrageous quote, which many took as the ATA’s official position on MT (machine translation) having gained respectability. Mr. Hendzel, as it is his custom, rehashed his past role as ATA spokesman for a decade and how the ATA and translators in general had gained greater recognition during that time. At least, until 2012, when he resigned as spokesman. He further recited well-worn lamentations about the sad state of ATA in the field of public relations and the overall mismanagement  perpetrated by members of the current ATA Board. The initial posting collected a thread of about 45 comments, some thanking Mr. Hendzel for bringing up the topic and others disagreeing with him.

I also participated in the discussion. Full disclosure: at first, I complained about the misquote and asked that Mr. Stejskal offered an explanation:

My first comment on the matter.

My first comment on the matter.

A second reading of the quote in question changed my mind. The quotation marks surrounding Machine Translation had thrown me off, and I erroneously attributed them to Mr. Stejskal. It was time to call for a step back. Is it possible that the writer’s stile was at fault here? I concluded that the article required a second or third reading.

 

I was confused, and doubts about blaming this “PR disaster” (according to Mr. Hendzel) on Mr. Stejskal deserved further analysis and cooler heads:

Hendzel 6 - My doubts about the quote

Hendzel 4 - Mi admission of error and trying to strike a moderate tone

The discussion was boiling and not resolving anything. However, commenters were civil toward each other, despite the fact that clouds of doubt and something more, undefinable as yet, were mounting and hovering over the debate.

There were many sensible comments and I added what usually drives me to discuss things. I also sensed an agenda after carefully rereading the initial posting that started the thread: Why is Mr. Hendzel criticizing the ATA spokesman for saying the wrong thing? Why is he making Mr. Stejskal responsible for “killing our primary message”?

Hendzel 5-mod - Keeping cool heads

Before the reader arrives at wrong conclusions, this is not about the nice and sensible things I said. Since the thread includes 45 comments and due to the impracticality of quoting every single one of them, I’m using judgment to insert the ones that I think are necessary for my discussion on the matter. Nor is it my purpose to rant against anyone involved in the long conversation. I want to present the most salient facts for those interested precisely because it touches on the public image of the professional entity I belong to as a translator. From my exchanges with Mr. Hendzel since 2011, I knew him to be a consummate self-promoter, a superb presenter and a very articulate spokesperson. Behind all that, however, I could sense a tendency to indulge in hyperbole and extreme comparisons bordering on demagoguery. I pointed that to him on several occasions, both in public and in private exchanges. Therefore, that exposure cued me to some purpose in his carping against the current ATA spokesman. I considered the discussion another exercise in futility and kept my thought to myself.

First, upon Mr. Hendzel’s resignation in 2012, ATA had to find a new spokesman and Mr. Stejskal stepped in. Media interviews don’t always go the way the interviewee intended and it’s up to the journalist or editor what comes out as the final version in print (or on the air). That’s what seemed to have happened with The Economist paragraph. The portrayal of machine translation (MT) as given in the article does not represent ATA’s position on the matter. Second, ATA lost its paid media adviser when it defunded the media outreach effort.

Finally, some light at the end of the tunnel. Some much-needed clarity reached my thoughts and I thanked Ms. Clementi for the facts and her comments. The discussion was not going to end like so many others, however. It was not going to be another event blown out of proportion by hyperbolic statements. A fellow translator, James Kirchner, known for his sharp mind, wrote what he considered to be the motivation behind the whole thread by Mr. Hendzel. Summarizing his words, Mr. Kirchner said that Mr. Hendzel had misrepresented the Stejskal “quote.” Mr. Stejskal clarified the matter in the BP list that the paragraph in the article was not accurate and proceeded to repeat what he actually said to the journalist.

In Mr. Kirchner’s view, Mr. Hendzel is being unjustly critical of Mr. Stejskal and the whole argument is pointless: there is no crisis. Finally, Mr. Kirchner indicated 3 common threads in Mr. Hendzel’s press-related pronunciations in the past: 1) Mr. Hendzel and his team did a superb job as ATA liaisons with the media; 2) any other ATA media representative is incompetent, and 3) Mr. Hendzel prefers to criticize those in ATA who are working in his old position as spokesperson.

James Kirchner said what I was thinking, but with much more force and determination. The interesting thing about this is, I had said similar things to Mr. Hendzel in the course of other discussions in the last year and a half, with little consequence. So I started to ignore his postings. The ATA moderator for our discussion group reminded everyone of the netiquette rules: don’t attack anyone, be courteous, etc. Inside, I was a tad indignant because I didn’t want this uncovering of a self-absorbed individual go unnoticed. So I wrote this:

I finally expressed my thoughts about the propagandistic tone behind the announcer of the thread, Mr. Hendzel.

I finally expressed my thoughts about the propagandistic tone behind the announcer of the thread, Mr. Hendzel.

I was courting a reprimand, I know. I said what was on my mind without naming names, but it was clear who I was referring to. Being reprimanded was not a present worry for me, though. Then Mr. Hendzel did the unexpected: he said he would resign from ATA this week. He further claimed the dangers ATA was facing due to the lack of real leaders and improper management. He lamented over the years he served to promote ATA, adding, rather puzzingly, that ATA was like the Apple computer going the way of Radio Shack. He promised to keep active in his blog and his parting words made reference to pursuing better options to head media efforts at other translators organizations.

Kevin Hendzel announced, with his hallmark pomp and circumstance, that he was leaving the ATA. He shared his conviction that the ATA is on a downward spiral to ruin and irrelevance but that he was going to be better off elsewhere.

So it seems that Mr. Hendzel had been smarting from his resignation as ATA spokesman, burning with desire to keep working in some media capacity but still harboring a deep resentment, contempt and disdain toward other ATA officers and marked animosity against Mr. Stejskal for reasons unknown to us.

I used to respect Mr. Hendzel precisely for the PR achievements he scored for the ATA. I remember the occasions that I would hear about the ATA and its spokesman, Mr. Hendzel, on some radio or TV interview. He did provide a great service to our organization. Then, the assumption of a new board of directors in the second decade of the 21st century changed things for public relations and for Mr. Hendzel. The Board and Mr. Hendzel didn’t see things eye to eye, the former later defunding PR and media efforts and the latter resigning in the aftermath in 2012.

Kevin Hendzel says that it was a sad day for him. Well, it was a sad day for me and for many others who witnessed how this otherwise intelligent and highly skilled professional decided to tear down his own legacy by tearing apart the current ATA spokesman and whatever other PR initiatives were started and achieved after his departure. It is a very grey and dull epilogue of his own making, a bland departure for a heretofore sterling man with an ego to match and who couldn’t bow down with grace and dignity.

The main problem for most was the misquoted ATA position on machine translation. Mr. Stejskal, fully aware of the commotion caused elsewhere in LinkedIn, wrote a candid, calm and complete explanation on the topic, which is now considered closed. As a result, ATA is requesting a clarification on the misquote from The Economist.

In the larger horizon of news events, we can be sure that ATA spokespersons will be quoted, misquoted, underquoted in different media. Other bloggers will comment on the issue, not all of them connected to the translation activity. And ATA will issue clarifications and gain more recognition and stature in response, I surely expect. That’s basically what the cooler heads in the LinkedIn discussion thread were asking all the time.

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Filed under Advertising, ATA, Machine translation, Public image of translators, Public Relations, Public relations in translation

A critique of Massimo Ghislandi’s optimism

Today I learned on Twitter about Massimo Ghislandi’s statements about 2014 and the translation industry, comments which fellow colleagues Jost Zetzsche and Riccardo Schiaffino qualified as interesting. Well, after reading Mr. Ghislandi’s posting, I decided that his words were more than just interesting in a way.

Massimo Ghislandi - Translationzone

Mr. Ghislandi is VP of Translation Productivity for SDL Language Solutions, a large MLSP with main offices in Great Britain. Some of the news he shared in his posting are very good news indeed, like the removal of Java from MultiTerm. As a SDL Trados Freelancer user, I’m pleased with this development, as well as other minor improvements in the tool. I took issue with some of Mr. Ghislandi’s sunny assertions, particularly those regarding the role of terminology to increase the speed of the translation process and the manufactured need for a faster translation process. The following is my posted reply to Mr. Ghislandi:

After seeing cautiously complimentary Twitter comments on this article, I had to drop by and see for myself. Here are my opinions:

Adjectives in lieu of hard data smell of marketing language, not empirical observation: “huge amounts of content being created.; “it has also been an eventful year for SDL Translation Productivity and the translation industry overall.”

Unsupported statements based on subjective impressions: “The number of full time translators is also not growing at the content’s pace.  I have the impression that the number of full time translators might be growing at 5-10%, while content is growing at double or triple digit rates.”

An artificial urgency to make translation faster based on a fallacy: “The gap between source content and translated content is just widening …I think we do need to find ways to translate faster so that we can try and close the gap between created content and translated content.”

Who is to say that all source content should be translated in its entirety? One rule of thumb to follow is to translate just what the customer needs, no more, not less, and not what some localization manager or sales or marketing manager ‘thinks’ the customer needs. I think that’s the more important gap.

As a professional translator myself, I am persuaded that we need to find ways to translate more slowly so that the translated content is useful, readable and actionable. It doesn’t matter what software tools we translators use, as long as we remember to take the requisite time to think before writing, which is an ability in very short supply.

About your statements on terminology: “Or is terminology seen as way to improve the speed of the overall translation process (cutting down on those review cycles!)? I am not sure.” While terminology management software is useful to keep a level of consistency, terminology by itself it not nearly enough to increase the so-called translation quality. I have seen many poorly written translations that include the right industry terminology, for example. I cannot agree with your take that terminology may be a way to speed up the translation process. We need to let go of the need for speed in translation.

Many visible people in the translation field feel the temptation to play prophet and tell us what’s in store in the future: “I guess I do need to look forward! I wish I could tell you what is going to happen next year in the translation world. Predictions are tougher to make in this agile and perhaps more volatile world.”

But not all of my comments are critical. Well done for getting rid of Java in MultiTerm.

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Machine translation, Quality in translation, SDL Studio 2014, Terminology, The world of translation

“Lowest rates available and high quality”

An old Spanish say goes like this: “Dime con quién andas y te diré quién eres” (English: tell me who you are friends with and I’ll tell you who you are). It means that the people you choose to surround yourself with will determine your image, your public persona, your identity.

A similar saying in English would be Birds of a feather flock together. It’s only human to desire to be with whom we feel a certain affinity. It could also be said that the people whose company we choose to keep might determine our degree of success in life. Our parents saw to it that we picked the right friends, for example. As adults, we face pressure to be with the right crowd and so on.

Whether we are students or professionals, we want to seek the association of those who we see as equal to, or better than, ourselves. Thus, a recent college graduate aspiring to be an interpreter will seek the company of more seasoned interpreters; the translator who decided to set up shop as an agency will procure advice from established agency owners whose experience approaches hers. This natural cycle resembles the medieval model of master and apprentice or, in clunkier prose, of mentor and mentee.

Apprentices follow the narrative that best seems to match their goals. If a translator wants more clients, she will gravitate towards the masters who offer a promising marketing plan. If a translator wants clients who pay more for her services, she will find the current chatter about premium markets quite attractive. In the marketplace of ideas, the ones that sound more promising win the day. And why wouldn’t they? If I’m a medical translator who wants to work for Big Pharma companies, I will naturally feel attracted by the rhetoric of someone who has Big Pharma contacts. That I may gain access to those contacts is obviously another story.

Some of the promising ideas in this marketplace are high quality translations. I have a problem with the use of quality in the realm of translation because, contrary to what standards associations and language service gurus affirm, quality in translation is an oxymoron, it can’t be objectively measured no matter how many error-counting templates are being used. To be clear, quality can only be measured for goods or services that can be predictably and repeatedly manufactured or performed the same way every single time. Manufacturing safety valves, for example, requires such a precision that quality measures have to be taken. Applying automatic weld points by a robot on an automotive chassis has to be a highly controlled process to deliver the same product predictably and accurately. The following excerpt illustrates how a manual welding process, with its innacuracies and variations, compares to a robotic welding process:

A robotic welding process resulted in lower costs, more efficiency and consistency in the NASCAR industry.  Source: Lincoln Electric

A robotic welding process resulted in lower costs, more efficiency and consistency in the NASCAR industry. Source: Lincoln Electric

The previous discussion about NASCAR robot welding can be used to imagine how a translation process would fare under similar circumstances. The areas highlighted in yellow are mine. Please note key terms such as manual welding, variations in weld quality, inconsistent weld pattern, among others. Notice also the result of applying robotic welding: the elimination of variation and the improvement in weld accuracy. Translation providers married to the quality control model offer a similar guarantee.

Another aspect of quality control in this scenario is that it can be independently assessed. That’s why we tend to trust independent quality reviews of cars by organizations such as Consumer Reports because they are performed outside of the factory and outside of the marketing and sales pitch of the automaker. Carmakers use these independent assessments to prop up their advertising to sell more cars because the buying public sees those quality evaluations as authoritative and not part of the sales process.

Therefore, a translation agency or translator who claims to provide translations of such and such quality are expecting you to believe their hype and their sales spiel. They add testimonials with redacted clients’ names on their websites to add the patina of authoritativeness. If you let yourself be convinced by that rhetoric, that means you are maintaining a relative position on quality. In other words, to you, quality is subjective and part of the word of mouth.

Another fallacy in the translation quality discussion is budgeting for words, regardless of their multiplicity of meanings and different contexts. A customer may state that she understands that words have varying connotations and a legal document is not the same as a videogame script. However, for the translation quality metaphor to work —however inadequate is in reality— the customer has to see each word as a separate unit of a whole. In this view, words are assembled into strings of text, like so many pickle jars or oil cans are lined up in a factory, and translators are just assembly workers checking items for errors and discarding the words that don’t fit a set of parameters like spelling, punctuation or their proper place in the correct word order.

The lower rates become an issue secondary to this quality control problem. If you see words on a page like screws in a blister box or a pile of laser printer boxes, then it is easy to see why you would request the lowest price I can offer as a translator. But words are not products, items or fabricated things. They are living things created by thought.

Back to the old Spanish saying, I have long associated translators and agencies offering the lowest rates with poor-quality translations. So, I tend to dismiss translators offering low rates out of hand because I’ve conditioned myself to think that they must be providing low quality. I have to pry myself free from that assumption, however, because I really don’t know how good those translators are at what they do. I confess that I started this entry because I read the byline “Lowest rates available and high quality” on the profile of a translator working in Colombia. I realized I couldn’t judge her because I don’t know her particular circumstances beyond that phrase. I certainly don’t know the Colombian marketplace for translations and translators.

I do know the marketplace in the United States, and here translation providers who offer low rates do it because a) they want to increase their market share and b) they have embraced the assembly line quality control model and operate accordingly.

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Filed under Customers, Productivity, Quality in translation, Rates, Wordcount

Cleveland could be a cosmopolitan city

I’m a Clevelander by adoption; I’m entering my 5th year as a resident in the area (west side of Cleveland proper) but I can’t yet feel the urban atmosphere as more than mere concrete bigness and hollowed-out glory that doesn’t seem to reach out and touch the world.

Cleveland and surrounding cities have many bright spots: worldclass museums and orchestras, as well as the famed Cleveland International Film Festival, now in its 39th anniversary. Several multinational companies, from Sherwin Williams to Lubrizol and Hyland Software, call the Greater Cleveland their home.

According to US Census 2010 figures, 12.1% of the population age 5 and older speaks a foreign language. Of that slice, 7.1% of adults 18 and older speak Spanish, 0.6% speak Arabic, 0.5% speak Chinese. Also, 0.9% speak a Slavic language (Polish, Serbo-Croatian, Ukranian and Russian). But Cleveland is not the only epicenter of foreign languages in Ohio. In recent years, the city of Dayton, OH, has become the home of 2,500 Aishka Turks, who speak Turkish.

ACS 2012 census reporter Cleveland OH (languages)

By most accounts, Cleveland is a multicultural hub, but you wouldn’t see it by reading the local newspapers or websites —unless you were specifically looking for a foreign-language website, that is. But Cleveland has a ways to go before being considered a truly dynamic cosmopolitan city.

Take exports, for example. Aside from some of the companies I just mentioned, I didn’t know about any local exporters until recently through an article published in Crain’s Cleveland Business (found here) in last June. The article, titled Companies have a world of options to enter export game, mentions several useful programs to help local companies export products, but fail to say anything about using foreign languages. Countries may have ports of call where you send your merchandise, and your company (if it is an exporter) may know all the forms to fill out to comply with the regulations of a foreign country, but a language is your portal to a foreign culture, which can come in handy to understand business transactions and practices in that faraway destination. Since you put so much stock on exporting and gaining new customers, thus improving your bottom line, shouldn’t you be paying attention to their language as a factor that can influence your earnings favorably?

Another area of potential robust growth is real estate. You would think that the saying “location, location, location” is only relevant to local clients or buyers, right? Not quite. In a July 18, 2014 article in the Mansion supplement of The Wall Street Journal, a foreign language can give real estate agents a competitive edge. For example, Nadia Rahmani, an agent with Jameson Sotheby’s International Realty in Chicago, is fluent in three foreign languages —French, Arabic and Spanish. In her estimate, 40% of her buyers in Chicago are international: “Even though they’re fluent in English, they’re more comfortable speaking in their native tongue.”

WSJ - Real-estate agents and different languages - 18 July 14

A similar circumstance is happening here, in the shadows: a real estate agent I know, Luba Kohut, speaks Ukranian. She told me that her Ukrainian has come in handy with some clients. But I wonder: where are the Ukrainian real estate brochures or websites? Are you listening, Howard Hanna? Imagine for a moment if real estate companies could market units in foreign languages, thus attracting the attention of foreign investors! Just look at what Dayton did.

Health care centers in America attract thousands of patients from all over the world. In our metro region, hospitals like Cleveland Clinic offer language assistance services by way of foreign language interpreters for international patients. However, how is a Brazilian patient supposed to know that she’s entitled to request a no-cost Portuguese interpreter? Even the otherwise informational page is —you guessed it— in English!

To recapitulate, Cleveland businesses, big and small, could learn a great deal about showing an international, cosmopolitan face to the world and to every visitor. A very good example is Lubrizol. If you go to the Lubrizol’s website, you are welcome by this splashscreen:

Lubrizol in 3 languages

Small businesses could do something similar, but COSE, the Council of Smaller Enterprises of which I was a member for close to 2 years, has no initiatives in that regard. Cleveland businesses need to adjust their attitude from a local mindset to a more worldwide one. Use foreign languages not just to network and find clients but also to show your sense of hospitality and humanism, which goes beyond language and cultural differences. And this attitude should not be an one-off event. I invite you to widen your vision to years, not just months, down the road. You don’t have to shed your unique city identity when you embrace a cosmopolitan attitude. If you agree, let your voice be heard at your local chamber of commerce or similar association.

But you could take direct action and put yourself on the map whenever there are international events in our city. Take the 2016 Republican National Convention that will attract thousands of press representatives from all over the world. If you play your language cards right, they might as well become your best brand ambassadors back to their home countries.

Cleveland and its metro area have some enviable advantages compared to other metro areas in the country, including reasonable property taxes, simplified ways to establish a corporation, low housing costs, lots of green spaces and the four seasons (even if we get snowed in once in a while). Don’t keep it to yourself, say it in a foreign language.

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Filed under Advertising, Brand awareness, Cleveland Metro, Cultural awareness, Public Relations

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.

 

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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.

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