The damage “translator training” is doing to the profession

A recent Proz poll asked whether we translators attended courses to improve our expertise. Most of my colleagues answered that, yes, they have attended courses or training sessions. I was reminded of some thoughts I’ve been pondering regarding translator and interpreting training, views that I have been revising mentally since May this year after a series of job interviews with a private American university.

I was being interviewed for the position of adjunct professor of translation and interpreting. I made it clear that I do not know how to teach interpretation but they were interested in seeing me personally because of my years of translator experience. I was to give a 45-minute class which was to be monitored by the hiring manager and program director. That evening, she gave me this assessment:

“Mario, your class was good but it was more like a lecture, not the kind of classes we teach here. Here we apply the student-centered approach to teaching. Your teaching style is more instructor-based, the European kind, but I’m certain you will be able to adapt.”

-What preadmission exams students are required? —I asked.

-TOEFL, of course, for foreign students. For the MA students, the GRE.

-I understand that both TOEFL and GRE tests have a vocabulary and a writing component for English. What about Spanish, since the position is for English-Spanish translation education?

-We currently do not have a Spanish writing evaluation.

Back home, I considered these answers. I was surprised at the absence of a writing test for Spanish since this is an English-Spanish translation and interpreting undergraduate and graduate program.

About a week ago (mid August 2015), the current ATA president shared her thoughts about foreign language education and whether we will fund the next generation of interpreters and translators. Her June 2015 opening paragraphs are a call to action:

ATA Chronicle June 2015 - Ms Walsh remarks about foreign language education

The proportion of high school students who have studied formal courses in a foreign language is indeed quite low. The first sentence is a gentle reprimand to the states that do not require a foreign language as high school graduation requisite. What worries me is the rest of the percentages being inserted in strange ways. More on that later.

In that LinkedIn discussion opened by the ATA president, I wrote that “fluency in foreign languages does not necessarily equal or include writing skills in a foreign language. We keep singing the same bilingualism song. How about the ATA foster a more writing, less talking in foreign languages so we can prepare future translators better?” My criticism encountered what I consider a baffling response:

Fluency in a foreign language includes reading, writing, listening and speaking ability. Much of the predicted growth is already materializing in interpreting sectors, making the spoken v.s written debate moot.

So now being fluent in a language automatically implies writing ability? A high school course covering French or Spanish may focus on the basics, just like a continuing education language course in college. Last year, I took a college French course that required attending a 3-hour session twice a week for almost 3 months. I was happy with the challenge of learning a new language and practicing it with my fellow students. The teacher is an engaging instructor who spent some years in France. I came away with a certain degree of fluency in French, situational bilingualism I call it: what to do at a restaurant, how to find a train station or ask questions to get to the post office, how to address younger or older people, friends and strangers alike in France, etc. But was the course geared to teach me how to write a letter in French? No, it was not. So, I was functionally bilingual but only in the verbal sense.

Back to the private university I interviewed for last May. Prospective students are expected to be fluent in a given language (Spanish in this case), and that implies knowing how to write in Spanish. However, there is no test to assess that competence. Moreover, the courses are designed to get the students to translate from day one and to familiarize themselves with the technology tools of the trade, such as translation memories, glossary creation and maintenance, as well as specializing in certain areas such as medicine, finance, software localization, etc.

In my view and with the benefit of having undertook years of formal translation courses and seminars, this kind of instruction is doomed to fail because it just tries to fit the bilingual circle into the square of actual translation education. There is no theory, no stylistics, no writing practice to speak of. If Spanish grammar is taught, students are already expected to have an advanced knowledge and practice of it. But without a way to assess it, how well prepared are they to absorb college-level Spanish grammar classes, let alone put them to work in a translation context?

In my years of being a member of the American Translators Association, I’ve indeed associated myself with very bright individuals and colleagues, several of them holders of MAs and PhDs in their chosen field and/or in translation or interpretation. However, whenever there has been discussion of preparing future translators or improving current ones in their knowledge of translation techniques and methods, the umbrella word, the operative term is training, which I find utterly simplistic and misleading.

By definition, training is the method to acquire mainly technical skills and takes place in a short period of time, from a few hours to a few weeks or months. In the professions, training is often called professional development. If you wanted to learn how to create floral arrangements, your training would probably take you a few weeks. On the other hand, a complex procedure such as Lasik surgery requires a degree in medicine, in Ophthalmology, a residency and further training. However, the word training in the latter context does not present the problems I’m citing in the area of translation for a number of reasons, mainly because ophthalmologists are a special kind of eye doctor (i.e. they are not optometrists!) and their profession is highly regulated. They are not considered medical specialists just because they pepper their conversation with cataract this and presbyopia that. People do not hold them in high esteem and pay high fees to see them because they wear white smocks or fancy nametags.

Think of the last plumber or electrician you hired for your home. Did you ask for a copy of his certificate or license? Electricians, for one, have to have a license number to practice, and many of the workers in the construction trades, from HVAC technicians to welders, need to be bonded. These are visible signs attesting to the practitioner’s training and knowledge. But if you take an interpreter or a translator, how does she prove her competence? Do you ask for an educated conversation in French or German, a letter of recommendation from a teacher or professor, or a writing test or a diploma? Chances are you only take her word for it. Maybe you ask her if she is a member of the corresponding professional association. A detailed person may offer her business card with the association’s seal and membership number but, do you call or write the association (NAJIT for interpreters, ATA for translators and interpreters) to verify the practitioner’s credentials? No, you will just take her word for it and focus on her being bilingual and fluent in a foreign language that you do not understand.

Hiring someone to perform a service based on this criteria would be irresponsible for a business owner, wouldn’t you agree? However, that’s exactly how many American businesses and organizations hire translators and interpreters: on the strength of their bilingualism and foreign language fluency.

I would propose that, in the field of preparing and educating current and future translators and interpreters, we take a step up and leave the word training behind. In practice, a translator or interpreter hits her stride on her fifth year of full-time practice, with or without a college degree. Right now, my proposal, my challenge, is for translators and interpreters associations and groups to take translation and interpreting education very seriously, acknowledging the inadequacy of current so-called certification programs blithely given at many American universities and colleges. I also want to make this challenge extensive to the American Translators Association to help dispel the misassociation people have between the word bilingual and the professions translator and interpreter. If the ATA is truly concerned about foreign language degrees in America, it should start going beyond the buzzwords of bilingualism and translation training and focus on the actual competencies required, mainly excellent writing skills in the languages involveds and the means to assess those skills in a way that a member of the public, a business owner, a government official, a hospital administrator who does not write in that language may find useful and purposeful.

Finally, a word or two about the misuse of statistics. In the “Fewer than 8% of college students study a foreign language” paragraph I cited above, I saw two important data points: that only 10 U.S. states require a foreign languages as graduation requisite for high school, and that 8% of college students (or a lower proportion) take up to studying a foreign language. We are not told what level these foreign language courses are: are they beginner level (such as the French course I took in 2014)? Are they mid-level or advanced level? What are the goals or expected outcomes?

The opening argument is that high school graduates with no foreign language skills represent “a skill level far too low with which to work.” We are left to guess what the author meant by that: what skill level is far too low with which kind of position or area to work? We are left in the dark.

Then two more statistics are thrown in to close the argument, the growth rate in translation and interpreting jobs since 2005 (a floating statistic I call it, because the reader is not given any reference framework to compare) and the US BLS prediction of 46% growth for these professions from 2012-2022. If you and I were government officials, we might be impressed with such large percentages…but we are not. Let’s see the actual statistic with some context:

US BLS Occupational outlook for translators

Notice the following:

The entry-level education (a BA degree), none as work experience in a related occupation, short-term on-the-job training as on-the-job training (remember what I said about training?) and the paragraphs under What interpreters and translators do and How to be come an interpreter or translator. Especially troubling is the statement: “the most important requirement is to have native-level fluency in English and at least one other language.” So it circles back to what I was saying regarding fluency in a foreign language.

At ATA conferences I’m always hearing talk about how little people and companies and governments understand our role to be, what little professional respect we are given, how demeaning it is to be considered just another bilingual professional. One immediate step or campaign the ATA’s Public Relations Committee could take is to contact the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and start correcting this wrong image. Otherwise, the ATA in practice is more like the American Bilingual Professionals Association.

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Filed under ATA, Misinformation on translator role, Professional development, Translation as writing, Translator Education, Writing skills

The Google-Oracle debacle, Weird Al Yankovic and translation

The software giants Google and Oracle have been in a legal scuffle over the last few years. Oracle, owner of Java, a set of programming instructions that allow software to work with different platforms, argued that any company, including Google, should pay royalties for it whenever they used Java. Google contended that subjecting software to copyright protection would amount to stifling innovation:

The high court’s decision Monday left intact a prior ruling that certain kinds of programming instructions are entitled to copyright protection, as Oracle argued. Google and some other industry groups argued that treating the instructions as creative works protected by copyright could hurt the ability of companies and programmers to take advantage of standard software functions and make different programs work together.

Source: The Wall Street Journal, June 29, 2015,

The Supreme Court hands Oracle a legal win

The Supreme Court hands Oracle a legal win

Current copyright law protects the expression of an idea, whether this is conveyed in written, visual or software form, or a variation thereof. Fortunately for Oracle —and for the world of commercial translations— the Supreme Court left a prior finding standing: software can be copyright protected.

However, current copyright law protects translations as derivative works in the sense that they are not equal to the original:

However, it could be argued that a commercial translation (as opposed to a literary one) still carries the distinction of being an original written work. The late Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges famously wrote that “the original is unfaithful to the translation.” Whether a translation is a poem, a novel, a blueprint or an employee manual, it is a separate creation, a fact that is more markedly evident the better the translation is executed. For example, if you were to peruse the Spanish version of a U.S. hospital brochure, chances are that the Spanish translator may be quite bilingual but not necessarily a good writer in her native language. Hence, a separately created text or written work cannot be considered derivative in any sense, any more than Weird Al Yankovik’s song “Amish Paradise” is of “Gangsta’s Paradise” by rap artist Coolio. That Al Yankovic’s song was inspired by Coolio’s original work is true and cannot be denied, but Yankovic created a new original work, whether you like Weird Al’s work or not.

Naturally, it was lawyers and similarly learned men who conceived of copyright legislation governing intellectual property, including original works and derivative works. Not knowing the true nature of the concept and product of translation, they likely went for the very obsolete concept that any translation is a literal interpretation of a written work. Has the world changed since? No, because translation is not valued higher than an impromptu bilingual interpretation of a statement, an email or video. Another fact: government agencies and hospitals, to name a few, seek translators while operating under the assumption that a bilingual person has automatically acquired excellent writing skills. To make things worse, the American Translators Association does nothing to clear this confusion.

Our copyright laws and international conventions to that effect are based on society’s conceptual interpretation of what translation is or is supposed to be. They are not based on scientific observation or empirical theories. Therefore, it could be proposed that current legislation protecting original work, whether it’s text or software or video or song, need to evolve with a more accurate concept of the objects under the law and their purpose in society.

Society right now considers literary translation quite separate from any other kind of translation, the latter being viewed as purely utilitarian and bereft of aesthetic value. I would contend that that is not the case, especially if the parties buying translation services secured the services of highly competent translators. The better and more competent the translator, the more original the translation will be.

For an enlightening discussion of intellectual property, copyright and translation, you are welcome to read Dr. Lenita M.R. Esteves article published in the Translation Journal.


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Filed under Copyright law and software, Copyright law and translation, Writing skills

Translation Myths —Putting bilingualism to the test

As translators, we often are asked to do terminology research, as if translation involved only the word-for-word exchange of specialized terms. But this is a myth to discuss some other time. Let’s talk about bilingualism.

Bilingualism is the ability to speak in two languages. Knowing a few phrases in German while your native language is English or Italian does not count; you have to be able to express yourself freely and richly in two languages. Many European citizens have done this since childhood: growing up in a geography inhabited by multiple languages and dialects makes learning more than one mother tongue unavoidable. From my conversations with people from different European extractions, being a polyglot or multilingual speaker is the norm.

Some colleagues of mine tend to pooh-pooh Americans in general because they seem disinclined and disinterested in learning other languages, but this is an incorrect perception as well as a sweeping generalization. Because language learning is highly dependent on geography, we can’t blame a guy in Idaho who never cared to study or speak Croatian, especially if the number of Croatian residents in Idaho is small.

But then, you will say that that is not excuse! You know many monolingual Americans in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago who are surrounded by thousands of Latinos, Chinese or Russian-speaking folks yet they never cared to learn those languages. Point taken. But let’s discuss an often neglected characteristic of bilingualism: orality or the distinct activity of expressing oneself verbally in more than one language. Translation is writing in a foreign language with the flair, style, vocabulary knowledge and grammar capabilities belonging to that foreign language. Being bilingual has nothing to do with having the ability to write in a foreign language properly, or to write in it at all. Let me demonstrate.

I am a bilingual person because I can freely express myself in both English and Spanish. Here’s a small proof: explaining my bilingualism

Before you click on the YouTube link, can you easily “see” or “read” how bilingual I am? Of course not. Why not? Because they are spoken words. And the way we all speak words is far different from the way we commit them to paper. If you were to meet me at a coffeeshop to tell me about your latest vacation adventure in The Poconos (NY),  your speech would be full of ums, ahs, ohs, what-did-I-says and other filler expressions. Because the content is so illustrative, emotional and personally colorful, and because the communication is instantaneous (ergo, I am listening as you are speaking), we don’t need full stops, commas, semicolons or paragraphs, none of those structural strictures. It all makes sense, right?

Then why do you insist on calling me a bilingual translator? Why are your job postings inviting submissions from native Spanish/Chinese/Dari/Pashto speakers to work as translators, when you know full well that it’s apples and oranges? Translators write; interpreters and bilingual individuals speak.

Speaking of writing, how difficult is it for you or your staff to compose a sensible sentence to say what you really mean? If you want an interpreter for a call center or for tech support, say so, don’t ask for a translator. If you want a bilingual who can translate your documents, software, etc., use the word TRANSLATOR. Repeat after me: translators translate and write.

American businesspeople pride themselves in being pragmatic, direct, sensible and in delivering for the bottom line. That’s why I’m speaking to you in your pragmatic and direct and sensible language: call us for what we are and what we do. When in doubt, speak to us first. Thank you.


Filed under Bilingual staff, Bilingualism vs. Translation, Misinformation on interpreter role, Misinformation on translator role, Writing skills

If you fall down, don’t cry and go to your mommy

Most translators are avid readers of printed books. I recently received an email alert from one of my public libraries, the Bay Village Public Library, to tell me a copy of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell had finally arrived. I was walking to the entrance when I noticed a tall young mother and her 4- or 5-year-old boy gently chatting while walking in front of me to the entrance door. The boy suddenly tripped and hit his knee. He started to cry just like little tykes cry when they fall without serious consequences.

The mother helped him up and picked him up in her arms, consoling him while walking towards a small reading garden instead of the entrance door. For some reason, that moment immediately made me think of what the boy’s father would have likely done instead: dad would have stopped to turn towards the boy and say something like:

– Are you okay, David? It’s just a scratch on your knee.

– You ok, buddy? (helping the kid up and observing the scratch) It’s okay, just a scratch. Let’s go to the library!

Or phrases to that effect. Or maybe the father will turn the little painful event into playtime or downplay it with fun. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal pointed to the role fathers play in child development when they (the fathers) are allowed to engage in hyperactive play. Another article I read a while ago spoke of how children learn emotional strength by playing with their dad. The article, which also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, points to the element of risk in fatherplay and its value in child development:

Many fathers walk a fine line during play between safety and risk, allowing children to get minor injuries without endangering them, says a 2011 study of 32 subjects in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics. Researchers say this can instill emotional intelligence under fire, and an ability to take prudent risks and set limits with peers.

The hyperactive play of fathers is beneficial for child development.

The hyperactive play of fathers is beneficial for child development.

Going out in the world as translators, businesspeople, doctors or athletes, we encounter situations that will cause minor and major hurts, from breaking up with a girlfriend to losing a cherished client. When a painful situation is a first for us, we take a bit longer to process our newfound feelings and thoughts on how to move forward. As we gain experience, we learn to control those feelings of pain, frustration, disappointment, etc. and also learn to heal up faster.

Learning to stand for oneself with father-play.

Learning to stand for oneself with father-play.

I recently lost a dear client after two years of successful engagements. It was my fault. I made the usual amends: apologies in writing and on the phone, offering to provide a discount on my next project, even go on “probation” for a few months as “punishment.” I didn’t wallow in self-pity nor did I slump in a deep depression, despite the fact that losing this client meant losing 30% of my annual income. Supported by the mental discipline learned since childhood, I thrived and prevailed. Sadly for the customer, he decided to do the politically correct thing and stick to some obscure principle of severely punishing a vendor for a minor mistake.

Like I said, it was my fault and I corrected the error. And this was not an error of the magnitude usually contemplated in Errors & Omissions clauses or policies, even though I keep an E&O insurance policy current at the request of this particular client. Which brings to mind an interesting thought experiment: let’s assume that I had provided a faulty translation that was printed on costly paper and distributed to this client’s customer base. Let’s assume this error cost my client $5,500.00 in extra printing costs, for which I would be responsible through my E&O —or professional liability— policy. Fine. What do businesspeople do in this instance? Client invokes the E&O provision, vendor assumes responsibility, E&O insurance company pays for the damage and possibly raises vendor’s policy premium a bit. In the end, both client and vendor keep doing business. Otherwise, what is the point of an E&O policy anyways? Wouldn’t it be an act of bad faith to ask your vendor for an E&O policy or some other remedy in case of an error or omission, only to let the vendor pay up and then cut him off?

So, I tend to view my lost-client experience as a mother overly comforting a child who just peeled his knee: the hurt was not catastrophic and the kid was able to get up and walk without any lasting injury. The excessive comfort provided by the mother seemed to say, in this parallel, that the injury was greater than it really was. What would happen when the kid becomes a man and his mom is no longer around? Who is going to be the biggest comforter? An insurance policy? The government? A punitive contract clause?

Speaking of contract clauses, agreements entered by clients and translation vendors have the simple purpose of stating the scope of products or services provided by the vendor, performance conditions and rewards, as well as consequences for nonperformance. Some customers, afraid perhaps that an error or omission in a translation would be catastrophic, tend to include a harshly punitive clause in their NDAs (nondisclosure agreements) or translation agreements with contractors, making the latter 100% responsible for all claims and damages resulting from agreement noncompliance. If you were the translator doing a job worth $550 for your client, how does that clause square with a potential error in that translation job? If the translation is faulty, are you, the translator, subject to a lawsuit, legal expenses and such?

To be able to foster and maintain healthy business relationships between clients and translation vendors, a sincere discussion of errors and remedies should take place, as well as what-if scenarios and how each party would act. We could take the overprotective, “hovering motherly” route (no offense to the mothers out there) and ask for full protection in case of error or injury at the expense and to the detriment of a business relationship…or man up and proceed in a way that is fair, disciplined and trust-building to both parties.

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Filed under Customer relationship, Customers, Errors and omissions, Fairness in agreements, NDA, Negotiating contractual clauses, Punitive clauses, Translation contracts

Turntable travails: a Goldring Elektra, a Red Ed or something else?

What does a turntable stylus have to do with translation? A lot, actually. Let me start with a small identification issue I recently ran with one of my cartridges.

Breaking off my usual discussions on translation, I’m sharing now a bit of vinyl addiction by posting a short blurb and pictures of a used cartridge I purchased: black body, red needle cap, weird connection pins, made in Japan:


Top of cartridge


Right side of cartridge


Bottom side of cartridge: connector pins


Red like the Goldring Elektra


Cartridge at rest

The cartridge with the red cap looks like an expensive Goldring Elektra, but it’s actually a Red Ed custom cart (short for cartridge) manufactured in Switzerland.

The needle or stylus looks like an ordinary pin for untrained eyes. We place the vinyl record on our turntable, lift up the pickup or tonearm and place the needle on whatever song we want to listen to. As far as we know, the needle is just a thin pin that runs the record grooves and, by the magic of electricity and magnetism, reproduces wonderful sounds to us.

So, why are there so many cartridges and styli (needles) selling for as little as $25 and for as much as $5,000? And where’s the parallel or comparison with translation?

I’m getting to that, so bear with me. Translators are like turntable needles: they all look like much the same: French, Arabic, Spanish or Japanese translators, they just decode English texts and code them in their own language by some sort of magic. And voilá, foreign language words, like an exotic song, appear written on paper or screen. If a translator uses health care instead of care or healthcare, who cares, right?

Chances are you and I grew up listening to vinyl records on a Philco or other budget equipment. To make it family friendly, manufacturers used entry-level needles and other parts. If you were an audio pro back then, you would have shelled out the big bucks (hundreds of dollars, even thousands) to buy top-of-the-line tables, arms, carts and needles. If you have heard the same concert, say, Brandenburg II, with the same budget equipment year in and year out, you might think your recording is the best…until someone shares a multichannel recording on a Bang & Olufsen equipment or a Technics turntable for you to have a listen.

A good record deserves the time it takes to be listened to. Same thing with a good translation: it takes the right mediator (the translator) and the right equipment to write a translation that will serve you not just for today or for this month, but for as long as your user needs it.

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Filed under Translation as art, Translation as writing, Vinyl music

The quaintiquated notion of translation fidelity

Raise your hand if you have never heard the phrase traduttore, traditore. No? Consider yourself lucky. It’s an old Italian adage that has become quaint and antiquated, or quaintiquated. In the ALTA blog Beyond Words,  wrote this in 2008:

The Italians and the French have a history of cultural rivalry that dates back to before the Renaissance, when scholars, philosophers, artists, and writers of the two countries held the reins of Europe. Fostering progress in tandem, European polyglots and translators found themselves translating the works of their neighbors.

The cultural interchange spawned the Italian phrase, Traduttore, traditore: Translator, traitor. First applied to the French by irate Italians who felt that many French-language translations of Dante betrayed either the beauty or the accuracy of the work, this clever consonance plays upon the worst fears of an international society.

Put it simply, Italians were complaining about untranslatable expressions that did get translated into French. The complaint, in modern terms, was about what got lost in translation…as if human languages were precisely interchangeable.

The book Lost in Translation, by Ella Frances Sanders, captures poetically and visually some examples of untranslatable words from around the world. The Dutch word glaswen, for example, means a sarcastic or mocking “blue smile.” And it’s not only individual words but entire idiomatic expressions that find no accurate or faithful equivalent in other languages. So, out with that archaic idea of absolute faithfulness.

Nontranslator persons usually juggle two other ideas when they speak about translation: meaning and literality. A word may have a single meaning that is abundantly clear, such as dog or horse. We are talking about the quadruped pet in the first case and the quadruped running beast in the second. The moment you use either word as the core of an expression, such as I’m dog tired or Out of the horse’s mouth, the average American will unerringly notice a change in meaning completely unrelated to the first nature (pet or beast) we referred to earlier.

But even when we consider multiple-meaning words, like table, hammer, nail, cloud or net, we have to remind ourselves that only the meaning that answers to the particular context at hand should be considered. This particular meaning can then be influenced by the focused meanings of the neighboring words and paragraphs. So, take it from me: when someone talks about the meaning of a text, he doesn’t know what he is talking about.

You may be the author of an employee handbook or an advertising campaign slogan, or even the tagline for the company’s tradeshow exhibit, but you know nothing about the particular sets of meanings that can travel to another foreign language. You may be bilingual and you still won’t know. Enter the meaning-wranglers, those solitary cowboys of the wordplains called translators.

The second topic many nontranslator persons stumble on is the case of the literal translation or the word-for-word translation, as if they knew what it really means. Unless you can easily find your way around bilingual dictionaries and texts (no Google Translate allowed, that would be cheating), you are not qualified to tell a translator whether her translation is literal or not. However, in the spirit of cooperation, let me disabuse you of the false notion of what literal translation seems to mean.

A literal or word-for-word translation is actually a time-honored translation approach very much in use since ancient times. This strategy, also called a metaphrase, meant using the foreign language words that best approached the syntax and meaning of the original text. An example of metaphrasic translation: A book was found on the floor. Spanish: Un libro fue hallado en el piso.

A more “free” translation would paraphrase or say the original in different ways. Taking the former example, two Spanish paraphrases: a) Encontraron un libro en el piso. b) Había un libro en el piso.

Now, before my fellow translators accuse me of misusing the passive voice above (Un libro fue hallado en el piso), imagine if the phrase A book was found on the floor were part of a suspense novel instead of a police report. Different sets of meanings. Again, only a professional translator is qualified to make the calls on how best to recast those sets of meanings, or combinations of meanings, in a foreign language. Not a bilingual person, no matter how fluent that person is in two languages. Bilingualism often refers to the speech portion of a language, not the written part. Well, translators write for a living.

It is worth noting that a literal translation would recreate a document equivalent to the original with little regard to the syntax and natural fluidity of the foreign language for the translation. Because a deep knowledge of grammar and syntax structures is required to render a professional translation, there’s a certain amount of irony in the request for faithfulness presented by customers unfamiliar with the grammar intricacies of the foreign languages. A bilingual speaker may be competent in speaking a foreign language, but she is not necessarily equipped to write in that foreign language on a professional level.

I also suspect that a certain implicit word order in the foreign language is the focus of attention of the nontranslator person who demands a faithful translation. Different factors, not the smallest of all a long residence in America, away from the mother tongue spoken in Chile, República Dominicana, Perú or Bolivia, may sway a bilingual person to unknowingly write in a way that is strongly influenced by the English syntax. It follows, then, that the “correct” or idiomatic way a phrase is written in French, Spanish or Italian may read a little off, this translator-facilitated word order deemed literal by the customer because it does not jibe with what the customer’s model in her head.

It is very advantageous, then, for both you, the customer, and for me, your translator, to sit down and clarify what you mean by a translation that meets your expectations in terms of meaning. More often than not, we both should be asking ourselves: what are the expectations and needs of the one who really needs the translation? In other words, the actual user: the hospital patient, the buyer of your goods or services, the reader of your articles.

Now that’s a cool and a modern concept.


Filed under Bilingualism vs. Translation, Literal translation, Translation as writing, Writing skills, Writing skills

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