Category Archives: Bilingual staff

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.

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

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 Interpreter1400017915

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

When your bilingual employee needs help

Human languages evolve at a rapid pace, especially in some industries. For example, I just learned that temporary stores built by a store chain are called pop-ups. And I thought that pop-ups were just those annoying Internet ads.

diccionarios para blog

Bilingual staff usually resort to off-the-shelf dictionaries. Career translators use specialized dictionaries, like the blue one on the right.

Companies in need of translation services usually go in house: they look for a bilingual employee to do the job. To professional translators, this is anathema because they’ll say that bilingual employees lack the proper training and expertise. They have a point, but a company behaving in that fashion —resorting to in-house help— also has a point; it is behaving in a pragmatic way. If there’s only one marketing brochure to translate in a foreign language, there is no point in outsourcing it in most cases. A long-time employee is likelier to know the industry lingo and some of the foreign customers. It makes economic sense.

What’s more important, it makes economic sense to me, a career translator. Why? Because I was there once.

Back in the late 80s, I was working as an administrative assistant at Abolio & Rubio, owners of La Paulina line of milk products (powder milk, whey, cheeses, dulce de leche, etc.). With more than 30 years in the domestic market, they wanted to expand overseas. After a modest success in Brazil, they decided to set their sights on the United States of America and beyond. One of the first steps taken was to send telefaxes to prospective customers. As the telefax operator, I was asked to write up letters in English to promote our company. That was 1987 and I was a 3rd year college student at a School of Languages pursuing a degree in translation. So, I was just a bilingual employee. But I was eager to learn and inquisitive to boot. I cared a lot about good writing, which was my main skill.

So, even if I was not familiar with the industry lingo in English or with the accepted correspondence formulas and templates in English at the time, I was tasked with writing letters (the equivalent of our emails today) and calling prospects on the phone to introduce our company. Soon I was asked to help with editing a video in English to promote our factories, writing up recipes to drum up interest in our cheeses and sending out correspondence in our letterhead to contacts. I was loving every minute of it. From assistant and telefax operator I ended up using our only IBM Selectric typewriter —worth $2,000 at the time— to write up our letters in English.

Of course, the story didn’t end there and I was asked to do a lot more, including serving as traveling interpreter and translator for our sales manager on a trip to the U.S. in 1988. I was not a professional interpreter either. During that trip, I was asked to write up factory processes and I was not even a technical writer.

Naturally, it would be silly to infer that every willing bilingual employee is destined to become a career translator. That’s not realistic or desirable, especially for a company. As a starting point, however, using one of your bilingual human resources to fit the bill may work in the short- or medium-term. When the amount of media to translate or convert to foreign languages exceeds the scope of a temporary project, it’s time to call in the big guns.

Certified Management Accountants (Canada) found a visual way to differentiate CMAs from amateurs.

Certified Management Accountants (Canada) found a visual way to differentiate CMAs from amateurs.

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Filed under Bilingual staff, Customers, Translation as value added, Translation as writing, Writing skills