Category Archives: Translation as value added

There and Back Again: Changes in the world of translation

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

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

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

My alma mater, the Facultad de Lenguas de la UNC

My alma mater, the Facultad de Lenguas de la UNC

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charge a fee for your service, not your self-esteem

America, the perennial land of opportunity and home of the Braves, the Cavs and the Cubs, has also become the land of positive thinking and an incessant cauldron of relentlessly optimistic how-to books. If you were born in poverty or if your talent goes unrecognized and your ego is sorely bruised, America is the land for you.

For translation students, bilingual or polyglot workers and professionals aiming to become translators and baccalaureate translators everywhere, America not only preaches the gospel of free markets and entrepreneurship, but also the hopeful message of self-esteem-based pay.

How so? Consider how many times you’ve read or heard the expression “get paid for what you’re worth” or references to a translator’s self worth being more deserving of the 2 to 4 cents per word she’s pressed to accept for her highly skilled labor. As somewhat tangible proof of this psychological thinking, here’s a recent blog posting posted in an anonymous translation blog:

charge what you're worth (anonymous blog)

Marketplaces are about supply and demand, products and services, buyers and sellers, not feelings or egos or personal worth. Business deals and negotiations should not be personal in nature nor should they be taken personally. For example, if your translation quote is rejected (especially when no reason is given), you should just shake it off and learn from it. Success in any profession is not about closing every single sale, winning every customer and satisfying every user. Failure, contrary to what the positive thinking movement asserts, is not a negative event but a necessary and yet enriching one.

Yet some of my colleagues conflate their personal worth (character, good name, good habits, etc.) with their professional competence, as so deftly described on this piece written in response to a posting by Corinne McKay on her blog Thoughts on Translation:

translators underestimate worth and talent

What is of concern is the apparent connection shown between a translator’s personal worth (i.e. how good a person is, her value in the community, her parenting skills or her contribution as a human being) and her earnings. The realities in any marketplace contradict and disprove this flatulent fallacy. There are two points I’d like to establish:

  1. Only your professional services (translation, editing, proofreading, subtitling, interpreting, etc.) have a market value expressed in monetary terms.
  2. Your goodness as a person has no bearing on that market value or on your competitiveness in the marketplace.

Many of us know someone who sacrificed greatly to earn a university degree or who paid heavy dues to achieve a level of recognition in one country or continent only to discover that the marketplace tolerates only a modest fee for his translation services. As a human being, feeling undervalued is understandable but it still irrelevant to being competitive.

The reader will forgive this cliché, but many of us are passionate about our profession. This dedication or devotion should be uncoupled from our self esteem and feelings of self worth.

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Filed under Public Relations, Rates and fees for services, Reputation, Translation as value added

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

Translation craftsmanship and the culture of quality

What do the terms quality, accuracy, precision and perfection have in common? They share an almost mathematical trait of exactness, of measuring by numbers. They also point to something concrete, tangible, almost physical. Days can be measured in hours and seconds. Cargo space in cars can be measured in cubic feet. Even unseen things can be measured, as the gravity of an asteroid or planet or the wattage of an electric current.

The above list of terms, which bring to mind a rhythm of their own so grounded in facts and data, reflects more of an industrial or technological domain. Within an industry, sets of instructions can also be measured by quantity, length and even objectiveness. Any technical writer worth his ink will tell you that a technical document containing instructions to install a boiler cannot have personal opinions on the make and model of the device or whether it’s painted in pretty colors. Simply put, those attributes are foreign to the goal of a technical document.

I recently watched how a Western-style mounting saddle is being made on TV: the different rawhide pieces, sheets of tin to provide strength to the seat, the kinds of needles and strings used to sew leather, the warm-water treatment of the main piece of leather to make it pliable and flexible, etc. revealed the work of highly skilled artisans and saddle makers. The kinds of tools a saddle maker uses have their own names and unique purposes. Never mind the specialized terminology. Just the step-by-step portrayal of such an involved and logical process gave the viewer a sense of pleasure and completion, even to someone who doesn’t ride horses, far removed from the realities of saddle making. The craftsmanship is there for all to see and appreciate.

The same could be said about other industrial processes: beer, waffles, bread, the soon-to-be-extinct Twinkies, bricks, cars, boats, etc. For example, we seldom see craftsmanship in the making of a car because most automobile plants are virtually robotized and human workers only assemble parts, install electrical harnesses or push buttons and pull levers. Their function is important and essential, but denotes no particular creativity because everything has already been designed and determined in advance: the length of a certain panel or the number and color of knobs on the dashboard. Putting them together and running  some quality tests afterwards is all they have to do.

But if you see an industrial process involving some secret sauce or combination of ingredients, or some unrevealed temperature at which something is forged, baked or heated (because it’s confidential), you can see a glimpse of craftsmanship. Someone —not a machine— thought about the different proportions of a certain formula or the best temperature at which to subject a certain material for best results, and decided on a formula by trial and error or because it has been handed down from generations past. That’s craftsmanship, the human touch, the unmeasurable attribute.

To use the word “quality” to try to measure such handiwork is almost patronizing. Granted, we speak of good quality whenever we feel a perfectly smooth and polished leather in a pair of boots, or the lack of burrs in a polished skillet, or the soft border of a very good sheet of paper that doesn’t give us a paper cut. We speak of high quality pictures on a TV when we detect no dead pixels, no smudgy black transitions. Can we speak of high quality poetry or fiction writing? When we read a paper on a topic we care about, like job reports, climate change or safety in public places, do we judge them in terms of quality…or whether they address those topics properly? To me, using the word “quality” in any degree to describe the attributes of a piece of writing is akin to using a stainless steel spoon to measure and weigh the love of a child.

I propose we return to basics and leave alone the bad metaphors based on the making of solid objects. I propose we talk about translation craftsmanship. When we view translations written from the viewpoint of a craftsman, we may appreciate their unique character, even their so-called flaws. We begin to focus on how well written a translation is and not on the number of errors we seem to encounter. The actuarial obsession with which some companies seem to focus on an error-free translation, creating splashy graphics and mind-numbing statistical models to explain how each error in grammar, terminology and syntax should be counted, measured and measured again to provide a picture of quality is a slippery slope to numbing criticism of translations.

Have you ever encountered a completely error-free handbook, speech or clinical trial report in English? Talking about translation quality sometimes feels like talking about the natural imperfections of the wood made to build a cabinet or a table. We lose sight of the whole picture as we focus more on errors and how to avoid them. We make less intelligent judgments about what constitutes good writing in translation because we are too busy counting words, lines of text and commas. We end up thinking like a calculator rather than a human being.

When was the last time you wrote something and felt happy with the final copy? When was the last time you sat down to write an email reply that actually had a coherent subject line on top, a proper salutation and not just “Hi,” and addressed all the points requiring an answer? Do you feel qualified to critique someone else’s writing style? Why, or why not? After all, if you can read complex texts, why shouldn’t you be able to write them and weigh how others write them?

Shouldn’t we start with ourselves and cultivate good writing in order to recognize it in others? Craftsmanship means taking pride in your own work and recognizing good work and giving credit to others for it. Craftsmanship means doing purposeful, complete things with your hands and your mind. Translators are writers, wordsmiths, artisans of the written word, not industry drones that slap words together in other languages.

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

Machine translation, the perpetual niche

The frenzied discussion about machine translation (MT) continues unabated, with strong opinions coming from different sides. In a LinkedIn group, the owner of a cloud-based translation portal based on machine translation, boasted 10,000 registered translators and counting. His opening remarks included the snarky “so called [sic] professional linguists” and the closing line “Consider this a disruption.” He soon reworded his posting to a more translator-friendly tone after receiving a gentle reprimand from the group’s moderator.

I was surprised at the initially condescending and adolescent tone of this posting. The “disruption” part reminded me of TechCrunch, the techblog notorious for bombastic and loud pronouncements, with the dubious value of entertaining but distracting occasional infighting among editors. The word disrupt is being used as a badge of rebellious street cred these days by people too enamored of technology, infatuated by angry birds and shiny objects. And so machine translation seems to be one of these glowing gems that take our eyes off more valuable prizes.

In his book The Language Instinct, psychologist Steven Pinker argues that language is a mental faculty we humans are born with and reaffirms Noam Chomsky’s tenets on universal grammar. In a gentle but persuasive introduction, Pinker states:

Language is a complex, specialized skill, which develops in the child spontaneously, without conscious effort or formal instruction, is deployed without awareness of its underlying logic, is qualitatively the same in every individual, and is distinct from more general abilities to process information or behave intelligently. (The Language Instinct, p. 4)

At first, I was taken by surprise by the bold statement that language is an instinct. Further, Pinker claims that language is not a cultural construct (“Language is no more a cultural invention than is upright posture”) but a complex creative system born in our brains. One of my favorite quotes involves spiders:

Web-spinning was not invented by some unsung spider genius and does not depend on having had the right education or on having an aptitude for architecture or the construction trades. Rather, spiders spin spider webs because they have spider brains, which give them the urge to spin and the competence to succeed. (The Language Instinct, p. 5)

I have often said that translation is a creative writing process. By creative I mean started from scratch, not assembled from previously written phrases and sentences, like an IKEA piece of furniture. Regardless of the topic at hand, from instruction manual to marketing slogan to movie subtitles, translation involves a set of complex ideation steps inside the translator’s brain, some of which run parallel to the stages of reading and comprehension of the original text. The productive part of a translator’s task is handled inside his/her brain, not at the keyboard or on some piece of software, no matter how wonderfully sophisticated the latter is.

You’ve probably heard and read the wonders of Google Translate. A short trip to its website (translate.google.com) and a brief test shows the distance one has to go to find a workable solution only involving technology. The web-spinning quote above was handled by Google Translate in Spanish as follows:

Web giro no fue inventado por un genio no reconocido de araña y no haber tenido que cuelga a la derecha oa la Educación en tener una aptitud para la arquitectura o la construcción entregar. Por el contrario, haciendo alarde de telas de araña arañas, ya quetienen el cerebro de araña, les dan la llamada a la que la jactancia y la competencia para tener éxito.

Of course, this is a first try. Let’s remember that Google Translate relies on a vast memory of translated texts, millions and millions of words. But memory is not the same as creativity. There is a place for memory to be used as a template for newer translations, such as last year’s version of your employee manual. If your line of work depends on fresh and engaging content, forget about memory, including translation memory. This reality was brought home by an interesting movie quote from Inception:

COBB
Never recreate places from your memory. Always imagine new places.
ARIADNE
You have to draw from what you know

COBB (tense)
Use pieces —a streetlamp, phone booths, a type of brick— not whole areas.
ARIADNE
Why not?
COBB
Because building dreams out of your own memories is the surest way to lose your grip on what’s real and what’s a dream.
ARIADNE
Did that happen to you?

Away from the din of marketing claims about the wonders of machine translation, the overpromised productivity for translators, I prefer a more grounded conversation about the advantages of this technology. As with any other technology, it’s just a tool to achieve results, to make things happen. To summarize, machine translation, however advanced it becomes now or in the distant future, will always be a niche, not a mainstream application for the following reasons:

  1. MT cannot mimic the human instinct of language
  2. MT is unable to create, only emulate based on memorized texts
  3. MT is unable to determine on its own what texts should be translated and for whom
  4. As indicated in a previous posting, MT requires a costly implementation and training
  5. MT post editing (editing of machine-translated text done by translators or editors) is very labor intensive (that is, costly for you)

Translation has to have a purpose and a return for a business. Just because a text can be translated does not mean it should. A businessman brings purpose to a translation, and that purpose should be coupled with the value a translator brings to the table. Machine translation offers neither.

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Filed under Google Translate, Machine translation, Translation as value added

See spots run

All languages are equal, but some languages are more equal than others.

Paraphrasing the (in)famous quote from H.G. Well’s Animal Farm, «All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others,” I find myself thinking of a soup of random but oddly connected ideas: pigs, languages, words, and spots. Why spots? British painter Damien Hirst’s endless artwork collection of spots, carefully arranged color dots named after pharmaceuticals.

In my list of random ideas, there’s an undercurrent: commodification. According to Merriam-Webster’s, it means turning something that is not supposed to be a tradable object into a commodity. Look around in your house or office. Are there any objects that are uniquely wrought and made? Maybe that purple sweater knitted by grandma? Or perhaps that loaf of homemade bread you made two days ago? Did you make the bread from scratch? Of course. Where did you bake it? In an oven, a bread maker?

My mother used to bake homemade round breads and pastries for sale, fresh out of a brick-and-mortar hemispheric oven. My father built it for her in our backyard when I was a preteen. That oven was very useful to my mother for several months. I only cared for the pastries. Even though my father was no skilled bricklayer, his oven was similar to thousands of other mud ovens. Whatever we do with our hands remains unique, not line-assembled like a plastic toy or an SUV. Working things with our hands has many benefits but, how many people bake their own bread these days?

A mud oven

Take another commodity: books. A Gutenberg-printed bible in 1455 cost “the equivalent of three years’ pay for the average clerk” (from http://www.historyguide.org/intellect/press.html). Nowadays, you can get a nicely bound bible for 5 bucks or less. Thanks to industrialization, many handcrafted items became commodities and arrived in our homes. In mine, for example, most items are commodities: books, computers, kitchenware, clothes, pieces of furniture, CDs, DVDs, consumer electronics, foodstuff, rugs, office supplies, lighting fixtures, even the paint on my walls. But it’s not just objects that have been commoditized. Services such as electricity, water, cable Internet and phone service are all commodities.

The benefits of commoditization are evident: affordability, predictability of cost, ease of manufacturing, standardization of manufacturing processes, performance and delivery, ease of use, easy transfer of goods and services across borders, just to name the most important. For us, consumers, affordability and ease of use stand out.

Globalization made commoditization a truly international phenomenon. Almost overnight, there were no borders, tariffs were lowered, products, services and jobs began their fluid transfer among nations and territories. In America, we live an economic paradox: we have an unprecedented access to affordable goods from all corners of the planet, and we want products with better quality at lower prices. The downside is that we lose jobs to other nations in the process —not just China. If the goods we so prize were made in America, we would be paying several times over for them…and we wouldn’t be a happy lot, would we?

Works of art used to be unique. Paintings, sculptures and installations worth tens, hundreds of thousands of dollars, even millions of dollars, cover the walls and floors of many a museum in urban centers across the globe. Why are they so costly? Because they are unique. But then, we have another paradox: the commodified painting that is also expensive, intended for the wallets of the one-percenters.

Damien Hirst’s simultaneous exhibits in all 11 of Larry Gagosian’s galleries around the world consist of more than 300 spot paintings. These art objects come in different sizes and color palettes but share two themes: perfectly round color spots and grid distribution. Not all of these paintings were made by Mr. Hirst, however, but by his assistants. I saw some examples in the January 23, 2012 issue of The New York Observer this week. Granted, the paintings are mesmerizing in all their blahish glory. The most anyone paid for a Hirst spot painting, named 3 -(5-chloro-2-hydroxphenylazo)- 4, 5-dihydroxy-2, 7-naphthalenedisulfonic acid, was £1.8m (from http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/Seeing-spots/24530). You can see a reproduction here and judge for yourself if this painting is worth more than 2 million dollars.

Damien Hirst's Valium (online reproduction)

But Damien Hirst is a well known painter, a brand in itself. His paintings draw higher-than-premium prices because of who he is and what he’s done, even though his spot paintings make you yell “My daughter could have painted thaaat!” Some art pieces are more equal than others, and so are other products or services.

Consider your product or service, how much it cost you to produce and deliver to market, and how much you price it. Even if it is a commodity, if your product or service is rare or unique enough, and useful enough, it will command a premium sticker price. Imagine your product to be a premium water bottle. Supermarkets stock those for $1.5o -$3.50 apiece. After a bottle is drunk and tossed into the garbage, what is its price? A few cents for recyclable content.

Consider now your product or service and the messages surrounding them that help to sell them or use them, such as ad copy, marketing collaterals, documentation, handbooks and instructions. How much value do they add to your product or service? Are they recyclable or transferable? In case you sell overseas, do the translations of said accompanying messages add value to your product or service?

Your product may look like millions of other products. Your service may sound like thousands of similar offerings. At a distance, all of them look the same, just like Damien Hirst’s spot paintings. Will Heinrich, The New York Observer’s resident art columnist, has this to say:

“…the medical-white canvases are decorated with perfectly round, appealingly candy-color spots…The colors, although sticking to a narrow, consistent palette, do not strictly repeat in any one painting, and they’re so precisely applied that the spots look like stickers…Even the white backgrounds stop perfectly short at the edges.”

Hirst’s formula to make his spot paintings unique was the unrepeatability of the color dots, which brings uniqueness to his commoditized art. Likewise, the texts that promote and sell your products and instruct on their use may as well share this distinctive trait of unrepeatability: your company style and tone permeates the texts to create the look and feel your customers have come to expect from your offerings. So should your translated materials. Your message —in English or in foreign languages— does not have to be a commodity just because it is printed on commoditized paper, html or pdf.

A skilled word artisan can make this possible by spotting the inherent and vibrant patterns in your writing, and then casting fresh servings of texts in foreign-language flavors that are pleasing to the eye of the discerning consumer. Whether it is an MSDS, a help file, a tool’s instruction manual or a brochure for your new service, don’t relegate them to your customer’s blind spot. Make them visible. Make them valuable.

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Filed under Advertising, Business of writing, Commodification, Style, Translation as art, Translation as value added, Value added