Category Archives: Translation testing

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

Rethinking translation QA

After completing two translation tests for a prospective customer, I was given some feedback. It was not what I wanted to hear. From ‘translator is not quite familiar with the industry terminology’ to ‘needs supervision’, the comments were stinging. Why would I feel bothered by an anonymous critique, you’d say? For the same reason a stranger tells you that you don’t know how to run your business.

I wrote back to my prospective customer and expressed my frustration at the inconsistency between the level of the criticism and the kind of “errors” found in my translation tests. The main point I tried to make was that many of the “errors” were preferences of the translators or editors who checked my translations. Weeks later, I received an email expressing concern, approval of my vendor status and an offer to do better at communicating. I replied my prospective customer by saying that, apparently, she takes translation test results only as one of many factors to decide who to hire as a freelancer.  The message reads as follows:

I definitely  do not just use the errors in the sample to determine the approval of a translator.  I take into account many different things.  I even take into account the tone and wording of the e-mails and telephone conversations in general.  That tells me  a lot about a person. A sample of 350 words is hardly enough to base my entire judgment on.

What weight does this have on translation quality control? That error counting does nothing to tell you what you need to know about a freelance translator. I’ve been thinking about the whole business case for implementing translation quality standards, and I think that some in the industry are so focused on finding errors that they fail to see the tree from the woods.

For QA to work in any field, it has to offer practical, cost-effective instruments to measure things. But you need to find measurable things. Languages are not like math or geography or archeology. How do you measure a language? How do you even measure if a document is well written? By counting the typos or syntax errors? Then how do you measure style?

I posit that none of this can be measured in any meaningful way. I propose a different way to ‘measure’ translation quality: effectiveness.

Now you’ll tell me ‘But effectiveness cannot be measured!’ And you might be right…to a point. Let’s imagine marketing campaigns. An effective marketing campaign is the one that increases sales, name recognition, gets people to talk about your company and your product. A similar strategy can be employed for translation effectiveness. That the focus is on business results is the beauty of it.

This is an ongoing analysis and it is a work in progress. I am not claiming to have found the ultimate solution to measuring translation, but my experience strongly suggests in my mind that we are going about it the wrong way. Go ahead, measure words and errors all you want. You will end up empty-handed.

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Filed under QA standards, Standard translation test, Translation errors, Translation testing

Who tests the translators?

Translation tests can be a welcome sign of interest from a prospective client for a translator…or an annoyance that elicits loud groans among some of the more seasoned linguists. I recently took part on a group discussion on LinkedIn regarding a translator’s reaction to a client requesting a translation test. The topic is so hot and thorny in the translation community that the discussion collected more than 125 postings in its thread.

I am not going to engage in endless arguments about the pros and cons of translation testing. Having said that, I strongly believe that a business (the translation agency or LSP) has every right to vet the assets it hires to perform linguistic services, especially because ours is an unregulated profession (at least, in America).

What I am going to propose to you, gentle readers (sorry about pilfering your phrase, Miss Manners), is this: let’s face the issue in a productive manner. Let’s talk about standardizing the translation test, maybe get the American Translators Association involved in the discussion. Some might say ‘But we already request ATA certification.’ Yes, but the ATA certification is no proof of performance.

What I propose is bringing all interested parties under one roof to discuss the pros and cons of translation tests, the current situation (maybe run some surveys among LSPs?) and suggest ways to address the weak points. Translation agencies need a tool to vet the translators, translators need feedback but also need feedback from peers, not bilingual staff. Also, this feedback accompanying the translation test results needs to be fairly and professionally delivered.

I am in favor of an ethical translation test, conducted by translation companies or other organizations that hire translators. The review of the tests must be in the hands of peers having no affiliation with the translation service provider administering the test; otherwise, the tested translator might think –and with reason– that the results are tainted by bias.

In addition, a standardized, ethical translation test can complement the ATA certification and benefit both translation companies and translators: everybody knows the rules, plays by the rules and abide by evidence-based decisions. Such a test can also become as valuable as a QA standard in many spaces in the language services marketplace.

What are your thoughts on the subject? If you administer translation tests, is it a chore, a necessary evil, an effective tool to hire linguists? If you are a translator, do you have examples of fair tests? Please share with us.

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Filed under Negotiations, Standard translation test, Translation test, Translation testing