Category Archives: Quality in translation

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

A critique of Massimo Ghislandi’s optimism

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

Massimo Ghislandi - Translationzone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

“Lowest rates available and high quality”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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