Category Archives: Research in translation

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

The promise of speed in service

Imagine yourself in the driver’s seat of a Bugatti Veyron, the world’s fastest automobile. The rush, the adrenaline pumping into your temples, the tunnel vision and the blurry sides of the road as you travel at 267 mph. Imagine running your business the way you’d run in this beautifully designed car. Is speed desirable in both scenarios? Maybe not.

The Bugatti Veyron Super Sport

Noted former Olympian and motivational speaker Vince Poscente wrote that the rules governing the well-known triangle of time, quality and cost have changed in what he charmingly calls The Age of Speed. He maintains that you can get top quality at the right price, and fast because new speedy technologies make this possible. More on this in a jiffy.

Like New York City’s skyscrapers, speed awe us the higher it goes. When I first visited the Big Apple and saw the Brooklyn Bridge and some of Lower Manhattan’s man-made towers of steel and mirror glass, I was amazed and nothing else seemed to beat the size and grandeur of this spectacle, an ongoing show for the masses.

We all like speed in different settings, from the gearhead with his love for fast vehicles to the bungee jumper to the fighter jet pilot. Speed can be measured in time and distance, and time is our main concern here as business owners. Time to get a loan approved, time to hear back from a prospective customer, time to market our new product, etc.

My goal in this article is not to tell you how to do your job faster or better. In the short space of a few paragraph, I hope to persuade you to stop and think about the priorities in your business that call for additional time to accomplish —and you already know they take additional time.

Back to the age of speed, Mr. Poscente is, like most motivational speakers, half right and obvious. Of course some things can be made with a higher level of quality, faster and cheaper. But services or certain products are not things. These things are supported by craftsmen, people who love their job, people who are making this world a better place thanks to the services they provide.

Take your most recent client: how long did it take you to bring him in to use your services or buy your products? Maybe weeks, months or years, correct? Regardless of the medium of contact or communication, from zippy email campaigns to ubiquitous phone calls, some businesses relationships cannot be rushed into being. Consider the following example.

I recently visited the Best Buy store in Avon looking for a netbook. A helpful employee dressed in traditional Best Buy blue garb greeted me and answered my questions in a clear and professional way; then he proceeded to push a thin folder with Geek Squad material into my hand, prompting me to take it. I said I didn’t need it or want it, but he didn’t listen. What happened next?

I’ve been a Best Buy customer for many years, so I won’t let an improperly trained employee steer me away from the shop. Perhaps he was motivated to do or achieve something fast, like how many Geek Squad folders he could deliver to walk-ins.

You may have recently read about the arrival of the iPhone 5 in a few weeks from now. It’s designed to be speedier and take advantage of 4G LTE networks, much faster than the old 3G or 4G networks of yore. But faster is not necessarily a better trait in a technology, and some technologies provide counterproductive results if they perform faster than desired.

Consider the newest A6 core designed for the iPhone 5. A technical analysis, as reported by Ars Technica[1], revealed that the core blocks were put manually, not by using software, which would be the so-called more intuitive way of speeding things up. Notes iFixit’s Miroslav Djuric, as reported in the Ars Technica site:

“It looks like the ARM core blocks were laid out manually—as in, by hand,” iFixit’s Miroslav Djuric said via e-mail. “A manual layout will usually result in faster processing speeds, but it is much more expensive and time-consuming.”

In physics, there’s a concept called terminal velocity. In layman’s terms, an object moving at a certain speed achieves terminal velocity, which is a constant value of speed, when confronted with the opposing force of say, a fluid or the force of gravity. Let’s look at this from a business point of view. Suppose your secretary types at 75 words per minute. You hired her because she’s a fast typist at the computer, knows how to compose business correspondence and makes very few, if any, typos. There are people out there who can type faster than that, and slower than that, like 40 words per minute, which is the acceptable minimum in most workplaces. Suppose now that you need to send out a very important letter to a client in France, in English, within 30 minutes. You met this prospect at a trade show, shared business cards and struck up a positive and enriching conversation. He wanted to receive some samples, but that time was not the right time. Today you received an email requesting said samples.

As an experienced and effective business owner, you can’t possibly just reply with a short email saying “Confirmed receipt of request for samples. Expect them next week. Your signature.” You are dealing with a new client, a promising prospect overseas, and he wants to see samples of your products! A hastily made email won’t do him justice, wouldn’t you agree? A letter, even if it is emailed as an attachment, is your best shot.

So you write up a draft for your secretary to type up, format in company template with logo, letterhead, the whole bit. You will then have it printed out in laser color, sign it yourself, scan it and send it to your French customer as an enclosure in a return email. The question is, do you want your secretary to hurry up and type it faster than usual?

Rome wasn’t built in a day, goes the saying. Tasks and projects that require attention to detail can seldom fulfill their goal if done faster than it is advisable to do. Big decisions in business require quality time set aside to make them, but only experience, trial and error and focus can help us weed out the inconsequential decisions from the really big ones.

I work with words every day, and I have to choose them carefully for my customers. I can translate some documents very, very fast and produce a highly efficient product. But other documents require more research, more reading, more formatting and more consultations with a client. With an eye set on what my client needs and not what my clock is looking like, I hope to continue to serve my clientele with the same gusto and drive that moved me to write this for you.

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Filed under Customer relationship, Research in translation, Value added