Category Archives: Translation as art

Turntable travails: a Goldring Elektra, a Red Ed or something else?

What does a turntable stylus have to do with translation? A lot, actually. Let me start with a small identification issue I recently ran with one of my cartridges.

Breaking off my usual discussions on translation, I’m sharing now a bit of vinyl addiction by posting a short blurb and pictures of a used cartridge I purchased: black body, red needle cap, weird connection pins, made in Japan:

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Top of cartridge

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Right side of cartridge

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Bottom side of cartridge: connector pins

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Red like the Goldring Elektra

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Cartridge at rest

The cartridge with the red cap looks like an expensive Goldring Elektra, but it’s actually a Red Ed custom cart (short for cartridge) manufactured in Switzerland.

The needle or stylus looks like an ordinary pin for untrained eyes. We place the vinyl record on our turntable, lift up the pickup or tonearm and place the needle on whatever song we want to listen to. As far as we know, the needle is just a thin pin that runs the record grooves and, by the magic of electricity and magnetism, reproduces wonderful sounds to us.

So, why are there so many cartridges and styli (needles) selling for as little as $25 and for as much as $5,000? And where’s the parallel or comparison with translation?

I’m getting to that, so bear with me. Translators are like turntable needles: they all look like much the same: French, Arabic, Spanish or Japanese translators, they just decode English texts and code them in their own language by some sort of magic. And voilá, foreign language words, like an exotic song, appear written on paper or screen. If a translator uses health care instead of care or healthcare, who cares, right?

Chances are you and I grew up listening to vinyl records on a Philco or other budget equipment. To make it family friendly, manufacturers used entry-level needles and other parts. If you were an audio pro back then, you would have shelled out the big bucks (hundreds of dollars, even thousands) to buy top-of-the-line tables, arms, carts and needles. If you have heard the same concert, say, Brandenburg II, with the same budget equipment year in and year out, you might think your recording is the best…until someone shares a multichannel recording on a Bang & Olufsen equipment or a Technics turntable for you to have a listen.

A good record deserves the time it takes to be listened to. Same thing with a good translation: it takes the right mediator (the translator) and the right equipment to write a translation that will serve you not just for today or for this month, but for as long as your user needs it.

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Filed under Translation as art, Translation as writing, Vinyl music

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

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