Category Archives: Writing skills

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

El traductor como lector-autor

El siguiente es un ejercicio en redacción en mi primer idioma natal, el español. Quizás algunos lectores se sientan obligados a pedirme la versión en inglés (háganlo, si así lo desean).

Note: this posting is an exercise in Spanish writing, and Spanish is my first mother tongue. If you’d like to read this post in English, kindly ask me via a comment or email. Thank you.

Algunos de mis colegas ya saben que estoy matriculado en un programa de doctorado en traducción y terminología. Aclaro que más me interesa la traducción que la terminología; esta última es una disciplina multidisciplinar (como lo es la traducción o los llamados estudios de traducción) que merece su nota de bitácora por separado.

Una de las cuestiones que ha venido aguijoneándome desde hace años es la enseñanza de la traducción. Y el móvil de estos pensamientos surgió en un rincón inesperado: la redacción técnica en inglés. Allá por 1997 me había matriculado en una clase (tres horas crédito) dictada por un profesor de origen armenio o persa, muy afable y organizado. El programa, ofrecido por Cal State-Fullerton, se centraba más en los principios de redacción técnica más que en los programas informáticos que más de moda estaban entre los comunicadores técnicos del momento, como RoboHelp, DreamWeaver, FrontPage y Quark Xpress.

¿Acaso podemos enseñar a otros a escribir? La pregunta es un poco tautológica y también se contesta sola en caso afirmativo. Todos aprendemos a hablar en la cuna cultural que nos toca. En esa aula de la vida y la familia, aprendemos los sonidos que refieren a esos glifos y símbolos que llamamos ya sea letras, palabras, idiogramas o pictogramas (según seamos de ascendencia europea, china o polinesia, etc.). A medida que aprendemos a dominar el encadenamiento de sonidos y palabras, vamos nombrando ideas, sentimientos, cosas y conceptos, en medio del ensayo y el error. Claro, cometíamos muchísimos errores, que a nuestros mayores a veces les parecían graciosos, encantadores, tontos o una combinación de todo ello. Siempre me maravilló pensar en que un niñito que yerra mientras aprende a hablar y a expresarse poco le importa que se rían de él. Es más, toma las risas y bromas como parte del aprendizaje, sin internalizarlas ni guardarlas. Comparemos esa circunstancia con la del adulto cualquiera que reacciona con un gesto ofendido cuando se le corrige la escritura, la puntuación o la gramática.

Aprender a leer es ese puente que todos cruzamos a tientas hasta que podemos expresarnos por escrito. Es una labor ardua y disciplinada que nos lleva mucho más esfuerzo que aprender a hablar. Y hay varios estadios de aprendizaje y de dominio, desde el nivel del tercer grado (por un ejemplo) hasta la categoría universitaria y más allá. Descubrimos, de adultos, que el habla y la escritura se especializan cada vez más tanto por razones tanto tribales como profesionales.

Aprender a escribir es una actividad continua que nos lleva toda la vida. A menos que decidamos quedarnos en un estadio, como el del trabajador en una fábrica de zapatillas, contentos con lo alcanzado y sin que nos interesen otras áreas del conocimiento, siempre necesitaremos armarnos de nuevos vocabularios y nuevos recursos retóricos para expresarnos por escrito.

Hay quienes están satisfechos con dar el siguiente parte sobre las vacaciones de una semana tomadas el verano pasado: “La pasé muy bien/Me divertí muchísimo/La ciudad era espectacular/Hice muchos amigos/Visité varios museos” y así sucesivamente. Los parlamentos se acortan, aunque desestimo la primera razón que nos parece obvia: que estamos apurados en la vida. No, no lo creo. Otro ejemplo es responder al amigo o pariente que nos ve luego que hemos visto una película de estreno. Solícitamente nos pregunta: “¿Cómo fue la película? ¿De qué se trataba?” Y le contestamos con frases remanidas como “¡Estuvo fantástica!/Era un drama basado en hechos reales ocurridos en la Alemania del siglo XIX/Era una de aventuras con Hombre-Araña y Tor; me gustaron las actuaciones y los efectos especiales”.

Y ahí se terminan nuestras habilidades redactoras.

Uno de los ejercicios que daba a mis alumnos de traducción años atrás era el de escribir un trozo de 150-200 palabras en el que me describieran un paseo, un monumento, una visita a una ciudad, etc. En lugar de recurrir a las expresiones cuasineandertálicas (si se me permite el humor), estos alumnos se veían entre impulsados y forzados a describir, armar oraciones complejas, usar varios tiempos verbales, además de adverbios, frases preposicionales y otros recursos conocidos pero caídos en desuso. Claro, algunos de los trabajos se leían como relatos formulistas y preenvasados, pero era un buen paso.

Traducir es leer y (re)escribir lo leído. Para que la traducción no se lea formulista ni tenga todas las características de un texto zombi, hay que cultivar buenos hábitos de lectura, los cuales siempre informarán nuestros hábitos de escritura. Es indispensable ir más allá de leer textos en nuestros idiomas natales; hay que seleccionarlos con cuidado, sin temor a equivocarnos. Ya sean libros, revistas, artículos, ponencias, intervenciones, libros, folletos, afiches, almanaques, tarjetas, etcétera, todo es útil. Que nada escape a nuestro ojo crítico.

Nuestros ojos son como un segundo cerebro que desempeña actividades tanto cuando están abiertos como cuando están cerrados. ¿O acaso no han cerrado los ojos cuando escuchan una melodía o después de leer un pasaje, a fin de visualizar lo escuchado o lo leído? Los ojos no son simplemente faros ni detectores de modelos visuales (pattern scanners). Es posible desarrollar y cultivar una vista estereoespacial, a la manera del sonido estereofónico, donde podamos aprehender diferentes pieles textuales, distintos matices y colores en las palabras. Si aprendemos o reaprendemos el arte de la lectura, más allá de su obvia utilidad cotidiana, estoy seguro de que podremos aprender a escribir con una soltura aún por descubrir, en la cual nos podamos reconocer.

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Filed under Grammar, Lectura - Reading, Lectura contemplativa, Redacción - Writing, Writing skills

A day in the life of a 21st century translator

I’m not your vanilla-type translator. I’m not a conventional writer. Keen-eyed readers of my blog might have noticed that I never capitalize Every Single Word in my blog headings. I march to the beat of my own drum. However, I didn’t start like that at all. I thought I would be translating articles, business documents or similar media day in and day out for a corporation or organization after I earned my diploma.

Twenty five years ago, with a bachelor’s degree in English and Translation Studies in hand, I did not have one or two specializations in mind. Although I had studied the basics of Law for four semesters as part of the translation studies’ curriculum, I only knew I didn’t want to be a sworn translator nor a bilingual officer of the court (called perito bilingüe in Argentina at the time) nor did I want to specialize in legal translation (as in law-related translations).

The two main forces that shaped my professional decisions over those 25 years were not creativity, inspiration, following a particular leader or influencer or discovering the holy grail of selling professional services. No, sir. The two factors that drove me to where I am today as a diplomate translator were a) market demands on my services and b) my own intellectual interests.

There you have it then: I’m not a translator who just writes translations day in and day out. Today, Thursday, May 5th, 2016, is representative of what I do:

  • Write and deliver a rush 400-word corporate translation by 11:30 a.m.
  • Finish a medical transcription in Spanish and then translate it into English for delivery by noon
  • Insert newly translated paragraph in two InDesign documents, prepare deliverables (PDF files for printing) and deliver them before 7:30 p.m.
  • Review the typesetting of a corporate slogan I had translated into Spanish weeks ago and send the annotated PDF file back to the customer, with pertinents recommendations to their desktop publisher for improving copy of the same corporate slogan in RTL (right-to-left) languages such as Arabic and Hebrew.

Translation courses and BA/MA programs for the 21st century emphasize the use of software tools to manage projects, terminology lists and translation memories. These courses also include practical instructions on project management (a related career choice for translators), software localization (another related career) and business aspects of the profession, such as marketing tips. All these components are important and have a place in a translator’s career, but they should not be taught nor emphasized at the expense of a thorough, critical and lively discussion of the craft of translation. After all, a translator is a craftsman. It’s the writing, not the tools, that make a translator, whether in this century or in the millenia to come.

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Filed under Baccalaureate degree, Diplomate translator, Professional development, Project Management, Public relations in translation, Spanish DTP, TEnT tools, The craft of translation, Writing skills, Writing skills

Translation Myths —Putting bilingualism to the test

As translators, we often are asked to do terminology research, as if translation involved only the word-for-word exchange of specialized terms. But this is a myth to discuss some other time. Let’s talk about bilingualism.

Bilingualism is the ability to speak in two languages. Knowing a few phrases in German while your native language is English or Italian does not count; you have to be able to express yourself freely and richly in two languages. Many European citizens have done this since childhood: growing up in a geography inhabited by multiple languages and dialects makes learning more than one mother tongue unavoidable. From my conversations with people from different European extractions, being a polyglot or multilingual speaker is the norm.

Some colleagues of mine tend to pooh-pooh Americans in general because they seem disinclined and disinterested in learning other languages, but this is an incorrect perception as well as a sweeping generalization. Because language learning is highly dependent on geography, we can’t blame a guy in Idaho who never cared to study or speak Croatian, especially if the number of Croatian residents in Idaho is small.

But then, you will say that that is not excuse! You know many monolingual Americans in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago who are surrounded by thousands of Latinos, Chinese or Russian-speaking folks yet they never cared to learn those languages. Point taken. But let’s discuss an often neglected characteristic of bilingualism: orality or the distinct activity of expressing oneself verbally in more than one language. Translation is writing in a foreign language with the flair, style, vocabulary knowledge and grammar capabilities belonging to that foreign language. Being bilingual has nothing to do with having the ability to write in a foreign language properly, or to write in it at all. Let me demonstrate.

I am a bilingual person because I can freely express myself in both English and Spanish. Here’s a small proof: explaining my bilingualism

Before you click on the YouTube link, can you easily “see” or “read” how bilingual I am? Of course not. Why not? Because they are spoken words. And the way we all speak words is far different from the way we commit them to paper. If you were to meet me at a coffeeshop to tell me about your latest vacation adventure in The Poconos (NY),  your speech would be full of ums, ahs, ohs, what-did-I-says and other filler expressions. Because the content is so illustrative, emotional and personally colorful, and because the communication is instantaneous (ergo, I am listening as you are speaking), we don’t need full stops, commas, semicolons or paragraphs, none of those structural strictures. It all makes sense, right?

Then why do you insist on calling me a bilingual translator? Why are your job postings inviting submissions from native Spanish/Chinese/Dari/Pashto speakers to work as translators, when you know full well that it’s apples and oranges? Translators write; interpreters and bilingual individuals speak.

Speaking of writing, how difficult is it for you or your staff to compose a sensible sentence to say what you really mean? If you want an interpreter for a call center or for tech support, say so, don’t ask for a translator. If you want a bilingual who can translate your documents, software, etc., use the word TRANSLATOR. Repeat after me: translators translate and write.

American businesspeople pride themselves in being pragmatic, direct, sensible and in delivering for the bottom line. That’s why I’m speaking to you in your pragmatic and direct and sensible language: call us for what we are and what we do. When in doubt, speak to us first. Thank you.

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Filed under Bilingual staff, Bilingualism vs. Translation, Misinformation on interpreter role, Misinformation on translator role, Writing skills

The quaintiquated notion of translation fidelity

Raise your hand if you have never heard the phrase traduttore, traditore. No? Consider yourself lucky. It’s an old Italian adage that has become quaint and antiquated, or quaintiquated. In the ALTA blog Beyond Words,  wrote this in 2008:

The Italians and the French have a history of cultural rivalry that dates back to before the Renaissance, when scholars, philosophers, artists, and writers of the two countries held the reins of Europe. Fostering progress in tandem, European polyglots and translators found themselves translating the works of their neighbors.

The cultural interchange spawned the Italian phrase, Traduttore, traditore: Translator, traitor. First applied to the French by irate Italians who felt that many French-language translations of Dante betrayed either the beauty or the accuracy of the work, this clever consonance plays upon the worst fears of an international society.

Put it simply, Italians were complaining about untranslatable expressions that did get translated into French. The complaint, in modern terms, was about what got lost in translation…as if human languages were precisely interchangeable.

The book Lost in Translation, by Ella Frances Sanders, captures poetically and visually some examples of untranslatable words from around the world. The Dutch word glaswen, for example, means a sarcastic or mocking “blue smile.” And it’s not only individual words but entire idiomatic expressions that find no accurate or faithful equivalent in other languages. So, out with that archaic idea of absolute faithfulness.

Nontranslator persons usually juggle two other ideas when they speak about translation: meaning and literality. A word may have a single meaning that is abundantly clear, such as dog or horse. We are talking about the quadruped pet in the first case and the quadruped running beast in the second. The moment you use either word as the core of an expression, such as I’m dog tired or Out of the horse’s mouth, the average American will unerringly notice a change in meaning completely unrelated to the first nature (pet or beast) we referred to earlier.

But even when we consider multiple-meaning words, like table, hammer, nail, cloud or net, we have to remind ourselves that only the meaning that answers to the particular context at hand should be considered. This particular meaning can then be influenced by the focused meanings of the neighboring words and paragraphs. So, take it from me: when someone talks about the meaning of a text, he doesn’t know what he is talking about.

You may be the author of an employee handbook or an advertising campaign slogan, or even the tagline for the company’s tradeshow exhibit, but you know nothing about the particular sets of meanings that can travel to another foreign language. You may be bilingual and you still won’t know. Enter the meaning-wranglers, those solitary cowboys of the wordplains called translators.

The second topic many nontranslator persons stumble on is the case of the literal translation or the word-for-word translation, as if they knew what it really means. Unless you can easily find your way around bilingual dictionaries and texts (no Google Translate allowed, that would be cheating), you are not qualified to tell a translator whether her translation is literal or not. However, in the spirit of cooperation, let me disabuse you of the false notion of what literal translation seems to mean.

A literal or word-for-word translation is actually a time-honored translation approach very much in use since ancient times. This strategy, also called a metaphrase, meant using the foreign language words that best approached the syntax and meaning of the original text. An example of metaphrasic translation: A book was found on the floor. Spanish: Un libro fue hallado en el piso.

A more “free” translation would paraphrase or say the original in different ways. Taking the former example, two Spanish paraphrases: a) Encontraron un libro en el piso. b) Había un libro en el piso.

Now, before my fellow translators accuse me of misusing the passive voice above (Un libro fue hallado en el piso), imagine if the phrase A book was found on the floor were part of a suspense novel instead of a police report. Different sets of meanings. Again, only a professional translator is qualified to make the calls on how best to recast those sets of meanings, or combinations of meanings, in a foreign language. Not a bilingual person, no matter how fluent that person is in two languages. Bilingualism often refers to the speech portion of a language, not the written part. Well, translators write for a living.

It is worth noting that a literal translation would recreate a document equivalent to the original with little regard to the syntax and natural fluidity of the foreign language for the translation. Because a deep knowledge of grammar and syntax structures is required to render a professional translation, there’s a certain amount of irony in the request for faithfulness presented by customers unfamiliar with the grammar intricacies of the foreign languages. A bilingual speaker may be competent in speaking a foreign language, but she is not necessarily equipped to write in that foreign language on a professional level.

I also suspect that a certain implicit word order in the foreign language is the focus of attention of the nontranslator person who demands a faithful translation. Different factors, not the smallest of all a long residence in America, away from the mother tongue spoken in Chile, República Dominicana, Perú or Bolivia, may sway a bilingual person to unknowingly write in a way that is strongly influenced by the English syntax. It follows, then, that the “correct” or idiomatic way a phrase is written in French, Spanish or Italian may read a little off, this translator-facilitated word order deemed literal by the customer because it does not jibe with what the customer’s model in her head.

It is very advantageous, then, for both you, the customer, and for me, your translator, to sit down and clarify what you mean by a translation that meets your expectations in terms of meaning. More often than not, we both should be asking ourselves: what are the expectations and needs of the one who really needs the translation? In other words, the actual user: the hospital patient, the buyer of your goods or services, the reader of your articles.

Now that’s a cool and a modern concept.

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Filed under Bilingualism vs. Translation, Literal translation, Translation as writing, Writing skills, Writing skills

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