Category Archives: Translation

Refers to translation in general

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.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

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

Taking the pulse of translation theories

If you are a translator or interpreter going to the upcoming ATA Conference in San Francisco, USA, consider performing this unscientific but social experiment: ask any of the veteran translators at the hotel lobby if they have a preferred translation theory.

If you get a hesitant reply, a stare or a shrug, don’t be discouraged. Or surprised. The more veteran the translator is, or the more steeped he/she is in the latest technologies or sales pitches for translation services, the less interested our colleague will be in (insert a derisive pause here) any translation theory.

Why is that? Glad you asked, because one of my current objectives as a PhD student at the Universidade de AveiroUniversidade de Nova joint doctoral program in Translation and Terminology is to listen to, learn about and discuss relevant translation theories. By relevant theories I mean concepts that ordinary translators can apply in their workflows. For example, Eugene Nida’s literal-and-dynamic (or functional, as Nida claimed in later years) equivalence theory is rooted on biblical translations, a subject hardly relevant to commercial or technical translators today. That doesn’t make it irrelevant, however. But that’s a discussion for another day.

The writing of a translation is where the translation theories (i.e. our writing choices) are often applied.

The writing of a translation is where the translation theories (i.e. our writing choices) are often applied.

And why, you may ask, translation theories should be relevant to the most important people in our profession —namely, our customers? They are, I would say, indirectly relevant to them. They don’t need to know them, but we do in order to base our translation decisions and provide adequate explanations for them.

One reason why exposing a customer to even a basic discussion of translation theories is unadvisable is that it can be dangerously confusing. For example, some customers already (and inadvertently) conflate two concepts: word-for-word (or literal) translation with a translation that is faithful to the original. While a customer may ask you to do a faithful translation (faithful to the meaning or spirit or intent of the original text —which, in Nida’s view, would be called a functional translation or, in Christiane Nord’s words, an instrumental translation— the selfsame client may bristle at not finding the same words (sometimes they’re false friends or false cognates) in your translation.

And some terminologists and terminology software advocates tend to muddle things up in this scenario by overemphasizing the importance or hierarchical relevance of a wordlist or glossary, or worse, by overselling the consistency between texts.

Studying and discussing translation theories and their specialized (i.e. arcane) terminology is par for the course in academic circles for translation studies. I recently expressed my view to one of my professors (in my very poor Portuguese, mind you) that we need to be the bridges between the world and the translation studies field to share these translation theories in an accessible language. I was given a reply that best attests to the surprise of making translation theories more accessible to the layman (“translation theory does not have esoteric language”). Still, that’s one of my objectives.

If you are a buyer of translation services, you may not need to know translation theories but you already know whether a text is well written or not. If you like to write, if you enjoy reading a well-composed document, you’re already knowledgeable in writing theory. The main bridge I propose for you to meet me half way is writing well for its intended purpose. I hope to meet you there soon.

Leave a comment

Filed under Business of writing, Consistency, Customer relationship, Literal translation, Misinformation on translator role, Translation theory, 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.

2 Comments

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

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Consistency, Lexicography, Research in translation, Terminology, Vocabulary, 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.

1 Comment

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Advertising, Business of writing, Commodification, Style, Translation as art, Translation as value added, Value added

The proof is in the paper

Quick, answer this question: How many sheets of paper does your office print in a day? In a month? In an entire year?

If you answered “I have no idea,” congratulations! That’s the correct answer. As part of a translation workflow, proofreading the translation is one step to make sure there are no typos, misplaced or missing punctuation and no problems with the publication’s layout. Because proofing a publish-ready document is a quality check, its cost is part of doing business, especially if you intend the document to be read. Otherwise, why bother writing it in the first place?

Proofing a galley with a red pen

Twenty years ago, when I started my career as a translator, I was taught the value of proofreading. A manager at a Manhattan-based print shop gave me my first proofing assignment of galleys with a follow-up question, “Do you know proofing marks?” Before heading for the print shop that day, I took a crash course in proofing marks, which are printed on two pages in most English-language dictionaries. The purpose of marking a galley is to indicate the page editor what changes are requisite, such as misspellings, stacked hyphens, transpositions, letters that should be capitalized, etc. My exposure to proofreading galleys in those days was twofold: attention to detail when preparing the final pages and respect for the beauty of the printed page.

Translators and translation agencies knew proofreading as one of a two-step process to ensure the quality of a translation, editing being the second step. These two stages —proofreading and editing— are different because they fulfill different goals. Proofreading handles the mechanics and visual aspects of letters, words and phrases, columns, tables, graphics and the like. Editing concerns itself with the inner workings of language, mainly stylistic features. A proofreader may spot a misplaced or missing phrase, but he is not supposed to translate it, that’s the editor’s job. Because of the downward pressure on costs, the tasks of proofreading and editing have been fused together. Some translation vendors have done away with proofreading altogether, charging the editor —and even the same translator— with the responsibility of proofing and editing for an even lower price.

Concerns for the environment have also helped to port the paper-based proofreading process on the computer monitor, not the ideal medium to spot for minute errors. A recent Proz discussion on the subject (see it here) revealed that the majority of translators prefer to proof their work directly on-screen. Many of them do it for environmental reasons and refuse to print anything on paper. My answer lies below:

Sometimes paper beats screen

20 Feb

In the rock-paper-scissors game of proofing for things, paper usually beats screen. Why? It’s not our primitive need to touch. It’s not our desire to hold on to the old ways. It’s just simple optics.

The human eye grows fatigued after hours of looking at a screen, which sits at a fixed distance. So, fixed focus for the eye. Our eyes need to refocus and change focus ever so often to fight fatigue. Ask any eye doctor, he’ll tell you to look away from the screen. With a fixed focus, we fail to notice some things, especially smallish items like commas, letters or other glyphs. I find proofing on-screen is great if I only need to do some macro-level proofing (ie, desktop publishing jobs). I only have to check the shape and layout of things.

On the other hand, if the document is small (2-5 pages), nothing beats printing it and checking it under good light, even reading it out loud —like some of you suggested. I don’t buy the green argument for every piece of screen real estate. Some things are meant to be printed and checked. I learned to proof galleys at a printer’s shop in Manhattan, NY in 1992. I learned to use proofing marks, I learned to spot things, like stacked hyphens and words that aren’t supposed to be hyphenated, plus misplaced periods and missing paragraphs. Trust me, nothing beats the manual labor we can put in.

I think it is essential that we involve manual skills to verify the good quality of a written piece. Using a pen to mark errors, follow lines, jotting notes and other things help our mind become more aware of the medium the written piece will be on. Perhaps I am old-fashioned, but I prefer to read a manual, a magazine or a book in printed form. I can relate better to its physicality, its three-dimensional place in my world and its reality. Looking at documents only expressed in bytes is a bit limiting, in my view, and our eyes are overstretched in their function not just to view, but to measure, remember, bookmark, segmentize and categorize at increasingly faster speeds. We are punishing our brains to become simple receptacles of information, and leave their marvelous abilities underused.

Perhaps you’ll say that proofreading a long document on the screen is more efficient, especially with track changes in a collaborative environment. But an efficient process has to have some ground rules or else it runs amok. If you have a team of translators working on the same document, maybe you save time because everyone is working on a virtual document with little need for emailing a new copy of it with changes. And these collaborative environments are encouraged by the customer to be as horizontal in authority as possible. So, who has the last word? Who vets the editors? What is stopping an editor from sowing the page with red track changes? In my experience, the temptation to overcorrect and overproof is too great to resist, having handled pages and pages of electronic documents bleeding with track changes. Have you factored in the time it takes to review each proofmark in those track changes? A proof in print, on the other hand, helps to discipline the editor’s mind and only focus on the essential changes that are required. You still need to set some proofing and editing rules, however, so that everyone operates with the same definitions of what an error is.

All in all, proofing on paper counterbalances the mental stress of translating in a computer medium. Using my fingers and hands to manually proofread a written piece reminds me that I can bring craftsmanship to the process and take pride in it. Using proofreading marks is a useful tradition that underscores the art of publishing.

Leave a comment

Filed under Editing, Galley proofing, Printing, Proofreading, Proofreading marks, Style, Writing skills