Category Archives: Style

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 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 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

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.

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

Read all about it: Upcoming publication of my thesis

Finally, after long months of crafting my Master’s thesis with which I obtained my M.A. in Audiovisual Translation from Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona in 2009, I am pleased to announce that Editorial Académica Española will soon publish it under the title Redacción técnica comparativa: Análisis comparativo de los estilos de redacción en textos técnicos en español en los últimos 40 años (Comparative Technical Writing: A comparative analysis of writing styles in Spanish technical texts in the last 40 years). This 96-page publication will be available in Spanish.

A sample cover is shown below:

Redacción técnica comparativa, by Mario Chávez

I chose this topic because I have observed that technical manuals —especially computer manuals— written in Spanish have undergone significant changes in style for the last four decades. In the 60s and 70s, engineers with a solid knowledge of Spanish and good writing skills wrote computer manuals and were responsible for preserving the authoritative, master-to-student style that is traditional in Spanish handbooks. This style started to change in the late 80s and early 90s with arrival of computerized typesetting and the globalization of manual authoring.

The formal, authoritative style in official Spanish technical publications is part of the personality of a well-written technical manual, akin to the corporate dark suit and necktie Latin American businesspeople are known for. Even in today’s American acculturation of global commerce with its casual wardrobe and in-your-face colloquial speaking mannerisms, this traditional model of authoring Spanish manuals is being preserved and cultivated as a sign of premium quality.

I will be happy to share some excerpts translated in English with my readers who so request it.

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Filed under Master's thesis, My publications, Spanish technical writing, Style, Writing skills

We’re in the fourth inning

Let me start today’s post by honoring a revolutionary world inventor, Steve Jobs, on his passing, just a day after the new iPhone 4S was announced by Tim Cook this week. Some bloggers and news outlets were underwhelmed by this new iteration of the famous gizmo. There is one experimental feature, however, that deserves special mention.

Siri is a new feature in the iPhone 4S. According to media reports, it allows the user to speak to the phone not just statements like “Call Stan to go watch Thor” but queries such as “Any Jiffy Lubes in Orlando?” as well. While Siri is in beta mode (in English only, I suppose), I can imagine the use of its artificial intelligence (A.I.) engine to infer meaning from statements in other languages.

According to Fox News Latino, Spanish will be a challenge for voice recognition in Siri. So, we are forced to sit on our hands and wait. If A.I. through Siri could interpret Spanish phrases and commands in a fairly accurate fashion, it won’t be machine translation per se, but a new kind of computerized, on-the-fly foreign language interpretation.

In yesterday’s issue of USA Today’s Money section, Mike Thompson, mobile business head at Nuance Communications, says “We’re in the fourth inning –the rate of change and innovation is faster than ever before in speech. The accuracy and performance [are] getting better. (In the) next five innings, we’ll see greater and greater natural language.” I was happy to find a technical text with a sports metaphor. This can be an excellent exercise in writing to test your Spanish writers and translators.

Spanish translators knowledgeable in baseball understand the meaning of inning, one of nine divisions of play. It’s called entrada or manga in Spanish. Most translation services providers like to talk about high quality, faithful translations. Almost no one says a word about translation strategies or techniques, which are learned through a rigorous study of translation theories applied to practice.

If we use the equivalence strategy, we could search for a sports equivalence in Spanish –soccer or baseball, perhaps? But what about the meaning underneath the sports figure of speech? What does the author say with in the fourth inning? What does he say with in the next five innings? It doesn’t take us long to realize that the fourth inning is very close to half of the baseball game at 9 innings, as if he were saying we’re almost halfway.

How would your Spanish writer or translator express this?

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Filed under Artificial Intelligence, Spanish language, Style

Give feedback to your vendors

I just received an email from a very powerful organization. We were in interviews towards an in-house position in this organization. As part of the interviewing process, I was sent proofreading and writing tests to assess my skills. To their credit, the tests were well designed. Some of the paragraphs contained errors on purpose to make detection difficult unless you spent time reading it twice or even 3 times. An excellent exercise.

But this organization failed miserably when it came to providing feedback. In their formal email, they indicated that I did not qualify for the position because a great deal of linguistic and grammar acumen are required for it. No details, no examples, just a blanket statement, which I found troubling and telling.

In the everyday discussions about QA that many translation bureaus and translation vendors have, feedback is key to secure good assets and nurture good relationships for the long haul.

On another occasion, many years ago, I applied for a position at a well-known multinational from Europe. The translation test was economics. After I sent in my test, I received a terse explanation that it hadn’t passed because I did not know some of the industry terms. Not a word about writing style, grammar or accuracy.

If you provide feedback to your translation vendor or to a candidate, be specific. Better yet, agree beforehand on what constitutes a major or unacceptable error and how many errors are allowed. Do not assume. Spanish is spoken and written in more than 20 countries, and some syntax and phrase variations are going to take place. Style is also an important component in assessing the quality of translation, but it is difficult to gauge because the customer’s reviewer may add too much subjectivity into it. Also, be open to discuss what standards your organization adheres to, whether corporate style is paramount, etc. Again, be specific because it is a way of showing respect to a professional linguist.

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Filed under Customer relationship, Grammar, Negotiations, Style, Syntax, Translation errors, Vocabulary