Category Archives: Translation errors

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

The elusive promise of productivity / La promesa escurridiza de la productividad

It happened again. I woke up at 4:30 a.m. (EST), my mind abuzz with ideas. So I got up and jotted them down because they seemed critical (read awesome) for an upcoming presentation at the ATA Conference in Boston. But the ideas kept coming.

I could stay in bed no longer; I decided to go for a short, brisk run (more like a trot, actually). It was 6:30 a.m. when I got out of my building’s door and out into the cool morning (57 ºF). I must have trotted for about 6 blocks when I started thinking on how important it is to move (my chiropractor keeps telling me that). We seldom make room for physical movement in our sedentary lives. As I was pondering this, cars zipped along to their routine destinations.

It dawned on me then: we use the wheel, the car, to move efficiently and quickly from point A to B, but the movement is unhealthy for our bodies. Why are we in a rush to move in that fashion? To get there earlier so that we have more time to…do what? To do nothing? I am as guilty as anyone else in this car culture in America.

But, what does this have anything to do with translation? Good answers come to those who wait: bear with me.

When I started my career in translation, my tool was the typewriter. The clickety-clack of keys was so comforting, it was music to my ears. I was probably doing 50-60 words per minute, but I spent more time reading, writing drafts, rewriting sentences and clauses, words and punctuation. Even in the heyday of CAT (computer-assisted translation) tools such as Trados Workbench and Transit in the mid 90s, I was still using what has become the equivalent of a typewriter: ah, the muffled clicking of a computer’s keyboard…still at 50-70 words per minute. I would spend a sometimes inordinate amount of time consulting dictionaries, magazines, and related books and websites to find the right expression…or a hint thereof at least.

I succumbed to the lure of the so-called productivity tools (CAT tools included) in late 1998 as a job requirement. I haven’t looked back since. The only typewriter I own is a portable Underwood model, about 80 years old, that I bought in 2007. It looks quaint in my curio cabinet, a reminder of more productive days of yesteryear. Sure, tools such as Trados and Deja Vu help me translate “faster.” But that’s an illusion. Nobody can write faster than they think, and not all of us think at the same rate.

Companies that sell CAT tools, SDLX in particular, promise us higher percentage rates of productivity as translators. But, is that necessarily a good thing, or even a healthy thing? What CAT tools really do is automate certain mechanical (and visible) tasks in translation, such as repeating already-translated texts and reusing partially or fully translated sentences and words. Nothing more. These tools do not make us better translators; it could be as well that they make us worse writers. Like the wheels of a car taking us fast and efficiently from point A to B, CAT tools take us from one language to another at increased speeds…leaving the road littered with misused words, typos, clunky expressions, awkward syntax, horrifying grammar. And those are not always accidents.

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Filed under Deja Vu X, Grammar, Productivity, TEnT tools, Tools, Trados, Translation as writing, Translation errors, Writing skills

Stow standard roller bags LENGTHWISE

I am writing from the Silicon Valley today. The mountain air, the wide lanes on 87 South…the outdated Continental terminal at San Jose International Airport.

I am an amateur photographer. Things, not people, inspire my shots. I recently took a picture inside the cabin of a plane before disembarking (sorry, I don’t use deplaning because I think it’s a stupid Americanism).

The object in question is an informative signage in overhead bins: Stow standard roller bags LENGTHWISE and its accompanying Spanish translation: “Guarde equipaje con ruedas A LO LARGO”.

Bilingual signage

Guardar equipaje con ruedas A LO LARGO

What’s wrong with this picture? First, we Spanish speakers will ask ourselves ¿a lo largo de qué? Part of the translation, a lo largo, is, therefore, incomplete because, as an adverbial phrase, it requires a complement. However, lengthwise, an adverb, has been correctly translated…if translation meant just swapping words. But as a proponent of the translation technique known as desverbalización (deverbalization), I have to look deeper for the meaning (or unidades de sentido).

Second, the English has been poorly conceived because the phrase is incomplete. The original meaning, judging from the image, is that carry-ons or roller luggage should be stowed so that the handle will face the bin door. In this meaning, the wheels of whatever luggage contraption you use to carry your belongings will face the back of the bin. So, why use lengthwise?

I am assuming that the writer of the English phrase was thinking of the length the wheels have to travel from the lip of the bin to the back, which is called depth in better written texts. The word length refers to distance. A better instruction would have been Stow standard roller bags with wheels facing back, which is short and to the point. Of course, there are other variations, such as Stow standard roller bags so that handle faces bin door, but limits of space in signage demand a crisper, briefer version.

If anything, this example shows translators (and translation managers, buyers, project managers and other interested parties) how important it is to attach a graphic or figure to illustrate the instruction for clarity. More often than not, the text in and of itself is incomplete or unclear without a graphic. In this particular case, the graphic informs and completes the meaning of the English phrase, and a watchful translator will take it into consideration.

In my upcoming presentation at the Boston ATA Conference in October, I plan on using this item to exemplify one of the best practices in writing technical texts in Spanish. Your comments are always welcome, in English or en español.

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Filed under Bilingual signage, Cultural awareness, Signage, Spanish technical writing, Syntax, Technical writing, Translation errors

Failure is an option

I am an avid Mythbusters fan for scientific, entertainment and, now, language reasons. In a recent episode (or rerun, not sure), Adam explained the rationale behind his motto ‘Failure is an option’. Paraphrasing his explanation, he says that scientists do not look at failure as, well, failure but as a learning experience. The purpose of scientific experimentation is data collection to determine the feasibility of a certain process, for example, testing the tensile strength of a certain type of steel fibers.

He added (or I think it was Jamie who said this…) that the point of scientific experimentation is not to succeed in every attempt but to learn from the information acquired from the ‘misses’. I agree. I also found this reasoning to be a fresh outlook on translation errors. Phrases like “perfect translations” or “error-free translations” fill websites and business communications in our industry.

Why are we so afraid of making mistakes? Why do we make the colossal error of equating absence of translation issues with high quality translation?

This posting is a follow-up to a previous one regarding Rethinking Translation QA. What are your thoughts?

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Filed under Notepad ++, Passolo, QA standards, Translation errors

Rethinking translation QA

After completing two translation tests for a prospective customer, I was given some feedback. It was not what I wanted to hear. From ‘translator is not quite familiar with the industry terminology’ to ‘needs supervision’, the comments were stinging. Why would I feel bothered by an anonymous critique, you’d say? For the same reason a stranger tells you that you don’t know how to run your business.

I wrote back to my prospective customer and expressed my frustration at the inconsistency between the level of the criticism and the kind of “errors” found in my translation tests. The main point I tried to make was that many of the “errors” were preferences of the translators or editors who checked my translations. Weeks later, I received an email expressing concern, approval of my vendor status and an offer to do better at communicating. I replied my prospective customer by saying that, apparently, she takes translation test results only as one of many factors to decide who to hire as a freelancer.  The message reads as follows:

I definitely  do not just use the errors in the sample to determine the approval of a translator.  I take into account many different things.  I even take into account the tone and wording of the e-mails and telephone conversations in general.  That tells me  a lot about a person. A sample of 350 words is hardly enough to base my entire judgment on.

What weight does this have on translation quality control? That error counting does nothing to tell you what you need to know about a freelance translator. I’ve been thinking about the whole business case for implementing translation quality standards, and I think that some in the industry are so focused on finding errors that they fail to see the tree from the woods.

For QA to work in any field, it has to offer practical, cost-effective instruments to measure things. But you need to find measurable things. Languages are not like math or geography or archeology. How do you measure a language? How do you even measure if a document is well written? By counting the typos or syntax errors? Then how do you measure style?

I posit that none of this can be measured in any meaningful way. I propose a different way to ‘measure’ translation quality: effectiveness.

Now you’ll tell me ‘But effectiveness cannot be measured!’ And you might be right…to a point. Let’s imagine marketing campaigns. An effective marketing campaign is the one that increases sales, name recognition, gets people to talk about your company and your product. A similar strategy can be employed for translation effectiveness. That the focus is on business results is the beauty of it.

This is an ongoing analysis and it is a work in progress. I am not claiming to have found the ultimate solution to measuring translation, but my experience strongly suggests in my mind that we are going about it the wrong way. Go ahead, measure words and errors all you want. You will end up empty-handed.

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Filed under QA standards, Standard translation test, Translation errors, Translation testing

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