Category Archives: Translation as writing

Translation is a function of writing

“What is it that you do, Mario,” asked my coworker, a software trainer with experience in rigging (as in venue rigging for shows, concerts, etc.).

I felt relaxed as I answered him: “My fancy title, localization specialist, means that I’m the company’s Spanish translator for software and documentation.”

We then briefly discussed our last exchange over some rigging terms like drops. In rigging, a drop can be a drop point or the point from where a load is dropped or suspended, or the load itself that is being suspended from a truss or similar structure. The reader may squint at this and say “Aha! You are talking about terminology in translation, not writing.” And the reader may be half right.

Due to the pressure of internet speed we think we have to operate daily, many of us translators and associated professionals assume that the key to a usable and appropriate translation is the use of industry-specific terminology. Let’s try a simple experiment to see if that’s true. The following was extracted from the Spanish Wikipedia article on radio a transistores:

Texas Instruments había demostrado varias radios completamente transistorizadas AM (amplitud modulada) el 25 de mayo de 1954​ pero su performance era muy inferior al de los modelos equivalentes a válvulas.

At a glance, correct terminology is being used in this paragraph but the observant reader will notice several solecisms, aside from the unnecessary anglicism performance. Texas Instrument “demoed” or demonstrated the operation of transistor radios, but the use of demostrar in the above paragraph means it exhibited or showed radios, now how they performed. The second glaring solecism appears at the end, “modelos equivalentes a válvulas,” to mean similar valve-based (radio) models.

A writer of any type of text needs to work from two distinct but related perspectives: the macrostructure and the microstructure. Put it another way, the author writing a handbook or a novel has to keep the larger picture of a chapter in mind while treading on the sentences, paragraphs or dialog bits on a page. A good writer, or translator, keeps the unity of texts, while the mediocre writer or translator segmentizes texts, forgets connectors, commits solecisms and other inexcusable writing failures. Strictly speaking of translation, a translator who is too dependent on the segmentized texts presented to her by CAT and TEnT tools is already failing in the writing task at hand, unless she works with the entire macrostructure: a previewed page or section of text, for instance.

Why this imbalance occurs should be of interest to all of us. In layman’s terms, the text macrostructure is the domain of text grammar and the text microstructure that of sentence grammar. Most of us were taught language and literature via sentence grammar. I contend that this is the main reason we overfocus on terms or single words rather than on the entire text structure spanning sections, pages and chapters.

Translation is a function of writing, and writing is a function of an educated mind.

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Filed under Grammar, Sentence grammar, Terminology, Text grammar, Translation as writing, Vocabulary, Writing skills

Doing research as a translator

Research is a basic human skill, no Ph.D. needed to perform research. As toddlers, we researched our surroundings by using all of our senses, stumbling along the way, burning our fingertips when grasping a hot ladle or stinging our eyes while getting scrubbed and having our abundant hair washed with shampoo. We acquired knowledge through experience, or experiential learning.

Our nascent research skills get a bit stumped along the way, particularly if we’re subjected to rote learning and a sanitized, tradition-protecting educational infrastructure: we memorize and recite facts, factoids and fictions to later regurgitate them in a different format: oral lessons, multipage theses, business reports. If we’re part of a religious tradition with emphasis on certitude, all seeds of doubt be damned, we become survivalists, absorbing and internalizing received wisdom and passing it along later in life as professionals and instructors of every kind. What a critical thinker and thoughtful mind would consider outlandish ideas or impractical courses of action become mainstream thinking and knowledge, such as believing that there are two kinds of translators: those who work with agencies and those who work with premium clients.

So, what is research and how can it help us translators? During my two doctoral semesters in Portugal, I learned a thing or two about academic research and writing polished and purposeful papers. All this activity made me reflect on skills that I had exercised in other periods of my life, from my tweenage years to adulthood.

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Proper research spans our whole lifetime, not just a job’s timeline.

First, research is born of intellectual curiosity. It is intellectual as opposed—at first— to pragmatic or practical curiosity because we want to acquire new knowledge for its own sake, for the satisfaction it brings to solve a mental puzzle, even if it doesn’t have immediate real-life application. That comes later as we continue our research.

Second, research requires observation, examination and analysis. We observe a phenomenon, an event or an incongruous situation, we examine it to understand the general idea of it, then we analyze it to break it down into more digestible parts. For instance, my idea of an engine’s torque became clearer after my brother explained it as a function of a motor’s shaft, along with concepts such as idling, engine power and resistance. All these steps require a higher level of abstraction absent in glancing an article or fast-reading a white paper.

Third, research focuses on facts and conclusions, regardless of how we personally feel about the nature of our eventual discovery. While it may be acceptable to have hopes for our research on how many Emperor penguins are born in January, we have to put aside our emotions in the face of the number of dead penguins because letting our feelings influence how we view and interpret facts and design our conclusions is just unacceptable. And unprofessional.

For instance, if I say I distrust the Bureau of Labor’s percentage about the annual growth of our profession, I have to be willing to argue for and against that number, investigate how the Bureau of Labor arrived at it, what criteria were used in interpreting facts and shaping conclusions…in particular the conclusion that the profession is growing without taking into account micro and macroeconomic factors such as regional economies, universities’ rate of graduates in translation, and price dynamics at local, national and international scale. True research abhors soundbites and requires careful reading and consideration, both in very short supply among the masses of speed-loving geeks that translators tend to become in ever increasing numbers.

Fourth, research not only accepts but welcomes third-party testing of its preliminary and final assumptions. It is not enough for just one astronomer to declare the appearance of a brand-new star or exoplanet as his findings have to be independently verified by his peers in other observatories and countries. Sadly, we translators seem to depend on a popularity index: we listen more attentively to those who blog the most, who have more published books, who are more charismatic, who attend the greatest number of conferences or write more journal-published articles. Authority by SEO and search hits, not by research.

Leaving aside our global situation as translators, I’ve been considering how to explain my research methods to nontranslators. A nontranslator, such as a client, a boss, a project manager or a coworker (who, by the way, aren’t necessarily monolingual or ignorant about what translators really do) requires careful explanation of translation research that is not condescending nor uppity, one that is not too complex but not simplistic and Manichean. It is a real struggle for me because the way we translators individually do research is as intricate and mysterious as the way we process our translations in our heads before we write them down.

Those of us who drive on a daily basis may describe the series of decisions taken as simply driving, without dividing it into all its component parts like getting into a car, putting the stick in drive, checking our mirrors, buckling up before pushing the gas pedal, not to mention the myriad decisions we make aided by our eyes and ears, scanning in front of the vehicle and sideways, reading the intention of the other drivers surrounding us, feeling the wheel in the palms of our hands and knowing, almost instinctively, how much to turn it every which way and with what force or gentleness. All this is part of what we can call the topology of driving. We do something similar with translation. And research.

If a nontranslator asks us how we came up with a term or a turn of phrase in our translation, we simply say we found some clues in our specialized dictionaries or by reading industry articles or catalogs. But research is much more than that. You and I conduct this research in different ways depending on topic, deadline and availability of reliable resources. To many clients and translation buyers, the key mot juste is terminology or industry terms. They demand we know their jargon, buzzwords and language, how they call this thingamajik or that process. A company’s product is supported by a variety of different texts, from user guides to instructions to sales materials, but to a client, a business owner, coworker or project manager, all these texts share the same terms and the same brand. They’re right…and wrong.

For instance, Huawei makes routers for “innovative enterprise applications from small to super huge scale.” Words such as innovative and super huge scale are marketingspeak, but they’re part of the branding strategy for this company. If the translation of this text does not have words with the same oomph or impact as the English, a client might consider it a translation failure, despite all of our careful research. It’s the same with clunky English imports such as big data and [movie] streaming. They’re often left in English because, well, the translator couldn’t find an equally impressive Spanish or French or German equivalent, as if languages’ sole virtue for making global understanding possible resided on import words and false cognates.

Confronted with the task of explaining how I do research for my translations or how I come about with a sentence where a certain brand- or marketing-language word does not appear, I have to learn to go down into the thinking strata of my mind and emerge with the tools and methods I use to inquire about new concepts and express them in writing. However, even if I have a cogent narrative to offer, I have to run it through several filters to avoid coming across as a know-it-all spewing condescending prattle.

An uphill, ongoing challenge, this is. But a particular aptitude common to all translators is at my disposal, regardless of my personality or whether I am popular or not. The ability to translate, in its broadest sense, a complicated concept into an understandable one. Since I translate for a given reader or audience and tune my writing to their level of understanding, so should I proceed with filtering my innermost mental mechanics on research to provide not just a clear explanation but a persuasive one.

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Filed under Branding, Buzzword, Research in translation, Research methods, The craft of translation, Translation as writing

A cemetery for buzzwords

Venado Tuerto is a city located in the Argentinean province of Santa Fe. Once, I paid a visit to a group of friends there, when we were in our twenties. On Sunday, after church, one of them suggested we go visit the cemetery. Back in the day, parklike cemeteries were a novelty, a welcome development that brought a less brutalist, less arid platform to bury our dead. Crisscrossed by paths and dotted with shrubs and trees, this cemetery was a new experience for me: very peaceful, green, with hardly any visitors despite being Sunday.

Cementerio parque otoñal - Vdo Tuerto

The Cementerio Parque Otoñal cemetery in Venado Tuerto (Santa Fe, Argentina)

 

I’ve visited cemeteries on occasion since then, all following the park template that I found so soothing and welcoming. The dead are assured visitors, flowers, memorials, tomb plates. For both the religious and nonreligious, a cemetery is a neutral place of quietness, and sometimes solitude, far removed from the hustle and bustle of urban affairs.

When writers and translators commit thoughts to paper or screen, they rummage through the almost endless drawers of memory: new words, old expressions, popular phrases, forgotten terms. Using a word that has fallen into disuse is an act of courage, provided there is a sound reason for such use. Dictionaries, thesauri and other resources are like large drawers of knowledge. Who hasn’t gotten lost among the white aisles of a dictionary page looking for word A and ending up reading, mesmerized, word B or C?

Dictionary houses such as Oxford or Collins have an ongoing tradition, the Word of the Year. “Single-use” became word of the year 2018 (see news article here). Maybe that word is not so relevant to many of us, but the tradition has a nobler purpose beyond being newsworthy: words, even buzzwords and ephemeral terms, have a right to be heard and read. The usage of a word, even the much-dismissed buzzwords (full disclosure: I don’t like buzzwords), is subject to and the result of a myriad of individual and collective decisions. Even hashtags on Twitter have become buzzwords, like #HeforShe, #metoo and #BlackLivesMatter, their meanings amplified by the ever-present popularity contests on social media.

But I have a beef with buzzwords: they obscure meaning, rob texts of clarity, stupefy the act of reading and understanding and force the reader to read again what should have been clear in the first place. Good writers, including translators, text reviewers and editors, ought to build a cemetery for buzzwords in their minds, a large pit where showy but useless terms get dumped. But this cemetery should have some categorization to avoid the resurrection of these zombie terms that eat up at the conciseness of a text. For instance, the buzzword “business case” can be replaced with “reason(s) why a project or action is profitable or advantageous” and then dropped down the hatch ending in my buzzword cemetery. I know that buzzword is there, referring to my longer but clearer phrase, but it’s under a do not use category. This exclusion policy takes a great deal of discipline but, what is good writing if not disciplined thinking set to words?

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Filed under Buzzword, Consistency, Translation as writing

Journalists, our brothers in writing

Judging by recent news, journalists have a target on their back. The gradual disappearance of printed newspapers and physical attacks such as the one committed against the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, MD cast a long and lingering cloud not just over journalists and newspapers, but over free press, a requirement for democracy.

No matter what you do in life, writing is you go-to tool. Even if your most elaborate written expression is texting with emojis, you still depend on two things: communicative symbols and a medium to convey them. Our ancestors started with their fingers painting on rocks. Clay tablets and sand boxes for Chinese calligraphy were reusable to an extent, but transient in purpose and effect. Paraphrasing a statement by Neil deGrasse Tyson in the Cosmos series, humans found a way to be immortal by writing.

Writing can be a personal, semiprofessional or professional activity. Even in the 21st century, we all write in one way or another, mainly to communicate with others: family, friends, coworkers, the boss, perfect strangers. But we are not writers per se in the sense that it is all we do to earn a living. A wedding planner uses writing as one of many activities he performs. A novel writer, on the other hand, writes on and off the clock, as it were. He writes to entertain, to explore, to express himself.

Oh, pardon me for using “gendered language.” As much as I support a gender equality that is both fair and reasonable, I don’t toe the line of the sexism police in writing because language use evolves with people, not by decree, however well-intentioned it may be. If it helps sensitive readers, I include everyone, men and women of any orientation, sexual or otherwise, when I use hehim, or any masculine particle.

Back to writers: In this realm, several pen-wielding citizens live. Their activity requires writing expertise and a deep motivation to use writing for justifiable purposes. Among those writers, we find journalists of different stripes, from those who work at sensationalist magazines to those who toil among company that many people would deem unworthy: the homeless, the ex cons and jailed ones, poor single parents, dubious celebrities, notorious reality-show stars, obscure public officials, Wall Street types and one-percenters.

I find it admirable that some journalists find the even-handedness and equality to ask questions and remain calm and professional despite being insulted, aggrieved and lumped with what some high-minded individuals consider the scum of the earth. In a democracy, we may like, even admire a written column or a newspaper editorial, or disagree with the columnist. If we feel incensed by a reportage we consider full of falsehoods or calumny, many reputable newspapers and magazines have a very democratic mechanism: letters to the editor. But, who has the time to write a letter to the editor to complain about an inaccuracy or unfair portrayal in a newspaper these days? Hey, we can twitter or facebook it. But we risk shooting ourselves in the foot.

First, writing a letter requires time to think, then put our thoughts on paper (or email). Writing also requires that we stick to some standards: be polite, state your goal, offer your approval or disapproval, or a strong objection, and explain your reasons for it. Close it politely. You might find it surprising, but you don’t need to be a grammarian or an A+ on your scorecard for English writing. People are very forgiving with typos, run-on sentences and lack of concordance; they get the gist. Finally, and most importantly to me at least, writing such a letter is influenced by what you’ve seen written in other “Letters to the editor” sections: as much as you and I may disagree with their arguments, as much as we find them silly or nonsensical, they’re worded politely and stick to the point. The inherent formality of a newspaper page (on paper or on screen) underscores the fact that this is a civil and democratic society. Civil first, democratic second, because a democracy can never happen without civil discourse.

Properly trained journalists, whether in school or at work, learn to research and write drafts until the whole piece is coherent and supported by facts. We translators act a bit more like ghost writers—the topic is not of our choosing, let alone the reasons and arguments. Yet we are free to research the proper and best ways to express them in the target language. We are free to rearrange the syntax furniture according to the natural uses of the target language. But our writing need not be purely a mechanic exercise. Translators can do much better: we are free to choose what we read to serve as a well of usage in different domains, a collection of writing models we can enrich our writing practice with.

There is a Spanish proverb, “dime con quién andas y te diré quién eres” (You can judge a man by the company he keeps). Adapting it to ourselves, I’d say “dime qué lees y te diré qué tan bien escribes” (Your reading informs your writing, or Your writing is as good or as poor as the things you choose to read). Consciously or not, we read others because we’re looking for models of expression; we follow examples, good or bad. How do we know they’re good or bad? By their results, their effects on us and on others. If I read an elegant phrase, an elegantly phrased translation in a business letter or a health care brochure, if I’m a writer, I want to be able to write like that. If a turn of phrase, whatever its origin, makes me feel good about a topic, I am likely to replicate it. The effects are cumulative, in my view.

I have been feeling a surging need to support journalism, the best kind, whether it’s political, religious, economic or plainspoken in nature. We are living in yet another age where journalists are being decried as enemies, execrated, put in jail or executed. Yet their writing will endure. Writing is our ticket to an immortality of sorts. Well, then, do we want to be remembered by a tweet or a facebook posting, or by something more substantive and reflective of who we are?

Food for thought, and for writing.

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Filed under Translation as writing, Writing skills

Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar, or let’s stop blaming Google Translate for bad output

During our team’s weekly terminology meeting, we examined some poorly translated specimens, such as extraordinarias amortizaciones de capital translated as “extraordinary amortizations of principal.” One of my colleagues, Rafael, half smiled and half snickered when he said “Oh, sounds like Google Translate.”

We translators are detail oriented in the best of times. In the worst of times, we are fault finders. Identifying a collage of symptoms is not diagnosis, however, and we collectively tend to misidentify as Google Translate output a translation that is more likely the product of poor writing skills.

We might think that the more experienced we are as translators, the better we are at spotting errors and the nature of those errors. But human psychology points to habituation, where our eyes increasingly get used to seeing an erroneous or nonsensical expression (a phrase like “scientifically formulated”) as normal. Even the expression “the new normal” is suspect if subject to careful scrutiny.

How can we, trained language specialists*, be prone to misread an agrammatical or erroneous statement and consider it normal? One answer could be that it’s one side of language evolution. Language users push the boundaries of what’s conventional until a critical mass of users is reached, users who agree that a newly formulated expression is normal. By force of habit, no less. To the trained eye, a sentence, phrase or question that sounds, walks and reads too far apart from convention is considered incorrect. To the bristled consciences out there, the binomial correct/incorrect is a requisite judgment function. Yes, you can talk and write any way you want. But if you want your writing to be meaningful to others beside you and convey a message to others, you have to play by the rules. Rules set up by the majority of users. Grammar rules, syntax rules, vocabulary-forming rules.

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Instead of blaming our machines for our own mistakes, we need to look in the mirror and see who is actually the writing instrument at play. Is it possible to write so poorly that we can mistake the product for the GIGO trash spat out by computer? Certainly. But AI, MT and their offspring such as Google Translate have enough blemishes and misshapen innards and brains, we do not need to torture them any further by misplacing on them the responsibility—and the guilt— that is

so distinctly and humanly ours to face.

 

*The expression is broadly and generously applied here.

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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.

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