Category Archives: Professional development

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

Mario Chávez, diplomate translator, at your service

I recently attended two conferences. One in Minneapolis, MN, on the design of medical devices, and a tradeshow in Cleveland, OH, for the 2016 Ceramics Expo. I enjoyed myself immensely on both and for a variety of reasons.

Having been absent from tradeshows or conferences since March 2015, I was a bit out of touch with that environment that I’d like to call outside: what kind of clothes to wear? Should I wear black or brown shoes? Shall I pack my netbook or just my iPad Mini 2? Should I design and order new business cards? And what about my elevator speech?

I grew up going to tradeshows when they were part of our school field trips in Córdoba, Argentina, so moving across a sea of strange faces and collecting free pens was a given. Because I had chosen the Design of Medical Devices event mostly as a learning experience and not a marketing opportunity, I went there with a ready and curious mind. Because I’m the kind of professional who isn’t giving elevator speeches at, well, elevators, and I prefer the laissez-faire approach, I did design new business cards with the focus on my medical translation expertise, with colors to match:

Wordsmeet Medical business card

I hedged my bets on a typewriter typeface to reflect many of the medical reports I transcribe and translate and settled on red tones resembling blood. I kept my contact information to a minimum to invite use and not contemplation. The reverse added to my call to action on the recipient:

Wordsmeet Medical business card2

Notice that I didn’t use the words freelance or translator anywhere on the card. My short introduction would go like this:

-Hello, I see that your company is designing cardiac stents (or valves or a measuring device). What can you tell me about it?

-Hello, I’m here attending the DMD to learn about 3D printing of organs. I see your company does something with 3D. Tell me about it.

When my interlocutor, after explaining what he does, turns to me and asked what I do, I would reply:

-I translate medical documentation, reports, medical devices… (handing him my business card to complete my own description). I’ve learned how laser sintering makes it possible to build these tracheas!

I would also use these conversations to delve into my other areas of expertise, as when a vendor and I were discussing the capabilities of a medical pump (used to regulate medicine drip on a patient in a hospital). I would ask what protections against hacking that pump device would have. The point was not to market myself but to start a conversation, contribute what I knew, ask about things I didn’t know, show sincere interest in what they did as a company. Most of these conversations would end pleasantly, sometimes without exchanging business cards.

Two weeks later, the Ceramics Expo was taking place at the I-X Expo Center close to the Cleveland Airport. I had a 3-day free pass to attend the tracks and visit the tradeshow floor. My only expense worth mentioning was the $10 day parking (and there is plenty of parking!) I have been to tradeshows on many occasions, as when visiting the New York City’s Jacob Javits Convention Center, but seldom have I seen such an organized expo as last week’s Ceramics Expo. Dozens of booths orderly set up, many German and Chinese companies being represented and brief yet useful presentations given (such as the one on transparent ceramics).

Showa Denko booth

Chinese company Showa Denko booth. Chinese reps were easy to spot for their dark business suits, white shirts and dark neckties, all very courteous to the visitor.

I remember debating on that Wednesday morning whether to bring 20, 40 or more business cards. I decided to bring to card carriers (those metal boxes with a capacity for 25-30 business cards) in my pocket. I almost regretted not carrying more cards with me because I had dozens of opportunities to speak with company representatives.

Of all the people I spoke to, only one or two were a bit surprised at my business card (see top of this post) because here I was, a medical translator in a non-medical tradeshow. I was able to explain away that discrepancy by introducing myself as:

-Hello, my name is Mario Chávez. I’m a technical communicator visiting this expo to learn more about the ceramics and glass industry.

And that’s all the spiel I needed to make. No need to use fancy schmancy words, or say that I’m an ATA-certified translator. I made a point of using active verbs to introduce myself: I translate this, I write that, I performed that other thing. If you want your prospect to take some current or future action, use action verbs, not nouns.

The whole exercise let me thinking: Should I use the title “Technical communicator” instead of “Spanish-English translator” from now on? Or Should I call myself something else, like a BA or MA in Translation Studies. I kept pondering on these alternatives and seemingly ambivalent thoughts for days. Then I stumbled on an article about how nurses with a BA are more in demand in American hospitals than nurses with an associate’s degree. The article, published in The Wall Street Journal last October 14, 2015, made a larger point: the use of the adjective baccalaureate, which means a 4-year or bachelor’s university degree.

Baccalaureate nurses are more in demand than those with associate's degrees.

Baccalaureate nurses are more in demand than those with associate’s degrees.

That adjective took me to another one: diplomate. According to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary:

Definition of diplomate

So, I’ve decided to posit the question: wouldn’t it be better for a translator holding a university degree to call herself a diplomate translator instead of a freelance one? First, a freelance anything is simply someone who is working on her own, as a sole proprietor (or entrepreneur, if you must use that detestable word). A freelance translator’s only highlight is her ability to work for a variety of clients, beholden to no employer. But there are so many bilingual workers who call themselves translators that this distinction becomes not just blurry but useless and noxious.

Second, the beauty of the diplomate adjective attached to our chosen profession is that it highlights one of our largest investments: a university degree and/or diploma and a professional who has been vetted by a board of professionals (such as the American Translators Association).

So there you have it. From now on, I’ll be calling myself a diplomate translator because freelance translator just doesn’t cut it for me anymore. How about you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Baccalaureate degree, Diploma, Diplomate translator, Marketing, Professional development, Public image of translators, Qualified translators, Reputation, Technical writing, Translator qualifications

The damage “translator training” is doing to the profession

A recent Proz poll asked whether we translators attended courses to improve our expertise. Most of my colleagues answered that, yes, they have attended courses or training sessions. I was reminded of some thoughts I’ve been pondering regarding translator and interpreting training, views that I have been revising mentally since May this year after a series of job interviews with a private American university.

I was being interviewed for the position of adjunct professor of translation and interpreting. I made it clear that I do not know how to teach interpretation but they were interested in seeing me personally because of my years of translator experience. I was to give a 45-minute class which was to be monitored by the hiring manager and program director. That evening, she gave me this assessment:

“Mario, your class was good but it was more like a lecture, not the kind of classes we teach here. Here we apply the student-centered approach to teaching. Your teaching style is more instructor-based, the European kind, but I’m certain you will be able to adapt.”

-What preadmission exams students are required? —I asked.

-TOEFL, of course, for foreign students. For the MA students, the GRE.

-I understand that both TOEFL and GRE tests have a vocabulary and a writing component for English. What about Spanish, since the position is for English-Spanish translation education?

-We currently do not have a Spanish writing evaluation.

Back home, I considered these answers. I was surprised at the absence of a writing test for Spanish since this is an English-Spanish translation and interpreting undergraduate and graduate program.

About a week ago (mid August 2015), the current ATA president shared her thoughts about foreign language education and whether we will fund the next generation of interpreters and translators. Her June 2015 opening paragraphs are a call to action:

ATA Chronicle June 2015 - Ms Walsh remarks about foreign language education

The proportion of high school students who have studied formal courses in a foreign language is indeed quite low. The first sentence is a gentle reprimand to the states that do not require a foreign language as high school graduation requisite. What worries me is the rest of the percentages being inserted in strange ways. More on that later.

In that LinkedIn discussion opened by the ATA president, I wrote that “fluency in foreign languages does not necessarily equal or include writing skills in a foreign language. We keep singing the same bilingualism song. How about the ATA foster a more writing, less talking in foreign languages so we can prepare future translators better?” My criticism encountered what I consider a baffling response:

Fluency in a foreign language includes reading, writing, listening and speaking ability. Much of the predicted growth is already materializing in interpreting sectors, making the spoken v.s written debate moot.

So now being fluent in a language automatically implies writing ability? A high school course covering French or Spanish may focus on the basics, just like a continuing education language course in college. Last year, I took a college French course that required attending a 3-hour session twice a week for almost 3 months. I was happy with the challenge of learning a new language and practicing it with my fellow students. The teacher is an engaging instructor who spent some years in France. I came away with a certain degree of fluency in French, situational bilingualism I call it: what to do at a restaurant, how to find a train station or ask questions to get to the post office, how to address younger or older people, friends and strangers alike in France, etc. But was the course geared to teach me how to write a letter in French? No, it was not. So, I was functionally bilingual but only in the verbal sense.

Back to the private university I interviewed for last May. Prospective students are expected to be fluent in a given language (Spanish in this case), and that implies knowing how to write in Spanish. However, there is no test to assess that competence. Moreover, the courses are designed to get the students to translate from day one and to familiarize themselves with the technology tools of the trade, such as translation memories, glossary creation and maintenance, as well as specializing in certain areas such as medicine, finance, software localization, etc.

In my view and with the benefit of having undertook years of formal translation courses and seminars, this kind of instruction is doomed to fail because it just tries to fit the bilingual circle into the square of actual translation education. There is no theory, no stylistics, no writing practice to speak of. If Spanish grammar is taught, students are already expected to have an advanced knowledge and practice of it. But without a way to assess it, how well prepared are they to absorb college-level Spanish grammar classes, let alone put them to work in a translation context?

In my years of being a member of the American Translators Association, I’ve indeed associated myself with very bright individuals and colleagues, several of them holders of MAs and PhDs in their chosen field and/or in translation or interpretation. However, whenever there has been discussion of preparing future translators or improving current ones in their knowledge of translation techniques and methods, the umbrella word, the operative term is training, which I find utterly simplistic and misleading.

By definition, training is the method to acquire mainly technical skills and takes place in a short period of time, from a few hours to a few weeks or months. In the professions, training is often called professional development. If you wanted to learn how to create floral arrangements, your training would probably take you a few weeks. On the other hand, a complex procedure such as Lasik surgery requires a degree in medicine, in Ophthalmology, a residency and further training. However, the word training in the latter context does not present the problems I’m citing in the area of translation for a number of reasons, mainly because ophthalmologists are a special kind of eye doctor (i.e. they are not optometrists!) and their profession is highly regulated. They are not considered medical specialists just because they pepper their conversation with cataract this and presbyopia that. People do not hold them in high esteem and pay high fees to see them because they wear white smocks or fancy nametags.

Think of the last plumber or electrician you hired for your home. Did you ask for a copy of his certificate or license? Electricians, for one, have to have a license number to practice, and many of the workers in the construction trades, from HVAC technicians to welders, need to be bonded. These are visible signs attesting to the practitioner’s training and knowledge. But if you take an interpreter or a translator, how does she prove her competence? Do you ask for an educated conversation in French or German, a letter of recommendation from a teacher or professor, or a writing test or a diploma? Chances are you only take her word for it. Maybe you ask her if she is a member of the corresponding professional association. A detailed person may offer her business card with the association’s seal and membership number but, do you call or write the association (NAJIT for interpreters, ATA for translators and interpreters) to verify the practitioner’s credentials? No, you will just take her word for it and focus on her being bilingual and fluent in a foreign language that you do not understand.

Hiring someone to perform a service based on this criteria would be irresponsible for a business owner, wouldn’t you agree? However, that’s exactly how many American businesses and organizations hire translators and interpreters: on the strength of their bilingualism and foreign language fluency.

I would propose that, in the field of preparing and educating current and future translators and interpreters, we take a step up and leave the word training behind. In practice, a translator or interpreter hits her stride on her fifth year of full-time practice, with or without a college degree. Right now, my proposal, my challenge, is for translators and interpreters associations and groups to take translation and interpreting education very seriously, acknowledging the inadequacy of current so-called certification programs blithely given at many American universities and colleges. I also want to make this challenge extensive to the American Translators Association to help dispel the misassociation people have between the word bilingual and the professions translator and interpreter. If the ATA is truly concerned about foreign language degrees in America, it should start going beyond the buzzwords of bilingualism and translation training and focus on the actual competencies required, mainly excellent writing skills in the languages involveds and the means to assess those skills in a way that a member of the public, a business owner, a government official, a hospital administrator who does not write in that language may find useful and purposeful.

Finally, a word or two about the misuse of statistics. In the “Fewer than 8% of college students study a foreign language” paragraph I cited above, I saw two important data points: that only 10 U.S. states require a foreign languages as graduation requisite for high school, and that 8% of college students (or a lower proportion) take up to studying a foreign language. We are not told what level these foreign language courses are: are they beginner level (such as the French course I took in 2014)? Are they mid-level or advanced level? What are the goals or expected outcomes?

The opening argument is that high school graduates with no foreign language skills represent “a skill level far too low with which to work.” We are left to guess what the author meant by that: what skill level is far too low with which kind of position or area to work? We are left in the dark.

Then two more statistics are thrown in to close the argument, the growth rate in translation and interpreting jobs since 2005 (a floating statistic I call it, because the reader is not given any reference framework to compare) and the US BLS prediction of 46% growth for these professions from 2012-2022. If you and I were government officials, we might be impressed with such large percentages…but we are not. Let’s see the actual statistic with some context:

US BLS Occupational outlook for translators

Notice the following:

The entry-level education (a BA degree), none as work experience in a related occupation, short-term on-the-job training as on-the-job training (remember what I said about training?) and the paragraphs under What interpreters and translators do and How to be come an interpreter or translator. Especially troubling is the statement: “the most important requirement is to have native-level fluency in English and at least one other language.” So it circles back to what I was saying regarding fluency in a foreign language.

At ATA conferences I’m always hearing talk about how little people and companies and governments understand our role to be, what little professional respect we are given, how demeaning it is to be considered just another bilingual professional. One immediate step or campaign the ATA’s Public Relations Committee could take is to contact the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and start correcting this wrong image. Otherwise, the ATA in practice is more like the American Bilingual Professionals Association.

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Filed under ATA, Misinformation on translator role, Professional development, Translation as writing, Translator Education, Writing skills

Translators will always be wanted

I recently answered a poll at the popular site Proz. The question was Would you recommend translation as a career to future generations? There were over a dozen comments by the participants.

Understandably, some translators are concerned about finding direct clients or retaining the ones they got. Others doubt because technologies may replace our craft. Here’s my answer:

Absolutely, a resounding YES

I’ve been a full-time translator, often freelancing, sometimes inhousing, for the last 19+ years in America (oh, sorry, the U.S.A.) –I was born in Argentina.

I am not afraid of new technologies, Google, artificial intelligence or other tools because I don’t confuse excellent writing with so-called productivity. Translators who write very well are hardly in danger of being replaced by technology (how unimaginative!) or low-cost translators in third- and fourth-world countries.

Translation requires passion as do other professions and crafts, but excelling at writing in your own mother tongue is so germane to our occupation that you can’t be a good or successful translator unless you write very, but very well.

Our profession also requires an understanding and command of translation techniques and strategies, something you learn from translation theory. Don’t get me wrong, I am not talking about ivory-tower, only-for-academics theory. But it is required to understand why some texts can be translated in one way and other texts in another.

Finally, excellent translators know how to read and why (this reminds me of a Harold Bloom book I just purchased and that I am impatient to start reading!). My best friends are books (sorry, human best friends!). They’re always there, they help me reflect on what is said and how it is said.

Loving languages or being a polyglot are not enough to become a prosperous translator (I am using ‘prosperous’ here with liberty). You have to love to write, and write well. Anything else is secondary.

The poll and comments can be found here.

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Filed under Artificial Intelligence, Customer relationship, Customers, Marketing, Professional development, The craft of translation, Translation as writing

A follow-up on 50 Best Jobs (book)

I received a letter from Dr. Laurence Shatkin today. Dr. Shatkin is one of the authors of the book titled 50 Best Jobs for Your Personality, 2nd edition (JIST Publishing). In short, he explained that he had to base his book on the Department of Labor’s SOC (Standard Occupational Taxonomy). Because Dr. Shatkin’s letter is both gracious and professional in tone, the least I can do is to include excerpts from it:

The most important limitation is that I must rely on career information databases from the Department of Labor to provide information on the hundreds of occupations that I put into my books, and those databases sometimes lump together occupations that you or I might prefer to be defined separately. For example, although the government’s official Standard Occupational Taxonomy (SOC) recognizes one occupation called Accountants and Auditors, the O*NET database (which is what I used for the personality types in 50 Best Jobs for Your Personality) splits this into two separate occupations. Sadly, with Interpreters and Translators, both SOC and the O*NET keep these two titles lumped together. The O*NET does not provide separate information on their personality types or on any other characteristics or requirements.

What results is an average. I would guess, although I do not have any data on hand, that there are more interpreters than translators. (I’d appreciate hearing from you about whether this is true). This would explain why Social is the second personality type listed as the average for this combined occupation, although a translator’s work environment is not very social. In fact, translating is probably an excellent occupation for an introverted person.

I should point out that the Department of Labor tends to keep occupations lumped together in cases where the initial stages of the preparation pathway are similar. In the case of Interpreters and Translators, one would start preparing for both of these occupations by becoming knowledgeable about a foreign language. Eventually, one would reach a fork in the road and would decide which occupation is more suitable.

The statement about the type of education/training required is also based on information from the Department of Labor. Most occupations allow a range of preparation routes, and this one (or two, if you prefer!) probably allows a wider range than most. The policy of the Department of Labor is to list the shortest of the possible entry routes, even if it’s not the one most preferable. So, for example, they list associate degree as appropriate for Registered Nurse, even though a nurse without a bachelor’s degree faces severely limited job choices. That’s why “long-term on-the-job training” is listed for Interpreters and Translators.

This open dialogue is encouraging. Care to participate?

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Filed under Bilingualism vs. Translation, Interpreting, Marketing, Professional development, Public Relations, Translator Education

A disservice to career seekers

I am an avid reader. Sometimes you can find me spending 2-4 hours at the local Borders or Barnes & Noble. The practice of perusing the contents of a book before buying it is enhanced by the ability to use the Amazon app on your smartphone and scan the ISBN code for prices, reviews, etc.

This weekend I saved myself almost $30. One of the books I did not buy is titled 50 Best Jobs for Your Personality, 2nd edition, by Michael Farr and Lawerence Shatkin, Ph.D.

I invite you to see it for yourself. Please go to page 260 and read the description for Interpreters and Translators. Court, community, health care interpreters, interpreters for the hearing-impaired and translators are lumped together in this oversimplistic, rushed description of our professions. The personality code AS stands for “Artistic” and “Social.” I have known many social interpreters, but translators are not necessarily your social butterfly. We like to work quietly, with as few distractions as possible, because translation requires a great deal of concentration and intellectual focus.

I recently wrote to the book’s publishing house, JIST Publishing, in Indianapolis, IN, to complain about the serious misconceptions inserted in this shabby description. I also posted a review on Amazon, so it does not bear repeating here. Suffice it to say that prospective students of translation and interpreting in this country will be mislead by reading this inaccurate portrayal of language professionals.

Beyond this pointed complaint of mine, I acknowledge that there is a collective PR campaign that you, I and our fellow interpreters, translators, agency owners and other stakeholders in this industry have to carry out. The floor is open.

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Filed under Bilingualism vs. Translation, Interpreting, Professional development, Translator Education