Tag Archives: bilingual

Translation Myths —Putting bilingualism to the test

As translators, we often are asked to do terminology research, as if translation involved only the word-for-word exchange of specialized terms. But this is a myth to discuss some other time. Let’s talk about bilingualism.

Bilingualism is the ability to speak in two languages. Knowing a few phrases in German while your native language is English or Italian does not count; you have to be able to express yourself freely and richly in two languages. Many European citizens have done this since childhood: growing up in a geography inhabited by multiple languages and dialects makes learning more than one mother tongue unavoidable. From my conversations with people from different European extractions, being a polyglot or multilingual speaker is the norm.

Some colleagues of mine tend to pooh-pooh Americans in general because they seem disinclined and disinterested in learning other languages, but this is an incorrect perception as well as a sweeping generalization. Because language learning is highly dependent on geography, we can’t blame a guy in Idaho who never cared to study or speak Croatian, especially if the number of Croatian residents in Idaho is small.

But then, you will say that that is not excuse! You know many monolingual Americans in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago who are surrounded by thousands of Latinos, Chinese or Russian-speaking folks yet they never cared to learn those languages. Point taken. But let’s discuss an often neglected characteristic of bilingualism: orality or the distinct activity of expressing oneself verbally in more than one language. Translation is writing in a foreign language with the flair, style, vocabulary knowledge and grammar capabilities belonging to that foreign language. Being bilingual has nothing to do with having the ability to write in a foreign language properly, or to write in it at all. Let me demonstrate.

I am a bilingual person because I can freely express myself in both English and Spanish. Here’s a small proof: explaining my bilingualism

Before you click on the YouTube link, can you easily “see” or “read” how bilingual I am? Of course not. Why not? Because they are spoken words. And the way we all speak words is far different from the way we commit them to paper. If you were to meet me at a coffeeshop to tell me about your latest vacation adventure in The Poconos (NY),  your speech would be full of ums, ahs, ohs, what-did-I-says and other filler expressions. Because the content is so illustrative, emotional and personally colorful, and because the communication is instantaneous (ergo, I am listening as you are speaking), we don’t need full stops, commas, semicolons or paragraphs, none of those structural strictures. It all makes sense, right?

Then why do you insist on calling me a bilingual translator? Why are your job postings inviting submissions from native Spanish/Chinese/Dari/Pashto speakers to work as translators, when you know full well that it’s apples and oranges? Translators write; interpreters and bilingual individuals speak.

Speaking of writing, how difficult is it for you or your staff to compose a sensible sentence to say what you really mean? If you want an interpreter for a call center or for tech support, say so, don’t ask for a translator. If you want a bilingual who can translate your documents, software, etc., use the word TRANSLATOR. Repeat after me: translators translate and write.

American businesspeople pride themselves in being pragmatic, direct, sensible and in delivering for the bottom line. That’s why I’m speaking to you in your pragmatic and direct and sensible language: call us for what we are and what we do. When in doubt, speak to us first. Thank you.



Filed under Bilingual staff, Bilingualism vs. Translation, Misinformation on interpreter role, Misinformation on translator role, Writing skills

The quaintiquated notion of translation fidelity

Raise your hand if you have never heard the phrase traduttore, traditore. No? Consider yourself lucky. It’s an old Italian adage that has become quaint and antiquated, or quaintiquated. In the ALTA blog Beyond Words,  wrote this in 2008:

The Italians and the French have a history of cultural rivalry that dates back to before the Renaissance, when scholars, philosophers, artists, and writers of the two countries held the reins of Europe. Fostering progress in tandem, European polyglots and translators found themselves translating the works of their neighbors.

The cultural interchange spawned the Italian phrase, Traduttore, traditore: Translator, traitor. First applied to the French by irate Italians who felt that many French-language translations of Dante betrayed either the beauty or the accuracy of the work, this clever consonance plays upon the worst fears of an international society.

Put it simply, Italians were complaining about untranslatable expressions that did get translated into French. The complaint, in modern terms, was about what got lost in translation…as if human languages were precisely interchangeable.

The book Lost in Translation, by Ella Frances Sanders, captures poetically and visually some examples of untranslatable words from around the world. The Dutch word glaswen, for example, means a sarcastic or mocking “blue smile.” And it’s not only individual words but entire idiomatic expressions that find no accurate or faithful equivalent in other languages. So, out with that archaic idea of absolute faithfulness.

Nontranslator persons usually juggle two other ideas when they speak about translation: meaning and literality. A word may have a single meaning that is abundantly clear, such as dog or horse. We are talking about the quadruped pet in the first case and the quadruped running beast in the second. The moment you use either word as the core of an expression, such as I’m dog tired or Out of the horse’s mouth, the average American will unerringly notice a change in meaning completely unrelated to the first nature (pet or beast) we referred to earlier.

But even when we consider multiple-meaning words, like table, hammer, nail, cloud or net, we have to remind ourselves that only the meaning that answers to the particular context at hand should be considered. This particular meaning can then be influenced by the focused meanings of the neighboring words and paragraphs. So, take it from me: when someone talks about the meaning of a text, he doesn’t know what he is talking about.

You may be the author of an employee handbook or an advertising campaign slogan, or even the tagline for the company’s tradeshow exhibit, but you know nothing about the particular sets of meanings that can travel to another foreign language. You may be bilingual and you still won’t know. Enter the meaning-wranglers, those solitary cowboys of the wordplains called translators.

The second topic many nontranslator persons stumble on is the case of the literal translation or the word-for-word translation, as if they knew what it really means. Unless you can easily find your way around bilingual dictionaries and texts (no Google Translate allowed, that would be cheating), you are not qualified to tell a translator whether her translation is literal or not. However, in the spirit of cooperation, let me disabuse you of the false notion of what literal translation seems to mean.

A literal or word-for-word translation is actually a time-honored translation approach very much in use since ancient times. This strategy, also called a metaphrase, meant using the foreign language words that best approached the syntax and meaning of the original text. An example of metaphrasic translation: A book was found on the floor. Spanish: Un libro fue hallado en el piso.

A more “free” translation would paraphrase or say the original in different ways. Taking the former example, two Spanish paraphrases: a) Encontraron un libro en el piso. b) Había un libro en el piso.

Now, before my fellow translators accuse me of misusing the passive voice above (Un libro fue hallado en el piso), imagine if the phrase A book was found on the floor were part of a suspense novel instead of a police report. Different sets of meanings. Again, only a professional translator is qualified to make the calls on how best to recast those sets of meanings, or combinations of meanings, in a foreign language. Not a bilingual person, no matter how fluent that person is in two languages. Bilingualism often refers to the speech portion of a language, not the written part. Well, translators write for a living.

It is worth noting that a literal translation would recreate a document equivalent to the original with little regard to the syntax and natural fluidity of the foreign language for the translation. Because a deep knowledge of grammar and syntax structures is required to render a professional translation, there’s a certain amount of irony in the request for faithfulness presented by customers unfamiliar with the grammar intricacies of the foreign languages. A bilingual speaker may be competent in speaking a foreign language, but she is not necessarily equipped to write in that foreign language on a professional level.

I also suspect that a certain implicit word order in the foreign language is the focus of attention of the nontranslator person who demands a faithful translation. Different factors, not the smallest of all a long residence in America, away from the mother tongue spoken in Chile, República Dominicana, Perú or Bolivia, may sway a bilingual person to unknowingly write in a way that is strongly influenced by the English syntax. It follows, then, that the “correct” or idiomatic way a phrase is written in French, Spanish or Italian may read a little off, this translator-facilitated word order deemed literal by the customer because it does not jibe with what the customer’s model in her head.

It is very advantageous, then, for both you, the customer, and for me, your translator, to sit down and clarify what you mean by a translation that meets your expectations in terms of meaning. More often than not, we both should be asking ourselves: what are the expectations and needs of the one who really needs the translation? In other words, the actual user: the hospital patient, the buyer of your goods or services, the reader of your articles.

Now that’s a cool and a modern concept.


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

When your bilingual employee needs help

Human languages evolve at a rapid pace, especially in some industries. For example, I just learned that temporary stores built by a store chain are called pop-ups. And I thought that pop-ups were just those annoying Internet ads.

diccionarios para blog

Bilingual staff usually resort to off-the-shelf dictionaries. Career translators use specialized dictionaries, like the blue one on the right.

Companies in need of translation services usually go in house: they look for a bilingual employee to do the job. To professional translators, this is anathema because they’ll say that bilingual employees lack the proper training and expertise. They have a point, but a company behaving in that fashion —resorting to in-house help— also has a point; it is behaving in a pragmatic way. If there’s only one marketing brochure to translate in a foreign language, there is no point in outsourcing it in most cases. A long-time employee is likelier to know the industry lingo and some of the foreign customers. It makes economic sense.

What’s more important, it makes economic sense to me, a career translator. Why? Because I was there once.

Back in the late 80s, I was working as an administrative assistant at Abolio & Rubio, owners of La Paulina line of milk products (powder milk, whey, cheeses, dulce de leche, etc.). With more than 30 years in the domestic market, they wanted to expand overseas. After a modest success in Brazil, they decided to set their sights on the United States of America and beyond. One of the first steps taken was to send telefaxes to prospective customers. As the telefax operator, I was asked to write up letters in English to promote our company. That was 1987 and I was a 3rd year college student at a School of Languages pursuing a degree in translation. So, I was just a bilingual employee. But I was eager to learn and inquisitive to boot. I cared a lot about good writing, which was my main skill.

So, even if I was not familiar with the industry lingo in English or with the accepted correspondence formulas and templates in English at the time, I was tasked with writing letters (the equivalent of our emails today) and calling prospects on the phone to introduce our company. Soon I was asked to help with editing a video in English to promote our factories, writing up recipes to drum up interest in our cheeses and sending out correspondence in our letterhead to contacts. I was loving every minute of it. From assistant and telefax operator I ended up using our only IBM Selectric typewriter —worth $2,000 at the time— to write up our letters in English.

Of course, the story didn’t end there and I was asked to do a lot more, including serving as traveling interpreter and translator for our sales manager on a trip to the U.S. in 1988. I was not a professional interpreter either. During that trip, I was asked to write up factory processes and I was not even a technical writer.

Naturally, it would be silly to infer that every willing bilingual employee is destined to become a career translator. That’s not realistic or desirable, especially for a company. As a starting point, however, using one of your bilingual human resources to fit the bill may work in the short- or medium-term. When the amount of media to translate or convert to foreign languages exceeds the scope of a temporary project, it’s time to call in the big guns.

Certified Management Accountants (Canada) found a visual way to differentiate CMAs from amateurs.

Certified Management Accountants (Canada) found a visual way to differentiate CMAs from amateurs.

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Filed under Bilingual staff, Customers, Translation as value added, Translation as writing, Writing skills

Cut through the maze: Tips on hiring a translation provider

As your company expands locally and overseas, hiring is not limited to bringing new employees on board —outsourcing to small translation businesses when needed can be a lifesaver if done right. Contracting a language services company for the first time can be a daunting experience when you don’t know anyone in the industry. Who do you turn to for referrals? How can you screen? Who vets the professionals who say they can translate your marketing collaterals, your website, your tradeshow signage?

Hiring an independent translation provider is not much different than hiring a new electrician or an interior decorator. Surely you don’t just crack your yellow pages book open and start dialing AAA Translations on a whim, right? The following paragraphs should be helpful in guiding you through the maze of options and help you to weed out the marketing hyperbole to know exactly who you are hiring and what you are getting in return.

Train your hiring eye on a provider from several angles

Let me start with a personal story. Two years ago, I was looking for a floor installer to set a new floor in my recently purchased condo. I did my due diligence: scanned prices for materials and called 3-4 different floor installers out of a list provided by a local retailer, who didn’t offer to endorse any in the list. During my calls, I asked for particulars and a quote. Three of them visited my place and offered a written quote. Finally, I chose the lowest quote, the installer came and installed the floor as promised. But he was very slow on follow-ups, I had to hold payment temporarily due to his ordering the wrong materials and arguing with the retailer over it. Did I get the floor installation I wanted? In a way, yes, but the customer service experience left a bittersweet taste. Would I do business with this provider? Definitely not.

What was my problem? What did I not foresee? After all, I researched prices for flooring and looked up a handful of installers…but I focused a bit too much on price. Being fairly new in the area, I had no one to ask for recommendations. What would I do differently? I would focus more on (a) getting recommendations and (b) asking information about satisfied customers served by the installer and worry less on getting the lowest bid.

When faced with a need to translate brochures, websites, manuals and the like, many businesses intuitively reach out to other businesses for recommendations. Unlike services such as roof repair, tax preparation and office remodeling, language services such as translation are invisible to the buyer because the product, the language the translation is written in, is usually an unknown variable. A client of mine serves the language needs of a clinic in central Indiana. This clinic serves English speakers as well as Spanish and Burmese speakers. Except for Burmese-reading patients, nor the clinic staff or my client read any Burmese. So, for my client to know that the product —the Burmese translations— are any good is to rely on the reaction from Burmese patients.

So, many buyers of translation services go in blind, depending on promises of high quality translations from translation vendors. Is there a way to leverage this situation in your favor? Even if you don’t speak or read the foreign language, you can still control the screening of language providers and get the best bang for your buck…and happy customers who come to rely on your company literature in multiple languages.

I have compiled a short list of recommendations to help you out in your search for the best candidate for your translation job. The objective is to gain a clearer picture of the language services industry and keep you on the driver’s seat.

Call a professional association first. Professional translators and reputable translation companies are usually members of a professional association and have to abide by a code of ethics. The American Translators Association is the entity representing language professionals that have passed a certification exam, have university degrees or have undergone special training. Its members have provided language services for a number of years and are generally qualified to write documentation at a college or business level. ATA has regional affiliate offices called chapters and provide free access to a comprehensive directory of translators, interpreters and language service companies. In NE Ohio, visit http://notatranslators.org/ for a list of local language service providers.

Call your local chamber of commerce. Many translators and translation companies are members of a local chamber of commerce and are involved in their activities. Take advantage of this resource by getting in touch with your local chamber of commerce.

Call a competitor. Maybe one of your competitors has a webpage in a foreign language. Call him up and find out what he did about screening and selecting their language service provider. When requesting a referral, ask what priorities they applied in the selection, how they measured the provider’s performance and whether their customers were happy with the final product (the translation).

Ask for references. If you already have a language services provider in mind, via referral, recommendation or previous experience, ask for solid references of past work. Specifically, make sure to ask how they handled errors, mistranslations or complaints by customers, how responsive and sensitive to your customer’s needs they are, and how willing they are to learn about your company.

Look beyond bilingual. Many language service providers promise translations of any type of document in any known language. Since translation involves writing, ask for verifiable samples of translations. By verifiable I mean original translations that haven’t been lifted or scraped off of websites, original translations from real-life satisfied customers, and translation copy that responded to the business needs of the customer. Translation is a specialized writing skill not entirely dependent on bilingualism. Respectable professional translators are excellent writers. Be wary of interpreting companies or full-time interpreters who offer translations, as well as bilingual professionals with no previous successful writing experience of a professional (i.e., published) level.

Look for a matching skill set. Even in the world of professional translators, not every translator or translation company is well suited for all types of documents or websites. Look for providers with proven experience in your industry or in a sister industry. Avoid jacks and jills of all trades in this respect. If you are a hospital that performs clinical trials, for example, look for a provider with expertise in that kind of medical documentation.

Last but not least, here’s a step you can take to be in control of who you hire as your translator even if you don’t know the foreign language: ask for a written sample. Not a translation, but a short piece of original writing in English about your business or industry. For example, if you are a manufacturer, ask the translator or language services provider to send you a 200-word composition about the kind of products you make. How does this help you? First, it is in English and you can gauge how good the writing is. Second, it shows how familiar and comfortable the provider is in writing about your industry or product. Third, it tells you the level of interest the provider has in working for a company like yours.

As with many other hiring scenarios, you will want to make sure that your language services provider is someone who provides good service, who will be loyal to your customers and who will solve a particular problem in your organization, not create one. Even if you don’t speak or read a foreign language that your company needs, you can still maintain control over the screening and hiring process of a language specialist that will hopefully become a long-time associate and, like any other good employee, will mirror your hard-earned good reputation and business image for years to come.

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Filed under English writing test, Selection of language providers, Vendor management