Monday, December 21, 2009

Year-End Accounting Analysis

The end of the year is a good time to see how our translation business is doing.

Corinne McKay, in Thoughts on Translation, already published a good list of things to do.

My list has a narrower focus: a good look at the data from the past year to see what went well, what didn’t go so well, and what to change.

Depending on how you track your projects, and on the features of you accounting software, you should do some or all of the following tasks:

  • Create a list of all the invoices you issued during the year.
  • Add all the invoices up, to get your total turnover for the year.
  • Sort your list in decreasing order (i.e., you should have a list that starts with your best customer, and shows the total invoiced amount for this customer, then your second best customer, with the total invoiced amount, and so on).
  • Work out what was the share of your total invoiced for each customer. Add that information to your list. At this point your list should look something like this:

    ACME Translation $ 25,000 25.00%
    BETA languages $ 18,500 18.50%
    Zeta Trans $ 250 0.25%
    TOTAL INVOICED $100,000 100.00%
  • Calculate the increase or decrease of the invoiced amount for each customer over the previous year. For this you need a similar list for your previous year. If you don't have it, this is a good time to create it from the previous year final data.
  • Calculate the percent increase or decrease for each customer over the previous year.
  • Note which customers are new, which stopped sending you work, which have increased turnover, and which have decreased it.
  • If you have done things like increasing or decreasing your rates for some of your customers but not for all of them:
    • Check how the income from those customers has gone up or down (bear in mind, though, that correlation is not causation).
  • Analyze your projects in whatever other ways you think most useful to give you a good picture of your business.
    For example, while two customers may both have assigned you $ 2,000 worth of work, they may be different if one has sent you ten $ 200 projects throughout the year and the other customer a single $ 2000 project. Try to decide which has the most upward potential (e.g., asking the "small projects only" customer if they can give you larger projects, or the "one big project" customer whether they have more frequent jobs).
  • Analyze your projects by sorting them by language pair, subject matter and so on.
  • If you find you would like to know something about your past performance that the data you have cannot tell you, think how to change your accounting and record keeping so as to gather the new data in the future (but also think whether the necessary changes in your workflow would be worth the trouble).

You should then run a similar analysis on your professional expenses:

  • List all equipment, software licenses and other things you bought for your translation business during the year.
  • List all subscriptions to professional publications, memberships, etc. you pay for your business.
  • List all domain maintenance fees, hosting fees etc. for you net presence.
  • List all services you pay for your business, such as utilities, telephone, Internet, online backup services (but remember that if you use these services also for your personal use, you should only count the portion you actually use for business).
  • List all the marketing expenses for your business (brochures you brought to professional conferences or that you sent to prospects, e-marketing expenses, etc.).

Once you have listed all your professional expenses, you should analyze them to see what was well spent, things or services that you may not need any more (a good candidate for trimming could be your fax service, if you are finding that it is no longer used or necessary, for example), and things or services where the investment of more money spent would be helpful.

Some of the operations above are only possible if you already had similar data from the previous year. If you don't have the data, collect it starting for this year, so that next year you'll be able to run a more detailed analysis.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

How to become rich working in translation...

...probably not by accepting such offers as

Dear translator,

A new translation job is available for you:

ProjectID: 253753
Word Count: 7
Your Earning: 0.56 $

Time allowance / deadline: 01:00 (hh:mm) - Time starts the moment you accept this job.

Source Language: Portuguese
Target Language: English

Commit responsibly! You must be able to deliver an on-time, high quality translation. Be sure you are qualified, interested and available to do the job.

To get this job assigned to you, please log in to XXX Professional Translation Services and go to the "My Translation".

If you accept this job, you are obligated to meet the deadline. Your time limit begins the moment you accept the job.

To take on this job assignment, log in to your translator account at XXX Human Translation.

If you have any questions, please send us an email.

With best regards.
The XXX Team

Article on translation and interpreting on the Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal today has an article by Diana Middleton on translation and interpreting jobs.

While some of the information is of doubtful value ("Interpreters can earn between $15 and $30 per hour": interpreters - especially conference interpreters - can earn much more than that, apart from those who work in phone interpreting and certain "community" interpreting services), the article on the whole will provide some useful insight to those that don't know much about our profession (kudos to Ms. Middleton for getting right the distinction between translation and interpreting, so often confused in the press).

Ms. Middleton had the good sense to rely on people who are knowledgeable about our industry - for example, prominent among the people quoted is fellow translation blogger Judy Jenner of Translation Times (congratulations, Judy!).

Monday, November 16, 2009

How not to get a meaningful quote

On Saturday night I received the following message:
From: [name]
Sent: Saturday, November 14, 2009 8:35 PM
To: Member
Subject: eng to italian

i have around 7000 words for eng to italian please quote urgently

[email address]
A broadcast request to all and sundry, with no salutation, and no indication of subject area, file format, deadline, or anything else. In short, the perfect way to ensure that reputable translators will not even bother answering the message.

A better way to get quotes from good translators would have been a message such as:
From: [name]
Sent: Saturday, November 14, 2009 8:35 PM
To: Riccardo Schiaffino
Subject: Eng to Italian translation (legal contract)

Dear Riccardo,

I found your profile on ProZ, and I think you would be a good fit for this project.

I have a legal contract of about 7000 words to be translated from English into Italian. The deadline is next Friday, by 11 AM (EST).

I would really appreciate it if you could send me a quote for this job. Let me know if you need to see the original document to draft your quote: I can send you a preliminary version of the document (the final copy will be ready on Monday), but first I would need you to sign a NDA, given the confidential nature of this document.

Looking forward to hearing from you.

Best regards,

[email address]
PM, [translation company’s name]
A little courtesy, and more information, undoubtedly yield better results.

Bluegrass museum looks for Chinese translators

I've no idea if there are many Chinese translators who are experts of bluegrass music. If there are, apparently, the Bluegrass Music Museum is looking for them: the museum has decided to translate its website into several languages, but, as yet, they have not found any Chinese translator.

(Source: WHNT News)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Quick advice for translators' résumés: include your language pair(s)

Twice in the last two days we have received résumés without an indication of the language pair(s) in which the person in question works.

Sending out résumés uninvited has a low enough success rate already: don't stack the deck further against yourself!

The first thing visible on the résumé, on the same line and in the same (large) font as your name, should be your language pair (or pairs), and an indication of what you do.

Like this:
Mario Rossi, EN > ITA Translator

or like this:
Jane Doe, EN <> SP Court Interpreter

Beside that, localize your résumé, so that it conforms to the standards used in your target market or country.

You can find more information on what to do in your résumé in my artcile "How Not to Get Hired".

Monday, November 09, 2009

New build of ApSIC XBench available

ApSIC has just released a new build (#385) of XBench version 2.8. The new build fixes certain bugs (see the ApSIC blog for details).

Also newly available for dowlad from the ApSIC web site is a "Programmer's Reference for QA plug-ins", for those of us geeky enough to try our hands at (in ApSIC's words) "adding our own custom checks within the ApSIC Xbench QA workflow by programming a .dll file with a few pre-defined call-back functions".

See the ApSic blog for more details.

Windows 7 terminology now available from the Microsoft Language Portal

The Microsoft Language Portal now includes the Windows 7 terminology. The product field only indicates "Windows", but the terms now include those specific to the new OS.

The Windows 7 glossary is also available as a downloadable glossary to those who have an MSDN subscription.

(Hat tip to Licia Corbolante of Terminologia etc.)

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Misleading software descriptions: Site Translator

The ZDNet's overview of Site Translator, an automatic web localization tool, states
Site Translator uses automated machine translation technology [that] is capable of translating entire Web sites in a matter of minutes and you do not need to know the translated language. If you need to improve accuracy, Site Translator has a feature called translation memory, which helps you fine-tune exact language phrases [Italics mine].
For all I know, Site Translator might be a useful program, in the right hands. Used by someone who "[does] not need to know the translated language", and who might be mislead into thinking that translation memory, by itself, will somehow help him to "fine-tune exact language phrases", it is a sure recipe for localization disaster.

A kindly reminder to blog spammers and link beggars

Dear blog spammer:

I will promptly delete your self-promoting comments, so please, don't do it.

This, of course does not refer to all those who post legitimate comments - you are more than welcome to comment here, if you have something to say even tangentially related with a post of mine.

Also, to all those who offer to add a link to this blog on their web page or those who offer to write a poorly informed article in exchange for a link here to their mass-produced language-learning web sites: I realize you have been had by someone who sold you on this e-tupperware kind of marketing scam, but I have no interest in linking to sites that have nothing to do with translation, nor do I accept articles by people who clearly don't know anything about translation.

Any link I add here is because I find the linked site interesting or worthwhile. If you have a site that you think would really interest translators, write me, and if I find the site interesting, I might add a link.

It is very unlikely, however, that I'll add a link to a site that has as its sole purpose marketing a service or a product. If you write something interesting, I might link to it, if not, please don't bother.

Thank you.

KudoZ pearls

A suggested KudoZ translation for "chi ha qualche chilo in più": "those with a Reubenesque figure". I suppose that it refers to those who get overweight by eating too many Reuben sandwitches.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Yet another thing not to do in your résumé (i.e., How not to acquire customers)

Just received a résumé in which the sender had forgotten to indicate her name, address or any other contact information (yes, this information was in the e-mail; no, it is not just the same).

For more about what not to do with résumés, please see my article "How Not To Get Hired".

How to lose your customers

There are certainly more ways to lose a customer, but this article gives good explanations of five sure-fire ways to lose your customers. It is not aimed at translators, but I find it very applicable to our industry.
  1. Assume your customer's expectations aren’t the most important metric
  2. Assume your customer will tell you when something’s not right
  3. Assume your customer received the value you promised and delivered
  4. Assume you are not doing marketing when you are performing financial or delivery (or other) tasks
  5. Assume your customer will call you when they need something else

For the full article, click on the link above.

Monday, October 19, 2009

New version of XBench released

ApSic has just released a new version of XBench, their wonderful freeware terminology and translation QA tool. Among other improvements, now XBench permits to run regular expression searches, and has expanded the list of supported formats.

You can find a detailed description of the improved features in this post, from
Translator’s Shack, and you can download Xbench directly from the ApSic website.

(Hat tip to Roberto Savelli).

Friday, October 16, 2009

The limitations of project memories

A feature offered by most CAT tools is the possibility of creating project memories from larger memories. Typically, to create a project memory, the PM analyzes the files to translate against a master memory, and the CAT tool includes in the project memory only the segments that would be useful as fuzzy matches. The translator thus receives only the part of the translation memory that provides fuzzy matches and 100% matches.

There are several different reasons to do this: from the need to give the translator smaller files, to the requirement of not sending out a full translation memory because of the risk of disclosing some sensitive or proprietary information.

Whatever the reason for creating limited project memories, end customers, translation companies and project managers often overlook something important: a project memory is, by definition, an incomplete memory. This harms translation by limiting the usefulness of concordance searches. A term already translated in a segment that is not similar enough to other segments as to be a fuzzy match would not be found by a concordance search on a project memory, whereas that very segment would be found if the same search were conducted on the master memory. Not finding an already translated term because of the limitations of project memories affects the quality and consistency of the translation.

The customer or the translation company may still decide that security reasons outweigh the quality disadvantages of using project memories, but the choice should be deliberate, not something arrived at by chance out of not trusting the translator.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A great translator passes away

Fernanda Pivano, a legendary translator who first brought to Italian readers so many great American writers and poets (from Edgar Lee Masters to William Burroughs, from Hemingway to Bob Dylan) died today in Milan.

I never had the privilege of knowing her in person, but it was thanks to her translations that I first read many American writers.

The Corriere della Sera site has posted much material on her, including interviews, videos, and the last article she wrote for the paper (last month, on the day of her 92nd birthday).

Requiescat in pace.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Congratulations to all translation blogs among the LexioPhiles 100!

Congratulations to all the translation blogs that were selected among the LexioPhiles 100 best language blogs of 2009:

38. Über Setzer Logbuch
39. There's Something About Translation...
49. wéb-tränslatiôns
52. Wasaty tlumacz O tlumaczeniach przy fajce i kawie
56. Beyond Words
60. algo más que traducir
61. Musings from an overworked translator
74. El taller del traductor
76. TecnoTraduBlog
88. Fidus Interpres
89. Translate This!
93. Blogos
98. Medical Translation Blog
99. Naked Translations

This year About Translation was not among the 100 best language blogs (I'll try to do better next year!).

Again, congratulations to all the translation blogs in the list (and of course to all the other fine language blogs)!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

TM-Europe 2009

TM-Europe 2009 will be held on October 1st and 2nd in Warsaw. This year, the conference theme is Quality and Terminology Management, and Business Terms and Conditions for Translation and Localization Services.
In the 2008 TM-Global Translation and Localization Market Survey customers and providers alike reported that consistent high quality was the number one factor they take into account when managing processes or selecting a vendor, yet they had problems pin-pointing how quality is defined, measured and manifested.
The conference's schedule covers an interesting range of topics, among which:
  • a workshop on translation and localization technology (Daniel Goldschmidt and Jost Zetsche)
  • a discussion between customers and translation companies on how they do business together
  • a panel and several presentations on terminology management
  • a panel and presentation on quality management
  • a presentation on different approaches to selling translation in the US and Europe (Dave Smith of Lingua-Lynx)
  • a post-conference workshop on Selling Translation
TM-Europe is the annual conference of the Polish Association of Translation Agencies (PSBT) and is organised by PSBT and TM-Global.
For more information on the conference visit

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An interesting new blog on localization: Localization Best Practices

David Ashton works for SDL, but his new blog, Localization Best Practices, is an independent effort.

David's blog looks and feels professional, and has already published several interesting posts. In particular, I found "How healthy is your localization partner’s supply-chain?" should be required reading for most buyers of translation services, and "The case for and against direct update of TM’s by translators" should be pondered by the clients and MLVs that are all too ready to unleash a scrum of translators all on the same project and on the same memory:
Translators are only human and errors are introduced by human translators every day… that's why we have Quality Assurance processes in the first place! Auto-propagating translations pre-QA carries a tremendous risk
Many translation blogs start with tentative steps, unsure of where they are going, only to find their feet with practice and time. David, on the other hand, hit the ground running.
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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Independent information on translation tools


Is the Trados filter capacity outstanding compared to other CAT Systems? Maybe there is a forum somewhere that compares Cat performances and answers these questions impartially.
I am an newbie here and these systems can be time and money drains.


There is indeed a site where you can find comparison of various translation tools: Jost Zetzsche's excellent Translators Training. For a very moderate yearly subscription you can get independent reviews, information and comparisons of various different translation tools, and much else.

I wrote that to answer a comment to another post.

I'm sure that many translators already know Jost's excellent Translators Training site (not to mention his Tool Kit: a great series of computer tips for translators), but if you didn't know them, and you are interested in how best to use the computer to help you with translation, Jost's sites are an invaluable resource.
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Monday, July 20, 2009

Reverse auctions

Just before I wrote the post on "Name your price", I had read the post on the Tomedes blog with which they announced their new service. I also left a comment there: "Why not go the whole hog and call your new service “screw the translator”, instead?"

Not diplomatic, I know, nor a well argumented analysis of what's wrong with their scheme. Tomedes published my comment, but Ofer answered for them by saying how, on the contrary, they respect and cherish translators and care about translation quality:
I'm sorry that you see it that way. “Tomedes name your price” keeps having the same benefits Tomedes brings to translators today. We keep getting excellent feedback from professional translators. You are more than welcome to register and see for yourself.
Tomedes does not have a fixed rate. Any translator can decide which translations he would like to take and to set his rate based on his availability and based on random sentences from the source document we let him/her see.
We never compromise on quality and carry out an advanced quality assurance system ensuring we work only with professional translators.

I'm sure Ofer is sincere in thinking so, but actions speak louder than words: the new scheme is a typical example of a reverse auction.

According to Wikipedia, a reverse action is
A tool used in industrial business-to-business procurement. It is a type of auction in which the role of the buyer and seller are reversed, with the primary objective to drive purchase prices downward.
There have been companies (outside the translation field) that have expanded their business by bidding in reverse auctions (See Inc., May 2007; Reverse Auctions – A supplier's survival guide: an article quoted in the Wikipedia's entry).

But to use a reverse auction successfully, businesses (and professionals) need to be highly knowledgeable about their market, the details of the job, and, above all, their own costs. Otherwise they risk all too easily to lose money on the projects they win.

In other words, they need to have finely honed business skills, something that most translators conspicuously lack.

The result of a reverse translation auction as described is easy to foresee: The customer receives a quote (which, remember, is calculated considering the lowest bid estimated for the project), and names a lower price. Some translator accepts the lower rate, and the translation is delivered to the customer. Next time, the customer again asks for a quote, and this time, besides the quoted price, he also knows that last time he succeeded in buying the translation for a lower price. So he again "Names his price", even lower than last time. This is a slippery slope where soon prices can be driven down to mere pittances, to the detriment of all.

Friday, July 17, 2009

"Name your price" or "Find a sucker"?

A translation company with an overenthusiastic translation blog (I won't name them here, I don't believe they need more traffic), has just announced the clearest example of a reverse bid for translation I have seen. They call their new service "Name your price", but might as well call it "Find a sucker". It works like this:

  • The customers send details of their translation project to receive a quote.
  • The quote is calculated considering the lowest bid estimated for the project.

If the customers still thinks that's too much (and who won't, at that point?) they can "Name their price".

In that case,

  • The customers place their order, and automatic bidding starts. Once someone desperate enough to work at the price set by the customer (or lower, I imagine, to "win" the bid) is found, the translation supposedly gets done.
  • If they cannot find a translator willing to work for peanuts (but I bet they will: "There's a sucker born every minute", as P.T. Barnum used to say), then they say the customer gets a refund.
I believe that translators should set their own rates, and I'm not one to rail against those who set their rates lower than mine. But a scheme like this drives the customer to set a price lower than the minimum estimated quote, then pushes competing translators to go ever lower in the illusory hope of getting some work.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Voting has begun for the best language blogs of 2009

LexioPhiles has just posted a page where you can vote for the best language blogs of 2009. You can vote for blogs in several different categories: Language Learning, Language Teaching, Language Technology and Language Professionals.

About Translation was chosen as one of the top blogs of 2008, and has been nominated again for 2009, in the Language Professionals category.

You can vote for About Translation, by clicking this button:

(A big "thank you!" for anybody that votes for this blog!)

I invite everybody to check out the other fine language blogs listed, and vote for your favorites.

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SDL Studio 2009: Wait for SP1

I've been following an interesting thread on ProZ about bugs and defects in SDL Studio 2009. After three pages of detailed defects signaled by various translators, SDL has finally shown up, with a long and detailed post.

In its post SDL technical supports comments on the various defects. In a few instances by saying they are difficult to reproduce and under investigation, for others suggesting a workaround or an existing hot fix, and for most indicating that they are going to be corrected with Service Pack 1.

While I applaud SDL's responsiveness in this instance (especially in a public forum), the number and seriousness of the defects indicated makes me think that beta testing had not been completed properly: these are the kind of issues a well-designed beta test should have caught and correct before the release of the product.

My advice to everyone who can wait is not to install Studio 2009 until Service Pack 1 has been released and tested by users, if you can wait. This is what we are going to do: we don't have time to participate in an involuntary extended beta test of a buggy product.


I've been taken to task by Laszlo and Richard in the comments to this post for criticizing SDL the very moment they are doing the right thing.

Just to be clear: I do acknowledge that by responding to these bugs reports publicly they are doing as they should. I applaud the fact that they are acknowledging these as bugs, and that, by slating most of them for correction with SP1, they are promising to correct them.

I commend SDL for this and for their greater responsiveness to their customers' complaints.

And I acknowledge I'm probably biased against Trados (if so, it is because of many years of experience and frustration with their program). But I still think that these bugs, and especially the apparent seriousness of some of them, may indicate that the beta testing was not thorough enough.

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Real-time terminology sharing with Google Docs

One of my partners and I are working on the same project. In a way, it is a throwback to an earlier era: a pdf project that we could not convert using OCR.

We took the opportunity to test the Google Docs spreadsheet as a remote real-time shared terminology tool. We wanted to know if it would allow us to open our glossary at the same time to check terminology and add, change, and delete entries.

The Google Docs spreadsheet does a remarkable job of allowing simultaneous use by two translators.

At first, we set up the spreadsheet so the approved entries were in one page, my partner's additions in a second one, and mine in a third one. We feared that typing a new entry on the same page simultaneously could unintentionally overwrite data. After a while, however, to test the limits of the application, we tried to write at the same time on the same line of the same page.

We could not do that: Google Docs prevented us from accidentally messing up each other's entries.

This was by no means a stress test: perhaps many simultaneous users on the same page could damage a document and lose data. But for two people working far away at the same time on the same project it is a useful tool: data sharing in real time without the need to set up any server or other network application or hardware.

Best of all, it is free, and the data is frequently saved by Google.

In a later post I'll give a more detailed description of how to set up such a shared Google Docs spreadsheet.
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Monday, June 29, 2009

The importance of knowing measurement units

When I teach translation, I tell my students that they should learn well at least the most common measurement units.

Case in point from a translation I'm doing at the moment.

The source text already provides conversions, but at least in one instance they are wrong:

"...leaving about 1-2 inches (51-103 mm) of wire..."

If it is 1 to 2 inches, then the measurement in millimeters should be 25 to 51 mm: 51 to 103 mm is 2 to 4 inches.

I pointed out this conflict to my customer, who opted for "...2-4 inches (51-103 mm)..."

I believe all technical translators (especially those who edit other translators' work) should be able to spot such inconsistencies at a glance.

Pointing out such insidious errors is usually appreciated by customers, and tells them you are paying attention to what you are doing.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Cheap pun shows real ignorance

Today the New York Times has a short article about the recent LinkedIn translation controversy ("Translators Wanted at LinkedIn. The Pay? $0 an Hour").

The text of the article, however, shows either the love for a cheap pun at the cost of accuracy, or that the author, Andrew Adam Newman, is unclear about the difference between translators and interpreters:

"But LinkedIn insists that the interpreters are, well, misinterpreting."

Back from long absence

Sorry for the long absence: It's been a hectic period. A long on-site QA project (in Palo Alto); developing, teaching and grading the last few classes of the localization course at Denver University's University College, and, above all, the last-minute work for the Art Students League of Denver's Summer Art Market.

The Summer Art Market went well, considering the economic downturn: I sold several pieces, met other artists and old friends, and felt re energized and encouraged to devote more time to painting.

I also have plans for more writing: at least a few long articles, both for About Translation and possibly for some print media.

Speaking of which: the next ATA Chronicle contains a piece chosen from this blog (Translation tests v. translation samples).

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Multilingual access to pharmacy information for people with limited English proficiency

From (May 9):
From providing translations for residents dealing with city agencies, to a bill that would require pharmacies to provide prescription information in languages spoken in every city community, there's a growing movement spearheaded by the Bloomberg administration and some City Council members to dramatically widen the requirements for translation services.
Advocates of the legislation, many of whom have been fighting for years to get the city and state to be more inclusive for people with limited English proficiency (LEPs), say the requirements are essential in removing a fundamental barrier to citizenship.
Rite Aid is in fact going to offer such a service. From a press release I received a few days ago to announce the launch (on May 12) of a multilingual access program:
Rite Aid Pharmacy, in conjunction with leading language service provider Language Line Services, [promotes a] new multilingual program throughout New York State and launch the roll-out of a language access program in its pharmacies nationwide. With Rite Aid’s multilingual program, customers with limited-English speaking skills may receive certain prescription and other related information printed in any one of 11 different languages and have access to interpreters in more than 175 languages via the Language Line® Interpretation Service.
A good move on Rite Aid's part, and a needed one for so many immigrants with limited (or non-existant) English skills.

I had some doubt about the telephone interpretation service – specifically, whether they can ensure good quality (several companies in this sector are notorious for the low rates they pay to freelance interpreters). However, in answer to my inquiry, I was told that
As far as how we confirm the quality of work, I can tell you the over-the-phone interpretation service is staffed with trained interpreters that are employed, not contracted, by Language Line Services. […] interpreters have the requisite experience in the healthcare field and the ability to preserve the meaning of the exchanges between the limited-English customer and pharmacist, which is important when dealing with prescriptions
If so, that's good news, and the new service should prove very useful to many people.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Sign of the times?

Found today in my junk mail folder:
Interpreter/Tranaslator Companies: Get paid within 24 hours on all your commercial account invoices.
Are you waiting too long for your commercial customers to pay you?
Apparently an offer from a credit collection company, or (more likely) just a scam. But I had not seen one aimed specifically at our industry, before.

I'm certainly not going to use the services of someone who sent an unsolicited e-mail just like that, but, for those of us who dislike having to ask our customers to pay overdue invoices, it is a useful reminder: this is not the time to let our customers fall behind in payments.

End of support and upgrade pricing for Trados v. 7 and SDLX 2005

A few weeks ago I mentioned a Deadline for renewing Trados licenses. I was wrong then: April 15 was only a deadline for a special discount. The deadline for upgrading Trados v. 7 or SDLX 2005 is actually July 1st. From the SDL website:

Important information for TRADOS 7.x and SDLX 2005 users

[...] To enable us to continue providing superior technical assistance, we will cease to support and provide upgrade pricing for TRADOS 7.x and SDLX 2005 from 1st July 2009. This will allow us to focus on the latest software versions used by the majority of our customers.

Customers on newer versions (SDL Trados 2007 Suite, SDL Trados 2007, SDL Trados 2006) are not affected by these changes.

I can understand that a company may want to cease supporting a version of its products when it is too old. I believe they should, however, still offer upgrade pricing for all users of previous versions - I said so last time they made a similar announcement, and I believe this should be doubly true in the current economic situation.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Identifying what differentiates you

The recent CTA marketing seminar emphasized the importance of differentiating yourself. But how you do that? Working your workflow, a new long post at Tobias Rinche at Point Blank blog, stresses the importance of analyzing one's workflows - both to determine if they can be improved, but also to identifying things that make you stand apart from your competition.

Tobias' post seems aimed mostly at small companies, but what he says may work well also for individual freelancers, and certainly for formal or ad hoc partnerships.

Another fairly interesting link I found on differentiation is Differentiation: A Smart Small Business Marketing Strategy. It is clearly the kind of site that tries to sell you their coaching o marketing services, yet their articles seem genuinely useful - at least to a marketing beginner like me.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Terminology search and confirmation with Google

Last week, my partner had to find a good translation into Spanish for "wireless hot spot". A first search in the Microsoft language portal suggested "zona interactiva inalámbrica" (2 hits), while a search in the KudoZ glossaries gave "zona local de cobertura" (1 hit only), although, of course, we found plenty of results for "hot spot" and for "wireless" not combined in the same string.

We turned to Google, searching for "hot spot" and "inalámbrico". Among the 9,640 hits we found "hot spot inalámbrico" and "punto de acceso inalámbrico hot spot" (besides many pages with "inalámbrico" and "hot spot", but not in the same string). This suggested "punto de acceso" as part of the solution.

Now we searched for the exact string "hot spot inalámbrico", limiting the search to pages written in Spanish. This gave us 501 hits. "Hot spot inalámbrico" was a possible candidate, then, although not the best: it sounded too colloquial and it had far too few hits for such a widespread technology.

We tried again, still restricting the search to pages written in Spanish. This time we searched for the exact string "punto de acceso inalámbrico". Result: 155,000 hits, an excellent candidate translation.

For confirmation, we tried the translations suggested by Microsoft and by KudoZ, searching only pages in Spanish. "Zona interactiva inalámbrica" yielded 10 results in Google; "zona local de cobertura" only two hits, and both of them about cell phones, rather than wireless Internet hot spots.

So we finally chose "punto de acceso inalámbrico".

This search strategy gives excellent results and can easily be adapted to other languages and fields. An experienced translator, however, should develop a feeling for the number of hits given by a candidate term. Too few hits mean that you are on the wrong track (especially if there is a large difference between the number of hits for the source string and for the candidate term). But "too few hits" is relative: 500 hits could have been a good candidate term for some less widespread technology.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Marketing for translators: a report from the CTA seminar


Last Saturday, during the last heavy snowfall of the season, about 20 members of the Colorado Translators Association gathered for a one-day marketing seminar, graciously hosted by Beatriz Bonnet of Syntes Language Group, and ably organized by Corinne McKay

The seminar was divided in two parts. The morning was devoted to a detailed and very informative presentation by Judy Jenner of Twin Translations. The afternoon to a panel discussion with Judy Jenner, Beatriz Bonnet, Adam Asnes of Lingoport, and Japanese to English translator Chris Blakeslee.

Although the seminar was primarily aimed at translators wishing to market to direct customers, most of what was said is also useful for those of us who wish to market to translation companies.

I took some detailed notes, but the following outline and comments are my interpretation of what, as translators, we should do to market our services, so I'm responsible for any error and for my opinions in this material.

In particular, I've rearranged much of the material, and added links to other sites.

Knowledge of languages, of translation techniques, and of our subject areas is a prerequisite for our profession, but, alone, is not enough: whether we like it or not, we have to act as a business, just like other professionals.

As translators, we are selling our services and running a business.

1 - Marketing

Marketing, in a broad sense, at least, is any communication we have with a client or prospect: any e-mail, any phone call, any post that we make public on line, if we have a website or a blog. Marketing is also the communication we have with our customers when we send them an invoice or a payment reminder.

Golden rule: put yourself in your customer's shoes: What would you like or dislike about the service you offer? What could you do to make your customer's life easier? If your direct contact with your customer is an overworked and underpaid PM who has to deal with the translation she sent you and with the same translation sent to translators for 11 other language pairs, plus another five multilingual projects at the same time, what could you do to help her?

Examples (given at the seminar): pdf invoicing, accepting payment using the means of payment preferred by your customer (even if it may cost you some in transaction fees - PayPal)

1.1 - Communications with your customers and prospects

  • Use a contact management system (even just Google gmail, or the contacts in Outlook)

    • Write good out-of-office autoresponder messages
    • Send reminders of availability to all your customers and prospects at the beginning of the month
    • Write personal handwritten and hand-addressed notes: they stand out (a good suggestion by Beatriz)
    • Gather information on your prospects. For example, read what your prospects are doing to see what their needs may be (a good tool for use is Google alerts)
    • Network with prospects
      Not so much at networking events (where everybody is trying to sell and nobody wants to buy), but on other occasions as well: through LinkedIn groups or other on-line social networks, maybe, or by targeting a specific market, and then trying to see which of your friends or acquaintances could introduce you to it.

    • Network with people who could link us with prospects
      • Other translators
      • Satisfied customers
      • The power of word of mouth
      • Friends and acquaintances
      • Social media (for example, LinkedIn or Facebook)

1.2 - Where and how?

  • Blogging, writing and giving presentations to make yourself known and to raise your visibility on the net (but NOT as a means to directly attract sales)... even twittering (maybe?)
  • Press releases. There are sites, such as and where you can publish your press releases at no charge (but press releases should be about something newsworthy, at least in a specialized sense)
  • Google adwords. If you use Google adwords (expensive!), they should lead to a landing page (form), not to your home page

1.3 - When?

  • Frequency of marketing. Do not send a message just once, or twice and then give up, but eight, ten, or more times before getting a chance.

1.4 - What?

  • Collect written testimonials and organize them by similarity (to prospect)
  • Give references: 10 references from very satisfied customers to establish yourself as "the got-to person" in your niche (this was a good example given by Adam Asnes)
  • Post informational material on the Internet (blogs, white papers, wikis)
  • In your web material, don't advertise: try to help solve a problem. By providing information you show you expertise.

1.5 - Marketing materials

  • Should be:
    • Short and to the point
    • Easy to read even on mobile devices such as a Blackberry
    • Targeted and customized (no "Dear Sir or madam", no offers of Chinese translations to a company that specializes only in English to Italian and Spanish)
  • Should answer the questions:
    • Why would I hire you? (Important!)
    • How do you make your customer successful?
    • What is your value proposition? (What value do you add for your customer?)
    • What's the cost of not doing this? (That is, what's the cost, for your customer, or not giving the job to you, or of not translating some material?)
  • Should tell:
    • Who you are
    • What you do
    • Your competitive advantages, such as availability round the clock for people who have partners in different time zones (as we do for example, with one of our partners in Thailand), or the fact that partnering with other experienced professionals allows us to offer as a package translation + editing, or, for those that do use them, QA tools such as XBench)
    • Your specializations
    • Also the fields in which you do not specialize (as important as saying those in which you do specialize)
    • You should have a professional web site (with your own domain) and an e-mail address from your own domain. All your e-mails should use a good signature block
      • Example of signature block:

        John Doe, English to Italian translator
        Specialized in IT and legal translation
        Tel. +1 (303) 555-4444, Cell +1 (303) 555-1111

        (By the way, I would say that while including phone numbers and e-mail contact information is a must, a fax number is no longer so: I don't think we have received more than a couple of faxes in the past year)

    • You should get good and professional-looking marketing materials, including a good photo (mostly for your web site)

    • Should build your brand: logo (everywhere), design, business cards
      • A good piece of advice from Judy was to barter for services, if necessary. For example, provide your services in exchange for good DTP or for a professional photo, or (for those of us who need marketing materials in a language which is not our native tongue) for professionally written copy.

2 - Economics

3 - Pricing

  • Supply and demand. While there is much supply of cheap translators, the supply of good professionals is limited
  • Benchmark prices (see what the competition is doing), BUT:
    • Competing on price means becoming a commodity: There is always going to be someone cheaper. Solution: differenTiation (closely related to marketing)
  • Price vs. peripherals (give something extra, some lagniappe)
  • Start high (easier than trying to raising your rates later)
  • Stress value added
  • Direct clients are, as a rule, less price-sensitive than translation companies (but there are translation companies that do accept to pay high rates)

4 - Accounting

  • Income vs expenses (for tax purposes, and to know how you are doing)
  • Accounts Payable, invoicing
  • Tax deductions (for example, the price of a marketing seminar, or deducting all miles driven for business)
  • No co-mingling allowed. (Co-mingling means using business resources for personal purposes, or personal resources for business)

5 - Negotiating basics

  • Seller sets price, no haggling like fishmongers
  • Be firm
  • Don't justify yourself (no "my price is high because...")
  • The power of silence
  • Client education
  • Know your bottom line when you start negotiating
    • Know what you want out of the negotiation: the lowest rate you can live with, the shortest deadline, the longest payment terms. Put this in writing before you start negotiating.
  • Walk away (from bad customers)
  • NEVER sound desperate (especially when you are)

6 - Miscellaneous

  • Tests: To do or not to do free tests. Judy, and others, are against them, but please see: Myth and legends about translation tests (from About Translation)
    • Alternative to tests: provide good sample of your previous translations (after ensuring you have your customer's permission to do so!)

  • One way to differentiate yourself is guaranteeing availability when most others are not available (the "4th of July approach" according to Judy's definition)

7 - Recap: Judy's six main points

  1. Differentiate yourself
  2. Make yourself known and build a brand
  3. Build relationships with customers and colleagues
  4. Keep good records
  5. Don't compete on price
  6. Negotiate well

Friday, April 24, 2009

How not to market your services

Just received, an excellent example of how not to market your services:
Subject: CV

Attachment: CVeng.doc

Dear Aliquantum,

please find here attached my CV and please do not hesitate to contact me should you have any opportunity for me.

Best Regards,
No indication of language pair (or any other information) in the subject line, in the name of the résumé file, or in the text of the message. Plus a CV in a format that may easily be infected by viruses. Result: Recycle Bin.

How it should have been done:

Subject: ENG>ITA Translator

JDoe_EN-IT_CV.pdf; JDoe_rates2009.pdf

Dear Mr. Schiaffino,

I saw from your web site that your company specializes in English to Italian and English to Spanish translations.

I'm a native speaker of Italian, with a master in translation and five years of experience. I specialize in the translation of plant engineering and legal texts. Attached, please find my CV and rates.

Let me know if you need any further information.

Looking forward to hearing from you.

Best Regards,
Jane Doe

Monday, April 13, 2009

Deadline for renewing Trados licenses

A reminder to all those who are still on various flavors of Trados 7: it is still possible to upgrade to Trados 2007 (I think the deadline is April 15, the end of the current SDL upgrade offer), but soon it will no longer be possible to upgrade a Trados 7 license, and those wishing to do so will need to pay the full price for a new license.

Many complained about this SDL policy when the same happened for Trados 6.5 (and SDLX 2004): I wrote about that last year in this post.

I remain of the opinion that the SDL upgrade policy is overly restrictive, but since it is what it is, people who think to upgrade should do it soon.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Book Review: Booher's Rules of Business Grammar

Shortly after posting my review of Luca Serianni's "Prima lezione di grammatica", I received a message asking whether I would like to get a copy of a new grammar self-help book: Dianna Booher's "Booher's Rules of Business Grammar: 101 Fast and Easy Ways to Correct the Most Common Errors". I said I was interested; a few days later I received the book. After several weeks, here is my review.

I admit I have not read the book from the first to the last page, but only looked at the issues that most interested me. I believe it is designed to be skimmed until you find one or more sections that deal with your linguistic doubts.

The books briefly explains the underlying grammar, suggests the correct way to write something, says what is wrong with the alternatives, and provides mnemonic help to remember the correct solution for each error.

The target audience is not clear: some of the errors corrected are the kind that normally only native speakers of English make (such as the contraction "it's" wrongly used for the possessive "its": a blunder sometimes committed by native speakers but which I have never seen in the writing of educated foreigners). Other errors only foreigners - without an instinctive ear for English as their native tongue - would make (such as "They had went to the office earlier in the day").

Some of the chapters are certainly useful. For example, one doubt I sometimes have is the difference in usage between "may" and "might". The book's explanation is clear

May means that things are possible, even likely. Might means that there's less likelihood of something happening. [...] Might is also the past tense of may. In those situations, the degree of possibility is not the criterion for using might. If the other verbs in the sentence are past tense, may becomes might (past tense).

although in this case at least, the mnemonic suggested is obscure:

Link the may-might dilemma to Dusty Springfield's hit ["just wishin' and hopin'"], and you'll be humming the criterion for choosing the correct word: What's the likelihood? May implies that things are more likely than might does.

Not useful to those who don't know Dusty Springfield is or was, and have no idea what's the tune we are supposed to be humming to remember the mnemonic by.

Other chapters fare less well. For example, the section on the difference between "lie" and "lay" tries to give a useful table to clarify the differences, but then botches the grammatical terminology in the table:

Verb: to tell a falsehood [...]

Past lied Mortimer lied yesterday

Present participle lied Mortimer has lied on numerous

Verb: to recline [...]

Past lay The unsigned check lay on his
desk for a week

Present participle lying Eldora is lying down for a nap
every day after her chemo treatments

"Has lied", is not a present participle, but a present perfect. An example with a present participle could have been "Mortimer told the truth yesterday, but he is lying now".

The lack of parallelism in the examples ends up confusing the issue: "lie" in the sense of "to tell a falsehood" has examples for the present tense, the past, the present perfect (wrongly called present participle), and the past participle, but no example for the present participle; in the sense of "to recline" it has examples for the present tense, the past, the present participle, and the past participle, but no example for the present perfect. A few lines further on, "laid" is also called the present participle of the verb "to lay" ("They have laid walkways around the building this week"). Again, "have laid" is not the present participle, but the present perfect.

The book is inexpensive (the cover price is $ 16.95), and could be useful for foreigners (for example professionals) who need to write English as their second or third language. For translators whose native tongue is English the book will probably be of little help, since they should already know their own tongue much better than this. I also think it won't be very useful for translators who habitually write in English, even when English is not their native tongue, if they have a good grounding in English grammar.

Many of the mnemonics will be useful for part of the book's audience (at least for the readers who rely more on aural than on visual memory).

In the companion web site you can answer 25 questions to "test your grammar IQ". It's a nice touch, and can help you see whether reading the book has helped you any (by taking the test before and after). The test gives a score but it does not suggest which answers were wrong, nor what the correct answers should have been. I think this omission should be corrected in a way that could entice more readers: something like "you answered x to question 24, but the correct answer is y. To see why this is the correct answer and x was wrong, and to find more help for your linguistic doubts, please see our book".

To sum up: a book that may be helpful to some, especially to foreigners writing in English, but not to most translators.

Monday, March 30, 2009

A small conversion utility

I've written a small freeware utility for the localization course I'm teaching at DU. I needed some source code for an exercise, and I thought I might as well write a small utility from scratch.

The utility converts from American feet and inches to meters.

There are many much better programs that convert feet, inches and thousands of other measurements, but so far I have not found any that converts feet and inches when they are presented together, for example when you indicate a person's height.

This programs does that (and also converts pounds to kilos).

You can download the program for free from this link (from our company's website).

Please note that, in this beta version, feet and inches should be written as if they were a decimal number (5.9 for 5'9"). If you type in 5'9", the conversion gives an incorrect result. In the future, I plan to allow input in both formats, and also add some other useful features, such as conversion from metric to the US system.

If you find this program useful, or if you have any suggestion, let me know.


I've uploaded a slightly improved version: the new version rounds the height to two decimals and the weight to the nearest kilo. Also, it is now possible to use keyboard shortcuts to press the OK and Cancel buttons.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Babylon Ltd. is looking for translators for their forthcoming online human translation service

Up to now I knew Babylon only as providers of dictionary software. They offer a straightforward application to query several dictionaries and glossaries at the same time, and a utility to build and manage your own glossaries. The standard Babylon subscription includes many "free" glossaries, but for more professionally finished dictionaries they charge extra.

While some of the claims Babylon makes are over the top (for example they offer the English-Italian Oxford Paravia Concise dictionary - a decent dictionary, but far from "[...] the most authoritative and comprehensive Italian-English dictionary" they claim: several more comprehensive and authoritative English-Italian dictionaries are available, some of them even with free online versions), I found their software fairly useful, especially if you need to query several different references at the same time.

Now Babylon wants to enter the online human translation field. I received an e-mail inviting me to apply on line.

Unlike those of many translation companies, the application form takes only a few minutes to complete. However, I noticed three potential issues:
  1. Among the required fields were Gender and Year of Birth,
  2. There is no field to enter your rates, and
  3. While the "Basic Agreement to Terms of Conduct and Terms of Conditions" are short and clear, they include one I would want to negotiate before accepting: "If you have returned an incomplete or low quality work, your payment might be withhold or/and reduced" (sorry, but "low quality work" according to whom, and verified in what manner?)
I asked Ursula Ron about the reason to include the Year of Birth, and she answered it was useful to double check the claims made by the translators about their experience "If someone is born 1980 and tells me he has 15 years of experience, something is definitely wrong". Fair enough, but I still don't understand why they also need "Gender" as a required field.

I'm posting here some of the additional information Ms. Ron sent me, with her permission:

  • What is this all about?
We envision the Online Human Translation Service as a web site that allows customers to place projects to be translated, and translators to pick those jobs that suit into their daily workflow.
  • When will it happen?
A limited test version should be online within three to four weeks and we are aiming to have the official version ready by the end of May.
  • What about the rates?
We are still trying to figure out the most suitable rates that a) will allow qualified translators to get a fair payment, b) will allow us to offer competitive prices and c) will make this enterprise profitable to Babylon.

Since Ursula Ron clearly said they are looking of experienced translators, I urge her to let the translators set their own rates.

I have some misgivings, since this could turn out as yet another site offering cheap translations. Still, the declared interest in experienced professionals is an encouraging sign.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A translation giant in trouble?

According to an article in the Boston Business Journal, Lionbridge will cut 325 positions globally (about 8% of its staff).
Liobridge recorded a $ 114 million loss in 2008.
The CEO's statement appears to be a good example of pure corporatese: "...moving forward as a leaner company while maintaining our focus on innovation and customer quality".
Best of luck to all the Lionbridge staff we know personally.

(Hat tip to Luigi Muzii of il Barbaro for the link)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

How not to create dictionary entries

From Sidney I. Landau, "Dictionaries, The Art and Craft of Lexicography":

Avoid circularity. Since the primary purpose of a dictionary is to inform the reader what words mean, anything that absolutely denies the reader the opportunity to find out the meaning of a word he has looked up is the most serious defect a dictionary can have. Mind you, circularity does not just make things difficult - it makes them impossible. No amount of diligence on the part of the reader can penetrate the barrier of circularity.

From the Michaelis, "Moderno Dicionário da Língua Portuguesa":

sm (der regressiva de despachar) 1 Ação de despachar.


(provençal despachar) vtd 1 Pôr despacho em, deferindo ou indeferindo: Despachar uma petição.
I guess the editors of the Michaelis didn't read Landau, then.

Comments on blogs - il barbaro

Most bloggers see their blog as a means to open a discussion with others. Hence the "comments" feature.

Some bloggers, of course, prefer to turn comments off, and present their blog as a platform from which to express their thoughts. That is fine also.

What I don't understand, however, is bloggers who don't disable the comments, but who then don't allow you, for unspecified reasons, to leave a comment about any post.

One such blogger, apparently, is Luigi Muzii, of the interesting Italian blog "il barbaro".

Luigi, I would have liked to leave a few comments about some interesting posts of yours (including one in which you quote me), but when I try to enter comments on any post, I just get this: "Spiacente, non puoi commentare questo post!" ("Sorry, but you cannot lave a comment for this post!")

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Translation tests v. translation samples

Often translators complain about translation tests, and ask why, instead, they couldn't just send out samples of their translations, perhaps one for each language combination or one for each field in which they specialize.

There may various reasons why a translation company may prefer a translation test to a translation sample:

  • Often the purpose of the test is not only to assess the quality of the translation, but also to see how well the translator follows the instructions given with the test. For example, when I worked in the translation department of a major software company, we used tests to assess candidates for staff translator positions. The tests were short portions of longer documents (about 250 words to translate in a 750-word document), with clear instructions about what to translate and what not, what to do in case of doubt and so on. We rejected many candidates because they would not read through the instructions: if I am looking for a technical translator when I know that each project will come with detailed instructions, I want to screen out the translators who skip the instructions and plunge directly in the translation. This screening prevents many serious problems later.

  • A test translation lets the translation company see how each candidate solved specific translation problems, and compare the quality of a translation with the quality of a different translation of the same source text. This is not possible with translation samples.

  • A translation sample lets translators present teir best work. Fine for them, but less useful for the company: a test shows how you tackle the type of work the translation company would send you.

  • The quality-control process adopted by the translation company may require a test. For example, most ISO-certified companies follow elaborate QC procedures throughout the translation process, including the selection of freelancers. If this is so, they are not going to change their process just because a translator has some sample translation.

  • When you have to evaluate many candidates, it is faster when each test translates the same original, than if you have to shift gears every time, and look at a different translation of a different original. A well-designed test represents a considerable investment of time for the translation company or translation department:
    • the time spent selecting the texts to be translated,
    • the time spent designing the test (choosing which parts of the text to translate, perhaps adding translation problems to see how they would be solved by the candidates, writing and reviewing the instructions for the test, sending out the tests),
    • the time devoted to a first screening of all the tests received to see which could be dismissed out of hand, and then
    • the time spent assessing the tests.
    Bear in mind that well-designed test is not assessed by a person only: at the software company I mentioned before, two translators assessed each test, but when the two evaluations differed, a third evaluator also took part.
These are the main reason a translation test may be more useful than sample translations. This, of course, applies only to tests that are well designed and well administered. Tests that are not well planned are a waste of time for all.

Friday, March 06, 2009

On eBay you can find everything

I was reading an article by Ben Yagoda "The inevitable epicene solution" (very interesting piece about the growing prevalence of the singular "they"), when I noticed a really strange eBay ad on that page:

I wonder if they could sell me some adverbs, as well.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Magical School of Terminology Management

“Anything worth writing about is worth explaining. But you can't make something clear to someone else if it isn't clear to you. Before you write about a subject, make sure you know it inside out. If there are questions in your mind, don't skip them or cover them up.”
“Whenever there's something wrong with your writing, suspect that there's something wrong with your thinking. Perhaps your writing is unclear because your ideas are unclear. Think, read, learn some more.”
(Patricia T. O'Conner: Words Fail Me. Harcourt Brace & Co., New York, San Diego, London, 1999)

Replace “write” and “writing” with “translate” and “translating”: these statements still hold true.

Many inexperienced translators, and even several that should know better, follow what we may call “the school of magical terminology management”. They believe that what's important is to know the right name for a thing, not to understand it. Like in magic - where knowing the true name of someone means having power over him - in magical terminology, knowing the true name of something means you can translate it, even if you don’t really understand what it means.

Of course, magic doesn't work in the real world, nor does magical terminology: to translate correctly we need to understand how things work, what the author is trying to say, how to follow the instructions given in the original. If you understand them, you'll be able to translate correctly even if you cannot find how a particular piece of hardware is called in your language. If you don’t understand and cannot follow them, it does not matter how many terms you might have found: your translation will fail. If you cannot understand the original, neither will your readers understand your translation.

Not understanding the source text also means not being able to see where the source text goes awry. It means not being able to ask the right questions to the customer: if you are not clear about what you know and what you don't know, you'll be afraid of showing your ignorance, and will end asking too little, or the wrong question. It means failing to spot when the source text is ambiguous on purpose, or where the translation should differ from the original.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Retro writing

A recent post in "Musings from an Overworked Translator", Jill Sommer's excellent blog, brought back the old days of mechanical typewriters, ink ribbons and whiteout fluid.

Not enough to push me to dust off my old typewriter, last used to write my thesis, a quarter of a century ago: it is thousands of miles away, back in Italy. (I doubt I could still find ribbons.)

But enough to give another go at Dark Room1, the most minimalist word processor available, and to kit it up with an authentic-looking typewriter font (VT Corona - but there are plenty more on the Web). I even installed a small program that faithfully reproduces the sound of a mechanical typewriter when you bang on your keyboard.

Using a program like Dark Room is not only an exercise in nostalgia. It offers some distinct advantages: without the distraction of spelling checkers and other frills, you can freewrite at speed, leaving corrections and rewrites for later.

1If you use the Mac, you can try WriteRoom, instead

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Keeping our grammar current: Serianni's "Prima lezione di grammatica"

Most translators have studied the grammar of several different languages. Paradoxically, sometimes we are most out of date with the grammar of our own native language.

We studied it first in elementary school. Again in middle school - but usually skipping what we learned in the earlier grades. By high school, often we were done with grammar, shifting our attention to other linguistic subjects. Unless we continued specializing in our own language at university (perhaps studying to become a teacher), most of us never studied our own grammar again.

Meanwhile we studied the grammar of a foreign language (or more than one). As we studied it later than our own, this knowledge is likely fresher.

Without a conscious effort to keep current formal knowledge of our native language, we increasingly recall grammar notions through the fog of imperfect memory. We should not rely on the grammar book used when we were in grade school, either: grammatical knowledge and consensus change. We should learn what is newly acceptable, what was correct even if our primary school teacher said otherwise forty years ago, and maybe also the rule he clearly explained to the class - but that day we were too busy looking out of the window, and didn't pay attention.

There are plenty of good works available for the Italian translator who wishes to brush up old studies or keep current with new notions.

An excellent little book I've recently read is Luca Serianni's "Prima lezione di grammatica". Although not a comprehensive grammar (such as Serianni's own excellent "Grammatica italiana"), it analyses topics likely to interest the Italian translator, from the plural of unassimilated foreign words ("molti flash" or "molti flashes"?), to problems of coherence and cohesion, and of grammatical accord of number and gender in writing.

The book is well written, but demands some effort - Serianni uses technical terms as necessary, and I had to look some of them up. Some I didn't know, and some I only half recalled from studying grammar so long ago.

Recommended to all Italian translators!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Saving a few dimes while spending a ton

We spent the last few days of our Christmas vacations in Vienna, visiting several of Vienna's many wonderful museums.

Most of the exhibits in the shows bore interesting explanations, often with an English translation. Neither my wife not I know German, though we can sometime puzzle out some simpler texts, but even so we caught a couple of obvious mistranslations:

At the Leopold Museum's show on the Vienna art scene up to 1918 the English translation of a note on the origins of WW I said the Sarajevo assassination was due to the ultimatum issued from Austria to Serbia.

Since the ultimatum of course followed the assassination, either the German original was strangely wrong or the translator had a shaky knowledge of modern history.

At the Belvedere, in the show celebrating Gustav Klimt and the Kunstschau 1908, the English legend under a costume design by Emil Orlik said it was "a design for Shakespeare's 'Das Wintermärchen'". That is, the English label gave Shakespeare's title in German. The correct translation should have been "a costume design for Shakespeare's The Winter Tale", or perhaps "... for a German staging of the Winter Tale".

The problem here is not so much the mistranslations themselves: one can usually get a laugh with some of the mistranslations found in shops or tourist sites around the world. These, at least, have the excuse of being written by people with little knowledge of English for their own little shop.

But when one finds such errors in a city that justly prides itself as one of the foremost cultural capitals of the world, and in shows otherwise set up with much care, it is discouraging to see how little attention is paid to translation, how clearly an afterthought it is, how cheap it is bought. It likely cost more to produce the high-quality lettering proudly displaying such howlers than was paid for the translations themselves.

Major cultural institutions as the Leopold Museum and the Belvedere (and others around the world) should budget a little more, and give more thought to avoid such embarrassing mistakes.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Chutzpah, redefined

The canonical example of Chutzpah* is "A boy, having just been convicted of murdering his parents, begs the judge for leniency because he is an orphan".

This, however, may have just been topped by an Italian hit-and-run driver:
Woman runs over a child, drives away, then returns to demand from the child's parents payment for the damage to her car
*A Yiddish word for gall, brazen nerve, incredibly effrontery, plus arrogance

Monday, February 16, 2009

Advice to beginners: short reckonings make long friends

Negotiating after the fact is unpleasant: better instead to make sure that our customers and us understand the same way what we are talking about.

To avoid misunderstandings, I've added in our price sheet short definitions of some terms that are often confused (editing and proofreading), or that may be controversial (whether the word count is calculated on the source or target, or when a job is charged at rush rates):

Editing: Revision of the translation with correction of mistranslations, omissions/additions, as well as language errors in the target language. Done by comparing the target text to the source text.
Proofreading: Revision of the translation to correct typos and similar errors in the target language. Done without reference to the source language.
Word counts: Word counts are normally calculated on the source text. Exceptions are texts provided as hard copy or in non-editable format (e.g., most pdf files): for these the word count is calculated on the target text.
Rush rate: applied on all projects that involve more than 2500 words of translation, or 7500 words of editing or 10,000 words of proofreading per person, per day.
Weekend rate: applied on any project that needs to be done on Saturday, Sunday or other holiday.

What's important is not so much the specific definitions chosen but rather sharing them with our customers, to avoid fruitless discussions later ("...I sent it to you on Friday, so there was plenty of time to do it by Monday morning: why should I pay a rush rate?").

Also, for each project it is better to make sure we agree with our customer before the project starts. Clarify with the customer any instruction that is not clear, and ask for missing instructions. In the same way, if we discussed the project on the phone, better to send a short e-mail to recap, and ask the customer to confirm:

"Dear John:

It was a pleasure talking to you earlier today. To recap what we discussed: I've agreed to translate project X by Tuesday EOB. The word count is 6,000 words, and the deliverables are clean and bilingual (Trados) files. The rate we agreed is $ y / word.

Please confirm and send me your PO or work order number.

Best regards,"

As we say in Italian, "patti chiari, amicizia lunga".

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Pro se translators

A leading legal blog is trying to get a translation into English of a Mexican law on fire arms .
The initial translation was done via machine, and then reviewed and modified by very inexpert humans.
They are soliciting
readers with good Spanish skills to provide suggestions for improvements in any or all of the 91 Articles of the Mexican firearms law. Please focus on improving the translation.
That is, they are trying to get a long legal translation on a delicate subject requiring well-polished professional skills by relying on the skills of a mob of untrained amateurs.

I'm afraid my suggestion was a bit off-topic:

You could pay a professional and get a high-quality translation. A good legal translator should complete the translation in about a week (plus another couple of days for editing, by a second professional). If you ask an experienced translator, the cost will be around $2500 to $3000.

Or you can do what you are doing: rely on untrained amateurs and software programs, get the translation for free or on the cheap, and end with the quality you are paying for.

I know that many assume that mere knowledge of a language is enough to translate. A professional translator, however, is the product of a rigorous university and postgraduate course of study, followed, at least for those who succeed in their job, by several years' professional experience.

Hoping that untrained amateurs and a software program can produce a reliable translation is as plausible as hoping that a pro se defendant and a software program can produce a useful legal brief.


Seems to have sparked a bit of a debate over there. From one of the commenters:
I would also recommend against paying for a professional translation. In addition to being ridiculously expensive, there' just no reason for it, particularly when one is translating into one's native language and has a decent knowledge of the original language.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Four years of About Translation

Exactly four years ago I wrote my first post (When the "correct" translation is wrong).

The title of the blog is a direct homage to Peter Newmark, who, with his series of "paragraphs on translation", was already blogging on translation (though on paper) more than fifteen years ago.

About Translation almost disappeared in 2007, then last year I made a conscious effort to write more often, and it picked up again. This year I changed the design of the site, to make it more attractive and easier to read.

I have posted short frustrated outburst against Trados' flaws but also long and more carefully drafted articles on how to use wildcard searches in MS Word, or on agency rating lists.

Since I didn't add a counter to the site until a full year after the beginning, I'm not sure how many visits I received. The total for the last three years is 58,000 visits and 102,000 page views. About half of these occurred in the past twelve months: the running total was 10,000 visits and 18,000 page views in February 2007, and had grown to 28,000 visits and 53,000 page views by February 2008.

When I started this blog I thought it would help attract more visitors (and perhaps potential customers) to our company's web site. That didn't pan out: we never received a job from someone who visited here.

It has become, instead, a way to share my passion for this profession with others.

Thank you for visiting!