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!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

EU - multilingual summaries of legislation

The European Union provides tons of information online that can be a real treasure. Sometimes there is so much that is difficult to know where to start.

An excellent resource is the “Summary of legislation” site, where you can find useful information on the EU in eleven different languages. The site include detailed EU glossaries with clear explanation of 233 key EU terms.

But probably the best place to start is the “Eurojargon” glossary (this in 20 languages); a “plain language guide” aimed at untangling for the general public many confusing terms often used by EU insiders.

These are not real translation glossaries: they don’t include an easy key to the translation of each term. But since all this material is in at least eleven different languages, it should prove useful to many translators.

The links provided here get you to the English version of these pages. In each page you can then select your language.