Monday, March 28, 2011

Somehow, I don’t think they’ll be successful…

I just received an announcement from a wannabe translation portal:


I have some doubt they’ll be able to attract too many customers. It’s very clear they have not found too many proofreaders, yet. But then, what do I know: I’m no “writting” specialist, myself Winking smile.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

WhiteSmoke: a review

As an Italian translator living in the United States, I write in English all the time: emails to customers and colleagues, this blog, articles and presentations; now even Twitter.

I try to write as well as I can, but I'm well aware English is not my native language; to improve it I read and study books on writing and taking courses online or from the Teaching Company. If some software offers to help improve my writing, I am interested; I was happy, therefore, to agree when WhiteSmoke offered me a limited-time license if I would then write a review here on About Translation.

WhiteSmoke makes heady claims of helping to improve your writing, using a mixed bag of tools: style, spelling and grammar check; dictionary and thesaurus; "writing enrichment"; writing templates. It even offers bilingual dictionaries and automatic translation.


WhiteSmoke grammar check

To run the program, you have to be connected to the Internet. The program only checks up to 3000 characters at a time (about 600 words): enough for a medium-size blog post, but not nearly enough for longer articles. You can check longer documents in sections, but that is awkward as it involves either cutting and pasting into WhiteSmoke's window or splitting your document across several files.

The WhiteSmoke people boast their program is the best grammar checker available. To buttress this claim they sent me a document with a long list of errors that WhiteSmoke corrects while MS Word does not. I tested both programs against this list, and, indeed, WhiteSmoke performed remarkably better than Word.

I was not, however, content with relying only on such cherry-picked sentences, so I also tested both programs against the list of errors used by Daniel Kies in his "Evaluating Grammar Checkers: A Comparative Ten-Year Study". Using Kies' list as a test bed, WhiteSmoke's advantage over MS Word was far less clear. Both programs missed several types of errors, and the suggestions they offered were sometimes misleading or wrong. Paradoxically, the suggestions by any grammar checker make the most sense to the people who need them the least: someone with a shaky knowledge of English can easily be led astray and implement with disastrous results some inappropriate correction.

WhiteSmoke does not provide readability statistics, a feature offered even by MS Word that can help achieve a concise a more readable style. For a writing improvement program, this absence is puzzling.

While several of the WhiteSmoke tools are useful (for example, the dictionaries and the thesaurus), they are easily available elsewhere. Nevertheless, WhiteSmoke does offer a feature not available in other programs: their "language enrichment" suggestions. Unfortunately, these suggestions can lead to a cliché-ridden style as they merely propose adverbs and adjectives to sprinkle in one’s writing – the opposite of what most books on style and writing recommend (remember "Omit needless words" from Strunk and White? Well, WhiteSmoke's enrichment is all about adding extra words, instead).


WhiteSmoke “enrichment” tool

Apart from the first day, I was unable to test WhiteSmoke's automatic translation service (the server was down every time I tried). From what I saw on that first day, the translation from English into Italian was worse than Google's. Anyway, I don’t see the point of adding machine translation to a program aimed at improving English writing – especially when several free translation sites are available, if all you need is gisting.

The translation tab sports a link to request “human” translation – while this is commendable (at least it implies that MT is not the way to get good translations), it leads to a site that offers translations at abysmal rates ($ 0.07/word for English to Italian, and other language pairs even cheaper).

The bottom line: WhiteSmoke has some useful features, but most of them are available elsewhere (dictionary, thesaurus, spelling checker, automatic translation, even the writing templates). The enrichment feature is not easily available elsewhere, but, in my opinion, it is worthless.

The grammar checker is somewhat better than MS Word. If that is important for you, then you might consider paying for the annual license (starting from $ 69/year).


If you are thinking of installing this tool, please see my update post: “WhiteSmoke: writing tool or malware?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Once again: SDL, please increase your bandwidth!

Back in December, I complained about the slow downloads from the SDL site.
It’s now three months later, and the issue is still there: I’m currently downloading Multiterm SP 4 (150 MB, 1 hour download), and yesterday I downloaded three webcast recordings (between 20 and 25 minutes for each 50 MB file).

For comparison, yesterday I also got the new Internet Explorer 9: 17 MB, 6 seconds.

SDL is clearly still not providing enough bandwidth. This is unacceptable, especially for a company that only provides software via download (no store-bought installation CDs or DVDs, here), and whose installation packages are very large (Multiterm SP 4 – 153 MB; SDL Trados Studio 2009 SP3 – 361 MB, SDL Trados 2007 Suite Professional – 268 MB).

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Gender neutrality in Italian

Italian has taken a different route than English to gender-neutral language: in English nouns that have a gender are the exception (ships or countries used to be feminine for example, and referred to as “she” although the trend is towards referring to them with the neutral “it”), while in Italian all nouns are either masculine or feminine.

In English the move toward gender-neutral language has brought such changes as “police officer” for “policeman”, “chairperson” for “chairman”, replacing a gendered noun with a neutral one.
Italian also is undergoing a change, with the same aim, but in a different direction: most such titles are now being used in the masculine even when referring to a woman. So “il Ministro delle pari opportunità, Mara Carfagna”, using a masculine article (il) and noun (ministro). Alternatives are to use the feminine article “la", treating the noun “ministro” as invariable (“La Ministro delle pari opportunità, Mara Carfagna”), and using the formerly masculine noun “ministro” with a feminine termination (“ministra” or “ministressa”): “La Ministra delle parti opportunità, Mara Carfagna” or “La Ministressa delle pari opportunità, Mara Carfagna”.

A short test with Phras.In gives me the following frequencies:

Il Ministro Carfagna 23,300
La Ministra Carfagna    7,080
La Ministro Carfagna       194
La Ministressa Carfagna           7

Of these forms, clearly “il Ministro” is currently dominant, “la Ministra” has a respectable usage, but is probably preferred by those who do not prefer a genderless language, “la ministro” is irrelevant in terms of frequency, and the few occurrences of “la ministressa” are ironic or disparaging (for example “la ministressa Carfagna ha riproposto la riapertura dei bordelli di Stato”).

I believe that in areas where there has been a long tradition of female professionals, the preferred usage remains for gender-separate nouns, for example "professore" and "professoressa" or "dottore" and "dottoressa", while professions, such as the law, that used to be exclusively or almost exclusively male-dominated, now tend to adopt the masculine version of the title for both men and women, so “L’avvocato Rossi” could be either a man or a woman.

See also this previous post (with several interesting comments): Signora Presidente and Ms Chairperson: different paths to gender-neutral language.