Archive for the ‘Translation technique’ Category

One of the great things about having a blog is that I get to ask questions that I don’t know the answers to, and then people who are smarter than I am will respond and fill me in. Here’s one that’s frequently asked by students in my online courses, and it honestly puzzles me as much as it puzzles them.

We’re talking agencies here: why are agencies willing to pay a per-word rate that effectively equals a much higher hourly rate than they’re willing to pay? Example: if an agency pays a translator 15 cents a word and that person produces 500 finished words an hour, the translator is effectively earning $75 an hour. But if that same agency contacts that same translator for hourly work (editing, proofreading, etc.), the proposed hourly rate is likely to be much lower (or even much, much lower). I can’t say I understand this myself, other than the fact that when an agency pays per word, its costs are completely fixed, whereas by the hour, they aren’t.

Thoughts? What’s up here?

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A reader asks: I come across lots of bad translations in my language pairs. How can I use these to pitch my freelance services to new clients without sounding like a hyper-critical tattletale?

This is a regular topic of conversation among translators who work with direct clients, and bad translations can be a great marketing tool if you handle them correctly. Let’s say you come across a slick website, one that indicates that the company or government department has put a lot of time and money into its marketing efforts, but where the translation falls short. There are no shortage of these; in French to English, I recently came across the official site of the Paris Vélib program (“Bikes conceived and improved for your safety and your comfort!”) and the Montreux Jazz Festival (“an ideal platform and an intimate setting for the duration of its two weeks…”) as examples of great programs with great websites and not-great translations. Chris Durban regularly sends me examples of consumer enterprises in France that need better translations. So, there’s no shortage of material out there.

The key here is a three-step process. Before beginning, you have to expunge the “hyper-critical tattletale” part of your personality. If you’re like most translators, you regularly engage in behaviors like refusing to order misspelled items on restaurant menus, because won’t condone that type of behavior. I personally avoid the express lanes at my neighborhood supermarket, as a silent act of protest against their signs that read “15 items or less” instead of “15 items or fewer.” So, first have your judgmental moment, then move on to constructive marketing.

Step 1: Compliment the effort, maybe like this: “Very few U.S. museums attempt to reach out to the non-English speaking public, and I really admire your willingness to do that.” “During a recent trip to Paris, I was impressed by your efforts to create a multilingual rental system for your bike fleet.” “Your recent press release caught my eye; congratulations on your efforts to invite international exhibitors to your trade fair.”

Step 2: Provide a carefully-worded reality check. When I’m writing these kinds of pitches, I try to keep in mind that a) the person I’m writing to may be the author of the bad translation, and b) the person I’m writing to may have no clue that the translation is bad. So, maybe something like this: “As a professional translator, I know how challenging it can be to get a multilingual website right. I noticed that your site’s current English version has some translation glitches, and therefore doesn’t convey the same impression of your film festival that the Italian version does,” or “You’ve clearly put a great deal of effort into the graphic design and French text for your wine labels; as a professional translator, I’d love to help you bring that same quality to the English version,” or “Your slogan is the first thing that people notice about your company, and I’d love to help you create a German slogan that better reflects your mission and values.”

Step 3: Give them a little something for free. I’ve heard this referred to as “the free sample approach,” “the taste my truffles approach,” the get them hooked on you approach,”…you get the picture! Like this: “As an example of what professional translation services could do for you, I’ve taken the liberty of re-translating your home page, and I’m including it here for your perusal.” Or, “I’ve included three Portuguese slogans that better convey the spirit of your music festival. Feel free to run them by your Portuguese-speaking colleagues to get their take,” or “As a professional translator specializing in your industry, I’ve re-translated your press release using more consistent technical terminology. Feel free to take a look and let me know if this approach might help you in the future.”

Then of course, you wait, and then you follow up. You accept that the person on the receiving end of your pitch might know that the translations are sub-par and might not care, that the person might not “get” why good translations are important, or might have absolutely no budget with which to do better. For what it’s worth, I’ve received all three of those responses to pitches that I’ve sent to potential clients. However, you also have a chance to improve your pitch every time, and you have a good chance of landing a good direct client who really appreciates your work.

Readers, any tips or illustrative examples on this topic?

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Here’s a nuts and bolts post about a nuts and bolts topic: how to count words. Billing by the word isn’t always the best way to go, but let’s say you’re quoting on a project for which you will definitely bill by the word. What are some factors you need to consider?


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This past Wednesday, I had the pleasure of interviewing translation technology guru Jost Zetzsche during a question and answer conference call. If you missed the live call, you can listen to the recording on the Speaking of Translation website (it streams from the conference call provider, so you don’t need to download anything unless you want to!).  Lots of people submitted great questions for Jost to choose from, and on the recording you’ll hear his answers to:

  • Are TM tool developers paying more attention to the editing process and how to support it?
  • What’s the best terminology management tool for freelancers?
  • Are translation management, content management and machine translation systems becoming more integrated?
  • Does Déjà Vu support terminology blacklists?
  • What is the best quality assurance tool for freelancers?

We also learned that Jost has co-authored (with Nataly Kelly) a new book called “Found in Translation,” which includes 90 stories of how translators and translation affect almost every aspect of our daily lives. It’s forthcoming from a Penguin imprint in the fall and will be available at the ATA conference (can’t wait to get a copy!). Thanks to Jost for so generously donating his time, and if you don’t yet subscribe to his Tool Box technology newsletter for translators, you should!

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I gave some thought to titling this post “Should translators encourage their clients to be more gay-friendly?”, but the issue I’m mulling over is really about whether we should encourage our clients to be more inclusive in general. I should also say that although I’m not gay, I have a close family member who is, and I live in one of America’s most gay-friendly cities, so I might be more aware of this issue than some translators are.

With the identifying details removed, here’s the story: I’ve recently translated several corporate communications pieces (one was a questionnaire for a medical study and the other was a marketing piece for a line of luxury goods) that were written in a way that assumed that the target reader was straight. For example these pieces used expressions such as “his and hers,” “the patient’s mother and father,” etc. As mentioned above, I think that this type of phrasing jumps out at me because of the English documents that I’m used to reading. Case in point: the forms that my daughter’s school sends home now say “Parent or Guardian #1″ and Parent or Guardian #2″ instead of “Mother” and “Father” because so many students have two parents of the same gender. But then again here in Boulder we can’t even refer to pet “owners”:  we’re legally required to say pet guardians, so maybe it’s just us!

At any rate, when I went to prepare my page of client comments for each of these projects, I wondered how to phrase this issue. My objection to language such as “his and hers” when referring to an unidentified couple isn’t political; it’s based on my impression that the client risks offending some of their potential target market. Here in the U.S., it seems to be more common for mainstream companies to either produce gay-targeted ads, or ads for the general public that happen to include gay themes. This undoubtedly makes good business sense since gay men are some of America’s highest-spending consumers. When even mainstream companies like Johnson and Johnson (“for the go-go boy in all of us”…who knew?) and Campari are producing gay-targeted ads and American Express has a directory of gay and gay-friendly travel agents, it seems counterproductive not to alert a client to the potential business implications of assuming that all of their clients are heterosexual.

Unfortunately I can’t go into the specifics of the solution that I suggested for each client without saying more than I want to about the specifics of these projects. But I’m interested to hear from other translators about this topic in general: when a client has you translate a communications piece that makes assumptions about the target reader’s religion, race, sexual orientation or other “sensitive” characteristics, do you offer advice or leave it to the client to decide?

Another interesting point: when doing some research for the projects referenced above, I found that mainstream companies are producing gay-themed ads in other countries, and some of them are more overt than what we’re used to seeing in the U.S. market. For example this gay-themed ad for French McDonald’s (which uses the English slogan “come as you are” and even references the tension between a gay teen and his father) struck me as something we’d be unlikely to see on U.S. television.

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As Thoughts on Translation wraps up for the holiday week (U.S. Thanksgiving is Thursday), here are some websites and blog posts that you might enjoy looking at:

  • Eve Bodeux is giving away some SmartPlay language-learning products for kids on her blog; see the end of the post for how to enter.
  • Writer Michelle Rafter has a fantastic blog post (applicable to translators too!) called When it comes to writing, economize. As someone who has a tendency to ramble, I printed out Michelle’s tips and posted them above my desk.
  • Is there any German, Spanish, French or Portuguese translator out there who’s not yet using the terminology site Linguee? I’m not quite sure how to pronounce this website’s name (Lingwee? Ling-oo-ee?) but I have come to love its features. Linguee searches huge amounts of bilingual texts on the web, then displays sentences that contain the source term you enter and the target term that other translators have used.
  • There’s an interesting discussion on Jill Sommer’s blog about ATA certification and why so few people vote in the ATA elections .
  • And finally on a non-translation note, here’s a Get Rich Slowly post on inexpensive Christmas gifts and another one on DIY gifts. And here’s my own suggestion: I like the “memory drawing” idea described in the second post, but I am totally (totally; believe me) un-artistic.  I recently stumbled upon the idea of using Wordle word clouds to make gifts for friends. You can type in whatever words remind you of that person, i.e. “runner, mom, Brownie~leader, lawyer, likes~her~coffee~with~a~splash~of~cream” (put the tildas between multiple-word phrases that you want to appear as one “word” in the cloud) and then create a word cloud that you can frame, give as a card, etc.

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Like many translators and other word people, I have a low tolerance for spelling, grammar and punctuation errors in print. Thankfully it’s not just me; when I took a series of editing classes with Alice Levine a couple of years ago, she opened the class with a New Yorker cartoon (you don’t even need the picture to appreciate it) that featured a restaurant guest saying to a waiter,  “I’ll have the misspelled Caesar salad and the improperly hyphenated veal osso-buco.” Needless to say, this cartoon provoked gales of laughter from the assembled crowd of editing students. A few people in the class even admitted that they refused to shop at Boulder’s only large-scale mall because of its improperly hyphenated name: Twenty Ninth Street (you’ll find the mall between 28th St. and 30th St., not at #20 9th St as the name would suggest). I’ve made my peace with Twenty Ninth Street, but here are a few habitual spelling and usage errors that drive me crazy.

  • It’s instead of its. I recently received a conference announcement from a language industry professional association, proclaiming that this association’s upcoming conference would feature “education at it’s [sic] best.” I had a visceral reaction to this, similar to what I experienced on a recent trip to Ace Hardware (which at least isn’t a language industry entity) when I was confronted with an enormous sign asking, “Can’t find what your [sic] looking for?” Here’s a helpful page that explains the difference between it’s and its.
  • Lightening instead of lightning. This one is everywhere too; I recently cringed to find it in a book that had done well enough to be reviewed in the New York Times Book Review. The lightening/lightning confusion really befuddles me because most people seem to pronounce these words correctly, i.e. “My hair color is too dark, I’m thinking of lightening it,” versus “If you see lightning, run for cover.” I don’t feel like I hear loads of people talking about getting “struck by light-en-ing” when they’re speaking, but for some reason the spelling confusion remains.
  • “I could care less” instead of “I couldn’t care less.” I think that many people just say or write this without thinking about the connotation, for example “I could care less what time we get home, I’m not in a rush.”
  • Less versus fewer. When my neighborhood supermarket did a major renovation and still didn’t correct their “15 items or less” signs in the express checkout lanes, I seriously considered shopping elsewhere so as not to reward that kind of sloppiness (but proximity won out!). Grammar Girl has a great page of quick and dirty tips on less versus fewer. Nutshell version: fewer is for things you can count, less is for things you can’t. Fewer grammatical errors on signs, less suffering.

I feel so much better now… feel free to add your own most-hated misspellings too! Alot, loose/lose, they’re/their/there, aloud/allowed… it’s OK to vent!

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Last month, I ran a post on translating official documents which generated a lot of reader interest and comments. I’m back with a correction and an addition to that post:

The correction: In the original post I advised translators of official documents to “Use a screenshot or graphics program to enhance your translations.” For example, I have often copied logos, seals, etc. onto the translation as .jpg images. After reading the comments on the original post and talking off-blog to a translator who was accused of fraud for copying images onto translations, I now recommend that translators of official documents do not copy and paste any images that are associated with private or governmental institutions. The arguments against copying and pasting graphics and logos are pretty much summed up in Tom West’s comment on my original post. Tom is an attorney, translation company owner, past President of the ATA and legal dictionary author, so I’m very inclined to trust him! Tom says “I know of an instance where an American judge asked that translators stop scanning in the seals and logos on official documents (birth certificates, marriage certificates) because it could appear as though they were “counterfeit” – in the judge’s view, it should be clear that the translation is a translation and NOT an original document, and the more fancy logos/scans you add, the more it can appear that the English-language document was issued by the officials in the foreign country. My conclusion is that all this fancy scanning is (1) not necessary and (2) dangerous, because it can make the document look forged and (3) therefore should not be done.”

For what it’s worth, I’ve seen that a number of my agency clients do scan logos and graphics onto their translations, but in light of Tom’s advice and the similar anecdote from a freelancer, I agree that copying and pasting images should not be done.

The addition: I should have included a note about confidentiality as related to official document translations. Official documents tend to be, for lack of a better term, “juicier” than a lot of corporate documents. For example, French divorce documents often give pages and pages of details about what led to the breakdown of the marriage: affairs, lying, mental illness, it’s often all in there.  Many birth certificates produced by former French colonies explicitly state if the child was born out of wedlock. It goes without saying that although you have to translate these intimate details, you should never comment on them to the client or anyone else. Because I don’t want to make clients uncomfortable with the fact that I know some of their personal information, I actually refrain from commenting on anything in the document, even “How interesting, you and I have the same birthday” kinds of things unless I need a factual clarification.

Thanks to everyone who commented on the original official documents post!

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Update to this post: Make sure to read the comments for more excellent tips from experienced translators!

Today is the first day of the winter session of the online course I teach for beginning translators. It’s an occasion that always prompts me to think of the first day I thought of myself as a translator, and what I did correctly and incorrectly during that stressful and exciting first year as a freelancer. I’ve been mulling over some of the best and worst decisions I made when I first started freelancing, and I hope that readers will feel free to add their own tips. Here I’m mainly including advice for people who are in their first year of freelancing, but some of these tips apply to experienced translators as well.

DO keep a record of all of your contacts. During the first year you’ll be doing a lot of marketing; at times during my first year, I was doing about 80% marketing and 20% translation. Trust me; a lot of this effort is wasted if you don’t have a good system for tracking who you’ve contacted, what the response was (if any) and how you followed up if there was a response. This could take the form of a computerized contact management system, a spreadsheet, or even a Rolodex-type file, but make sure you save this information.

DO NOT take on work that you know is wrong for you just because you need work. This is a mistake that I made several times during my beginner days. For example, at one point I let a client convince me to translate into French and then have my work proofed by a native speaker. This resulted in a lower hourly rate for me since I write very slowly in French, and also in a lower-quality end product than what the client would have received from a native French speaker. At the time I remember thinking “…well, if the client thinks it’s OK…” whereas now this is one of my non-negotiables no matter what the client says; I translate into English only.

DO ask prospective clients in your area for an informational interview. To give my beginner self some credit, this is one thing that I think I did well. I e-mailed a variety of prospective clients in the Boulder/Denver area and asked if I could come in to learn some more about their business and how I might, at some point, fit in. I think that this took the pressure off the prospective client because I wasn’t aggressively pumping them for work, and I also correctly theorized that I presented myself better in person than on paper. Of the five or so prospective clients I visited, I ended up getting work from three of them soon after.

DO NOT contact agency owners directly. Of the beginner mistakes I made, this one was probably the worst; I used the local translator’s association directory to find local agencies, then I phoned up the owners. Now I realize that although association directories and client websites are a great resource, wasting someone’s time is a very poor first impression. Always use the general contact information provided on a prospective client’s website, and avoid cold phone calls in nearly every situation.

DO ask for very specific instructions on your first few projects. Unless you’ve misrepresented your experience, most of your clients will realize that you’re a beginner and won’t mind doing a little hand-holding. So ask them: what do they mean by “reproduce the formatting exactly”? Should you do something special with handwritten text? What if something is illegible? What if there are abbreviations that you don’t understand?

DO NOT set your rates suspiciously low. I think that especially in a down economy, many beginning freelancers are tempted to set their rates markedly below the going rate for their languages. I still cringe at some of the rates I accepted when I was first starting out. In one sense, I think that offering attractive terms can help get your business of the ground; in another sense, I think that lowball rates attract bottom-feeding clients who are looking for high-quality work for minimum wage. Personally, I think it’s a better idea to sweeten your offer in other ways; maybe offering night or weekend work without a rush charge, or being available on holidays when other translators aren’t working.

DO set reasonable expectations for the growth and success of your business. Of all the advice I give beginners, I would tag this as the most important. I’ve been contacted many times by beginning translators who say that they’re “so discouraged” because they’ve sent out 25 applications in the last month and they still have no work. In my own case, I contacted over 400 prospective clients during my first year in business and it still took about 18 months until I was replacing the income from my previous full-time job. I think that for most people, it takes at least a year to get your business to the point where you are working more than you are looking for work; once you break through this point, you will hopefully have a freelance business that becomes like a regular job where you have a great deal of control over your schedule and income.

Please feel free to add your own advice to beginners too!

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Early in my freelance career, I failed two translation tests in a row for two different agencies. Both of these tests were marketing/PR-type pieces, and the agencies’ comments went something like this:

Agency 1: “Your translation was too faithful to the original. The French text was not very well written, and part of the translator’s job is to improve on that.”

Agency 2: “Your translation sounded great in English, but it strayed too far from the original. We want a translation that is faithful to the original, even if the original is not well written.”

Since then, I’ve learned many lessons about translation technique and about asking clients for feedback on the type of translation they want. Recently, I translated some marketing materials for a cultural festival; the document contained some factual inaccuracies and was also written in a rambling, run-on style that I thought wouldn’t work well for a U.S. audience. Although I suggested a lot of possible edits to the document, the person coordinating the project immediately let me off the stylistic hook by saying “The original is really badly written; but hey, we just translate, right? Don’t drive yourself crazy over this; you didn’t write it!”

I think that this issue of whether “we just translate” is a big one in our profession. When we receive a poorly written source document, do we “just translate it,” or do we edit it for correctness and clarity? In theory, it’s nice to think that clients would be willing to pay extra for having their document “re-crafted” into the target language, but in practice this seems tough to implement. In addition, there’s the messy matter of conflict between languages. For example, most French documents make copious use of the passive voice: mistakes were made, profits were achieved, crimes were committed, fun was had. Changing these to the type of phrasing that’s more pleasing to the English-speaking ear involves not just a stylistic tweak, but a substantive one. If we eliminate the passive voice, someone has to make the mistake or commit the crime.

In part, I think that this dilemma has to do with our own pride in our work. We don’t want to return a translation that sounds terrible, but yet we don’t want to criticize the original, especially if our client wrote it. On the other hand, editing/rewriting a poorly-written original takes time, and most often we’re getting paid by the word. Feel free to submit your thoughts; do you “just translate”?

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