Archive for the ‘Translation technique’ Category

Style matters

Especially if you translate for direct clients, it’s important to think about style; not as in “she has a wordy writing style” (which I do…) but as in Chicago Style versus AP Style versus the many house style guides or subject-specific style guides that are out there, versus no style guide whatsoever, which is what many clients use now.

Why, you might wonder, is style so important? Well:

  • Perhaps most importantly, style guides keep things consistent and thus easier to read. They keep your documents from looking like a ragged mess.
  • A style guide serves as a single point of reference for everyone who writes or translates for a client.
  • A style guide saves time. Instead of looking up, for the twelfth time, how the company’s address is formatted on their website (Park Ave? Parke Ave.? Park Avenue?), you just refer to the style guide.
  • A style guide saves money, both in the time spent editing documents after the fact, and in the cost of fixing or even re-printing documents that have inconsistencies in them.

Working with clients that have a house style guide can be great: the rules are all laid out for you. But it can also be confusing, because house style guides generally mean that the client is not completely satisfied with any of the standard style guides out there (such as Chicago and AP)and decided to create their own. House style guides often tend to be long. If you translate regularly for the same clients, you get familiar with their house style; but if it’s a one-off job, it can be a significant time drain to familiarize yourself with a 27-page style guide to translate 500 words.

I’m a big fan of the Chicago Manual of Style, partially because I think serial commas (which Chicago style advocates, and AP style discourages) are absolutely the way to go. Otherwise you end up with sentences like “He was joined on stage by his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings” (thanks to the New Yorker’s comma queen for that one…). So, for general guidelines, like capitalization (West Africa or west Africa?), numbers (the second day or the 2nd day?), or plurals (she got all As, or she got all A’s?), I use Chicago. And while we’re at it, you can now get the 16th (most current) edition of Chicago Style in Spanish.

Whether my clients have a house style guide, or whether I’m using Chicago for my own reference, I often try to create a style guide of client-specific names and terms. Here are some entries you may want to put in client-specific style guides:

  • Staff names and titles, especially the head honchos. Especially if key staff have complicated names, you need the correct version: was the CEO’s name Krzyzewski or Krzizewsky? Who’s the VP who always uses her middle initial? Does the top person like to be referred to as CEO or Chief Executive Officer, or something else? Creating standard translations for job titles and departments in your language is a great idea and can be a huge time-saver: Mergers and Acquisitions? Mergers & Acquisitions? Mergers/Acquisitions?
  • The company/entity name. This sounds crazy, but organization names are often styled in a particular way, and the preferred style may change over time. And, clearly, a mistake in an organization’s name is a major source of embarrassment. In the 90s, Kentucky Fried Chicken and the American Association of Retired Persons decided to scrap their full names and just use initials. In 2004, LG suddenly decided that its initials stood for “Life’s Good.” So, make sure you have the official style of the company name.
  • Product names. This is critical if you translate for clients that sell products under different names in different regions or countries. For example, Nestlé’s chocolate milk powder used to be referred to as Nestlé Quik in the US but as Nesquik in Europe. The skin cream Oil of Olay used to go by Oil of Ulay in Europe. Definitely include things like this in your client-specific style guide.
  • Client preferences. Clients sometimes have preferences that may seem odd to us; but since they’re the ones who pay the bills, we need to accommodate them. For example I’ve had several clients that use the European floor numbering system (ground floor, first floor, second floor) in English. I have a couple of clients that mix US and UK spellings: for example UK spellings except for “ize” words, and so on. These kinds of things don’t necessarily stick in your head, so include them in your style guide.

Readers, over to you: any other thoughts on style guides?

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A reader asks: I come from a court interpreting background, and we have to be super-faithful to the original–how much do you advise a translator to deviate (if that’s the right word) from the original?

Short answer: In 2003, PEN held a tribute to Gabriel García Márquez. Edith Grossman, (legendary translator of García Márquez and other Nobel laureates) was one of the speakers, and she explained her translation method by saying, “Fidelity is surely our highest aim, but a translation is not made with tracing paper.” I guess you have to be old enough to know what tracing paper is, but I love this quote so much that I have it posted above my desk. So that’s my short answer: be faithful to the original, but don’t be enslaved to it.

Longer answer: Every translator is going to have their own take on this question, and it depends on the specifics of the situation: are we talking about a patent or a marketing slogan? A legal brief or a poem? And what’s the purpose of the translation? To be used as a marketing slogan in another language, or just to know what it says?

Personally I’m more interested in the effectiveness of the target text than in an exact reproduction of the source text.  If a client sends me a corporate communications document that’s written in typically French style (“the company” instead of “we;” lots of passive voice), I’ll nearly always rewrite it in a more active voice. Unless the client tells me otherwise, my assumption is that they want something that will work in the target culture, and passive voice and impersonal forms of address are not going to do that.

Also, there are situations in which you have to deviate from the original because your language has no way to express the individual words in the source text. An example of this would be the formal and familiar forms of address that most languages (but not English) have. If you’re translating a corporate video script and the employee calls the boss “vous” but the boss calls the employee “tu,” you have to find another way to deal with it. Maybe first name versus Mr./Ms.; but just translating the words as “you” isn’t going to get the point across.

However I do think this emphasis can go too far: a translation can be beautiful but totally inaccurate; smooth and flowing but completely different in meaning than the source text, and that’s no good either. I’ve heard translators argue that, for example, no one makes French people write in the passive voice. Presumably they’re doing so because they like the way it sounds, or they find a more active voice too harsh, like asking someone “What the %^&*& is your problem?,” rather than “Can I do anything to help you?” I’ve also heard translators argue that when someone deviates significantly from the source text, it’s because they don’t understand it thoroughly: they figure that if they make the source text very different from the original, it’s easier to cover up the lack of understanding.

There are definitely documents that call for a fairly direct translation. Birth certificates, patents and legal briefs don’t cry out for creativity. On the other end of the spectrum, literary translators have to be just as skilled as the novelists, playwrights and poets they translate for, only in two languages instead of one.

Readers: thoughts on this? Thoughts on explaining this fine line to clients?

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If you’re a French<>English translator, you probably know Tom West, an attorney turned translator (and former ATA President) who owns Intermark Language Services and has spoken at numerous ATA and SFT conferences. Tom launched a new blog in January, and I just hopped over there to read it. Great stuff! Specifically, he is currently running a series of posts called, “The French they never taught you,” with such gems as:

Tom also has some good information for Spanish and German translators. Definitely an informative new addition to the translation blogosphere. Speaking of which, I’m sure that there are lots of other good new translation blogs that I don’t know about; feel free to mention your favorites in the comments.

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This morning I presented a webinar for the ATA professional development series, entitled “Translating for the international development sector.” We didn’t have time to take questions, so if you have any, you can send them to me here. Also, if you have any feedback that you didn’t include on the evaluation, you can post it in the Comments or e-mail me directly at corinne@translatewrite.com. The webinar was sold out, so if you wanted to attend but couldn’t, you’ll be able to purchase the recording from the link above, in a few days. Thanks!

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A student in my online course asks: How do I decide if a translation specialization is viable?

Hmm, interesting question, and one that nearly all freelancers have to grapple with at some point. Short answer: nearly any specialization is viable, depending on your marketing zeal and income needs. Longer answer follows.

When you’re looking at potential specializations, here are a few factors to consider (and readers, please add your thoughts in the Comments):

    1. What’s your knowledge of/interest in this specialization? That’s undoubtedly the most important factor, and one that outweighs most other factors if you’re looking at a technical subject area.
    2. What’s the demand? Some specializations (like legal translation) are so content-heavy that having enough work isn’t much of a concern. Others (restaurant menus) may have a lot of demand in terms of the *number* of clients, but not in terms of the size of each individual project.
    3. Who are the clients? This is one that a lot of translators overlook. Some specializations (software, pharmaceuticals) are almost exclusively the domain of agencies, because most of the end client companies are so huge that they tend not to use individual freelancers. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there an infinite number of niche specializations that are almost exclusively the domain of direct clients. I’ve met translators who specialize in horses, cross-country skiing, stamps, cookbooks, and so on. If you’re outside the scope of the big business areas like legal, financial, medical, pharmaceutical, IT, patents, etc., you need to consider whether you are OK with working only or primarily with direct clients.
    4. How much are you willing to market? Again, this is a big one. Law firms and legal translation companies are easy to find, and there are lots of them out there. Cookbook publishers that need a Russian translator? They’re out there too, but you’ll have to work harder to find them.
    5. What’s the income potential? Of course, there’s a huge variation within every specialization. But in general, you can’t translate poetry if you need to make money from it, and you wouldn’t translate financial documents just for personal enjoyment.
    6. How much do you care about doing work that is meaningful to you? Again, mileage varies widely. But many clients in, say, legal or IT translation are only translating because they have to, not because they really want to. But one of the things I particularly enjoy about international development translation is that the documents affect real people’s lives, and are commissioned by clients that really, really care about the quality of the translation.

Readers, your thoughts?

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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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