Thursday, December 30, 2010

It's Not How Busy You Are, It's How Much You Make

This seems to be the year of natural mini-disasters in New York City. A heat wave in July, a tornado ripping through Brooklyn in September, and now there's a blizzard that has stopped the city in its tracks. But I've already written enough this year about backups and disaster preparedness (How I Handled the Tornado and Other Service Problems, Backing Up Work, Backup Procedures & Disaster Preparedness), so I won't belabor the point. The advantage of a home office is that besides shoveling the sidewalk in front of my house, I didn't have to venture outside.

In 2010, a number of surveys on how the recession affected businesses were conducted, including some about the recession's impact on the translation industry. Many, if not most, translators who answered these surveys said that they had plenty of work. At the same time, though, translators in forums and discussion lists were talking about agencies and clients asking for price cuts. So while there was work, how well was it paid?

That seems to me to be the real question: not, did we have as much work as before, but did we earn as much as before per hour worked? I, for one, found that I needed to spend more time marketing myself than I had to before, so the same per-word rate had to cover more unpaid work. In addition, some smaller agencies went out of business, or at least stopped dealing with German translations, some agencies requested price cuts, and one (non-U.S.) agency simply stopped paying altogether.

So while I worked more hours in 2010 than I did in 2009, my net earnings were probably lower than they had been in the previous year, certainly if I divide them by the time I spent working. So how did 2010 treat you?

A happy -- and more prosperous -- New Year!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

No Trial Version, No Sale

A few weeks ago I detailed the time I spent following up with contacts I had made at the German tekom conference in November (Follow-Up Is Time-Consuming). In addition, I am also receiving unsolicited e-mails inquiring about my services. Some of these seem promising, so I send out my brochure and try to track these potential clients, as well.

Until now, I've input all that contact information in Outlook with Business Contact Manager and linked all e-mail exchanges with a particular prospect to that prospect's record. Outlook seems to have its limits, though, when dealing with multiple contacts at the same agency and when trying to customize the information recorded for each contact. I use 3 of the 4 user-defined fields to track language of communication (English or German), form of address (there are 2 different ones in German), and whether I've mailed them my brochure (checkbox). Also, there is no way to directly jump from a contact's record to MS Word in order to write a cover letter for the brochure mailing.

So I began to look at customer relationship management software for small businesses. Turns out, while there are a number of such programs, most are either web-based or don't seem to offer more useful functionality than the Outlook I already own. I don't want to entrust my customer data to the web and I don't need inventory management or salesperson assignments. All I really need is a better integration of Outlook and Word and a way to customize Outlook so that the data I need to track is easily accessible at a glance and tracking communications with the client can be automated.

Rooting around my copy of Outlook yielded a feature that allows me to design my own screens. That might let me track the data I need on each contact's main screen. While that doesn't solve the Word integration problem, it seems if I start from Word, I can create a one-record mail merge that will pull name and address from the Outlook record. That does seem the long way around, though.

There is one product I discovered that works within Outlook and might have been useful. It is called Prophet and also exists for various Smartphone platforms. While it appeared to be more sales-oriented than I need, it seemed worth a try. A major drawback, though: there is no free trial edition. I am not about to spend $150 on some software without knowing whether it will, in fact, do what I need it to do. The company does have a 30-day money-back guarantee, but do I really want the potential hassle and time I'd need to spend to actually get my money back?

For the time being, I'll therefore stick with my Outlook and try to customize it to work for my purposes. I'll keep you updated on that project after the New Year.

Happy holidays!

Friday, December 17, 2010

How Long Is Too Long?

After sending out follow-up e-mails, as well as brochures and holiday cards to the vendors I initally contacted at the tekom conference in November, I've now seen some return on that investment in the form of requests for test translations and agency application forms to fill out. After reviewing my translation, these agencies then send agreements for me to sign.

A good portion of these contracts covers fairly standard subject matter and conditions:

  • Keep end client's information confidential
  • Don't contact the end client without approval from the agency
  • Adhere to deadlines
  • Invoice the agency
  • Fix the translation, if the quality is not up to par

None of these conditions are a problem, but the timeframes some agency attach to certain conditions do give me pause.

One agency, for example, wants to prohibit me from ever working with any of their end clients without their approval. I can understand such a prohibition for a year or two after ending work with the agency, but if I could never contact any of the end clients of the agencies with whom I work, I'd spend the rest of my career unable to even attempt to acquire end clients of my own.

Another agency wants me to agree to correct translations up to 2 years after submitting them. I can see an end client needing a month, or even two, to check all translation it receives for a large or complex project, but even my appliances don't have a two-year warranty.

What surprises me most is that apparently few translators object to such terms, otherwise they would likely have been stricken from standard agency contracts by now. Different translators will have different thresholds about what they're willing to sign, but we do need minimum standards below which we won't sign a contract. What's your standard?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Does Cutting Language Classes Foster Narrow Minds?

A recent article in The New York Times described budget-cutting measures at a number of colleges that involved elminiating the teaching of certain languages, including cutting entire majors. Such measures primarily affect European languages, in particular German and French.

While a move away from traditionally euro-centric college curricula is laudable, such a broadening of horizons beyond Europe should be accomplished by extending, not contracting, the number of subjects offered. Given the economic and political power now wielded by some Asian countries, students should certainly be encouraged to study Mandarin or Japanese. But cutting German and French classes is unlikely to push students to become fluent in Mandarin instead. Rather, they will probably switch to another European language, such as Spanish, to fulfill their language requirement.

If that requirement still exists, that is. Part of this latest round of trimming expenses at colleges includes eliminating the need to learn a language altogether. Everyone else speaks English anyway, the argument goes, so why bother teaching American students another language?

Here's why: Language study is more than the acquisition of linguistic competence. It not only includes units about the culture(s) connected to the language in question, but also teaches students that -- and how -- the world can be expressed -- and by extension looked at -- in a different way. Growing up entirely monolingual, without ever delving into another language -- even to the limited extent offered by the American educational system -- only fosters even more of the "the rest of the world better behave our way, or else" mindset already way too prevalent in the U.S.

Ignorance is not bliss -- particularly when it comes to knowing other languages and cultures!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

IT Department, Please!

T'is the season for computer problem, it seems -- at least in my house. First, my cable modem's incoming signal went. Then the networking cable we had run between the 3rd-floor cable modem and the 2nd-floor router went bad. And now my desktop computer won't recognize half its memory. If I worked in a regular office, I'd have called the IT department each time. But, of course, being a freelancer there is no IT department.

So I first rebooted the various components of my home network and tested connections with my netbook before calling the cable company. After half an hour on the phone, the verdict was: no incoming signal. This was a Friday morning and the company offered to send a technician out on Saturday late morning. Meanwhile, I had work to do. So I packed up my netbook and took the subway to a cafe with free WiFi to complete a project that needed to get done that day.When I got home, the cable company apparently had fixed the problem from afar. Between the testing, phone calls and travel time to the cafe I had lost 2 hours or so an IT department would have saved me.

Two days later the internet connection on my desktop stopped working again. After more rebooting and testing connections I determined that the cable connecting my cable modem on the 3rd floor with the router in my office on the 2nd floor had apparently stopped working. Instead of calling the IT department, I moved the wireless router up to the 3rd floor, got on the subway and bought a wireless USB connector for my desktop. Then I had to reconfigure the printer to print through a USB connection to my desktop instead of through the network. Another 3 hours or so spent fixing computers instead of translating.

Then both my husband and son were home and using the wireless network, as well. My wireless connection began to slow to the point where I couldn't keep running the multiple applications and online dictionaries I normally use. Solved that problem by telling my son to get off the internet and my husband to work from his office instead of from home. Not really an IT department job, but they would probably have gotten me rewired by now. Looks like I'll have to do that rewiring myself. I'm just not sure how we'll accomplish that on the third floor, since our ladder is not that long (the cable ran on the outside of the building, underneath the new siding we had put on a couple of years ago).

Booting up my desktop this morning, the computer informed me that the amount of memory in my system had changed. Apparently it is no longer recognizing half my RAM. So I'll have to spend part of the weekend trying to address that problem. I'm hoping opening the computer and re-seating the memory will do the trick, but who knows ...

I love being able to set my own hours, decide which projects to take and not having to commute to work, but sometimes I do long for a "real" office with an IT department.

Friday, November 26, 2010

How to Deal With Disparate Holiday Schedules Across Continents

Yesterday was a holiday here in the U.S. (Thanksgiving), and many people make a long weekend of it, hosting friends or family or visiting them. In Europe, however, where most of my clients are located, it was a regular workday, as is today. As a result, e-mails responding to my latest marketing effort and/or offering translation projects kept arriving while I was preparing for out-of-town guests and an elaborate dinner for 8+. That's the downside of working across borders, I guess.

While some holidays are pretty much standard across countries and cultures (New Years, for example), many are not. In addition, the earlier timezone in Central Europe means that e-mails from Germany, Austria, England, etc. have already poured in before I even get out of bed at 7 a.m. my time. One possible answer to this situation would be to limit my working hours -- and thus the hours during which I respond to e-mails -- to the standard work day in New York City, where I live. That would, however, likely cost me a number of projects, if not clients.

So instead I rely on technology to let me deal with business during off-hours in New York. Business e-mail is routed to my smartphone (in addition to MS Outlook on my desktop computer), and I can even write short MS Office documents (Word, Excel) on my phone. That means I can answer e-mails while setting up breakfast for my family or cooking dinner for guests. If the e-mail requires additional research or information I can at least respond that this is a holiday and that I'll reply more fully by a specific time or date.

Had we driven to visit my daughter and her husband in Philadelphia, instead of them coming to us, I would have taken my netbook to write this post, then used their internet connection to actually post it. Instead, I'm taking a quick break from hosting and cooking to write it from the desktop in my office. Mobile technology is great for staying in touch even when we're doing other things!

How do you deal with disparate holiday schedules and the demands of your own family and friends?

Friday, November 19, 2010

Follow-Up Is Time-Consuming

No more blog-writing on the train. I'm back in New York and writing this one on my PC's large screen -- it is an improvement over the 10" screen on my netbook, I must say.

After attending the tekom conference in early November, I wrote follow-up e-mails to everyone I had met there, as well as to the people to whom my contacts had referred me. (Many of the exhibitors were sales persons and gave me the name of their vendor management person.) Since I didn't have direct internet access from my netbook, that meant writing them all in one large Word file, copying that file onto a USB stick, then using a gmail account I had set up from the browser on my uncle's computer to copy and send each of the e-mails separately. It took probably a couple of hours to write and send these 40 or so e-mails.

Later during my trip I started to receive the first replies to my e-mails, usually asking for more information. Using the same gmail account from my sister's desktop, I replied that I'd supply that information upon my return to the U.S. the following week. These e-mails came in small doses, but let's say another half hour or so for checking my e-mail and replying to these.

After returning to New York on Monday of this week, I followed up on these e-mails and supplied the information requested -- most frequently by filling in online vendors questionnaires. Since each questionnaire was in a different format and requested different information (including the version numbers of some of my software and similar items I had to look up), it took a while to complete them all. Another hour and a half for this, I'd say.

Wednesday I input the information from all the business cards I had collected at tekom into my Outlook Business Contact Manager, including a note on whether the person in question was a direct contact or someone I was referred to and a note on the language of communication (English or German). That process was quite time-consuming since all the phone numbers and such on each business card had to be input and checked on screen. I probably spent a couple of hours on Outlook.

Yesterday I created cover letters to send brochures to either the person I was referred to or, if no referral occured, the direct contact. Since the text was slightly different for referrals versus direct contacts and some letters were in English while others were in German, a mail merge operation didn't seem to make much sense. I therefore wrote sample letters, copied them into a Word document and then personalized each one by copying the address information from the Outlook record, then adding the salutation and, in the case of referrals, the name of the person who had referred me. Once that file was done, I could load my printer with letterhead and let the entire file print on its own. Let's say an hour total for this operation.

After that was done, I had to print an envelope for each contact. My all-in-one printer/copier/scanner/fax only prints one envelope at a time, and misfeeds if loaded with more than 6 or 7 envelopes at a time. So the envelope printing process took quite some time, although I was signing and folding the cover letters at the same time, then stuffing envelopes as they printed. That entire operation must have taken another 45 minutes or so.

Next, the trip to the post office. The lines at our local post office are usually fairly long, but they now have a nifty self-service machine. Except that machine only does 5 stamps at a time if you don't want standard U.S. postage. I mailed more than 20 letters, in 5-stamp intervals, so that took a little while, too, maybe 15 minutes.

After all this I've received the first requests for test translations. I won't include the time spent on these here, but just the "advertising" portion of this follow-up has taken me a full workday. Maybe its time to investigate customer relationship management software after all ...

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Why Don’t People Read the Documentation?

It looks like this is turning into a train blog. This time I'm sitting in the train back from Salzburg, Austria, where I visited an uncle who makes flight simulators and also supports them. He told me how customers don't read the documentation he wrote, but instead call him whenever they have trouble operating his equipment. That seems to be a universal problem for technical writers: customers don't bother to consult the help files or printed documentation, then complain if the equipment doesn't work the way they think it should work. They think, for example, that a specific action should be triggered by a particular button. When that button doesn't perform the action they expect, they call the customer service desk rather than consulting the documentation about the correct button to press.

On the other hand, how often have you and I attempted to decipher badly written, badly organized and/or badly translated documentation for some device we bought? Small wonder that customers give up on even trying to consult documentation after they have encountered a few such texts that were written in programmer speak, contained factual errors or were translated into garbled English. If customers are to get into the habit of consulting help files or booklets, they must consistently encounter files or booklets that actually help them solve problems with the devices they handle.

This, in turn, means that the documentation -- in whatever form -- must not only be accurate and well written, but also well-organized, with a device's particular audience in mind. A cell phone intended for senior citizens, for example, needs to be accompanied by an extensive printed booklet illustrating each step with large screen shots. A software developer kit that lets programmers write code for a certain computer platform, on the other hand, requires only very specific online information and can include acronyms and IT terminology.

While technical writers need to keep their audience in mind when writing the source text, we translators all too often forget -- or never know -- who might be reading our document. Just as the original writer's word choices depend on the target audience, so do ours. Sometimes we can glean from the source document who the likely readers might be, as in the examples cited above. But if that is not obvious and the client didn't tell us, we should ask. No need for extensive audience analysis, but the answer to "Will this document be provided to the consumer or to the technician servicing the device?" or a similar question should provide enough information so that we can gear our choice of vocabulary and sentence structure towards the target audience.

If we consistently ask this question, agencies and end clients will get into the habit of providing that information with the project. This will (hopefully) result in documentation that is useful to the end consumer, leading to them actually reading the documentation.

Friday, November 5, 2010

How Multilingual Are Europeans? Observations From tekom

I wrote this on the train back to Vienna, Austria, after attending the tekom conference in Wiesbaden, Germany, for the past couple of days. A word about the trains here: I was sitting at a table in a high-speed train with WiFi internet access (unfortunately not free), travelling about the distance from New York to Montreal for around US$50. Quite a number of conference participants were at Wiesbaden’s main train station tonight -- even people from the surrounding towns who in the U.S. would probably have driven to the conference. Seems the Germans (and other Europeans) are on to something when it comes to reducing travel’s environmental impact ...

tekom is the technical communications conference in Germany, held twice a year -- in Berlin in the Spring and Wiesbaden in the Fall. It had quite a large translation component, including more than 60 translation agencies exhibiting at the fair held concurrently with the conference. As with most international events, the conference languages were the local language (i.e., German) and English. This lead to a panel composed entirely of German native speakers discussing the topic at hand with each other in English for the benefit of audience members who don’t speak German. Similarly, I overheard several informal conversations in English where clearly none of the participants were English native speakers.

English is not only the lingua franca at global events, it has become the official corporate language even at companies headquartered in non-English-speaking countries. A conference participant from Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche, for example, said that all documentation for company products is originally written in English and then translated into any number of languages, including German and French, the two major official Swiss languages. His colleague was Rumanian and the two conversed in English with each other during the dinner we attended. The other two women who joined our table were from the Czech Republic, so the rest of the dinner conversation was in English, as well.

Such an international mix makes sense at a global conference, but I found that at least within the technical communications field many companies have become much more mixed in terms of nationalities than they were until not that long ago. I spoke with a representative of the German multinational Bosch’s language division who was from India. That conversation took place in German since the representative is based near Stuttgart, Germany, and speaks excellent German. Another language services provider, OmniLingua, has offices in Germany and Greece, among other countries. I spoke to the company’s representative in German, but was asked to forward my information to the company’s vendor manager, who is Greek. That e-mail is to be in English (I asked).

I found time and again that linguistic preferences could not be assumed based on a person’s -- or his/her company’s -- name. As movement within the European Union increases, many companies are becoming more polyglot, including employees from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds. At least among the educated professionals who attend such conferences, fluency in the company’s corporate language, in addition to English and one’s native language, as well as knowledge of the language of the country/region where one lives, is assumed.

In addition, professionals are expected to understand English-language literature relating to their profession. That professional use of English, however, also has its drawbacks. My brother (who still lives in Austria) recently noticed at an international youth event that while his professional English vocabulary is fairly extensive, he lacks basic vocabulary for other areas of life. (In case you are curious, he produces precision brass instruments for professional musicians.)

Compare such assumptions with the fact that many U.S. professionals only speak English, with maybe a basic knowledge of whichever language they took in college for a couple of years (likely Spanish or French). On the other hand, if all English speakers learned German to the extent that German speakers learn English, nobody would bother to translate German documentation. Where would I find clients then?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

What Services Can Translators "Upsell"?

I've recently read up on marketing my services better. A few articles in a recent New York Enterprise report and elsewhere got me thinking that simply translating text may no longer be sufficient to get enough work at prices that let me live in New York City.

"Upselling" -- or adding products/services (for a fee) to consumer's core purchases -- seems to be the word of the day (or year). I can't seem even to shop for groceries anymore without the cashier trying to sell me something I don't want or need. Sometimes this can border on the ridiculous as when a toy store cashier tried to sell me batteries to go with a simple old-style board game.

While I will not subject my own (prospective) clients to the kinds of hard sell I experience in stores, I could be offering additional services on my website and in my marketing materials. So what services would it make sense to add?

  1. Besides translating a website's text, I could update the source code pages with the new text, adjusting table width and similar code as necessary.
  2. Besides translating a PowerPoint presentation's text, I could adjust the layout and text sizes to make everthing fit.
  3. Besides translating a whitepaper's text, I could translate the flowcharts contained in the paper, resizing text as necessary.
  4. In addition to accepting Adobe PDFs as source format (a necessary evil in our industry, it seems), I could provide the completed translation in that format, as well, with the original images intact and properly placed.

I could provide all these services with relatively little extra investment (except for buying MS Visio), although I would have to become more adept at some of the software involved. For example, I know basic PowerPoint features (and have created PowerPoints before), but I'd have to play around with the program some more to get up to speed on more advanced features. Similarly, I have used a previous version of MS Visio, but would need to teach myself the current version.

There are certainly other services translators could add to their core business, including working with other file formats (such as FrameMaker); writing the source text, as well; providing a country-appropriate layout for the text (probably more applicable for translations into right-to-left or top-to-bottom languages, such as Chinese or Arabic). I might explore some of these next year.

So what's your "upsell" -- or what could it be?

PS: I will be attending the tekom conference next week in Wiesbaden, Germany, and visiting family in Austria, so postings for the next few weeks may be more sporadic.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

What in the World is Erse?

Yesterday's New York Times crossword puzzle asked for a 4-letter "European tongue". Based on other words around it, my husband and I came up with E_SE. None of the lesser-known European languages we could think of -- Sami in Scandinavia, Romani and Sinti in Eastern Europe, Basque in Spain, Gaelic in Ireland, Alsatian in France, Romansch in Switzerland -- would fit that pattern. It turns out (we had to wait for the solution in today's paper) that it's Erse. So what language is that and who speaks it?

Well, googling "Erse" gets you a manufacturer of components for audio and video equipment in the top spot, but then a couple of definitions from Wikipedia and several dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster. According to them, it is an alternate word for Gaelic, based on the Middle English word for Irish, Erisch.

Aha, not a language/people I had never heard of. So what would other languages be called in Middle English? Again, enter the web. There is an online Middle English dictionary housed at the University of Michigan. So German was called Alemaine back then (presumably related to the French Allemand). Next question then: how did we get German from Alemaine?

Enter the Online Etymology Dictionary. Apparently, German doesn't come from the Middle English Alemaine, but rather is based on the Latin germanus. Caesar used the plural, germani, to designate tribes in northeastern Gaul, possibly based on the name of one of those tribes. There is also a Celtic word "garim" meaning to shout and speculation is that germanus may be derived from that. Anybody who has ever been to an Oktoberfest can attest to the noisy character of that occasion -- although that probably holds true for any celebration largely based on an alcoholic beverage, no matter the culture.

What one doesn't learn when doing crossword puzzles! They do help expand one's vocabulary, even if this particular word will likely be of little use. A large vocabulary helps anyone working with language -- writer, editor, translator. So solving crossword puzzles (in both source and target languages) is a useful pastime for a translator. To that end, I'll buy a couple of crossword puzzle books when I go to Austria late next week.

If this piqued your crossword interests, here are a couple of sites that offer free online crosswords:

In English:

In German:

Happy puzzling!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A 12-Step Program for Large Projects

I just completed a 3-week-long translation project that consisted of one 700-page long source file (63,000 words plus screen shots). In the process, I learned a few lessons on how to handle such mega-projects more efficiently. Here are my 12 steps for working on such projects:

  1. Read the text in its entirety (on screen to save trees) and note important/recurring terms in an Excel spreadsheet or Word table
  2. Research the terms you noted above and fill in the spreadsheet/table. This is your own glossary.
  3. Divide the source file into smaller files. When doing so, make both the table of contents and the index separate files.
  4. Import the glossary spreadsheet into your translation memory software and translate the table of contents and index. Add all terms in these two files to your glossary.
  5. Translate your first source file, revising your glossary terms, if necessary, and adding any new terms you encounter.
  6. Edit that translation before going on to the other files. This way you will have a solid basis for recurring text in the other files.
  7. Translate the other files, one by one. If you change your mind on a term, add it to a list of changes to make to previous files.
  8. After translating all files, edit the translations one by one. Make the term changes you noted above while you are editing.
  9. Now convert each of the translated files back to MS Word (or whichever format is used for the deliverable).
  10. Check that the formatting isn't too egregiously off in the Word documents and nothing is garbled.
  11. Combine the Word documents back into one large file, checking for missing/duplicate text at the points where the files are joined.
  12. Send the completed translation off. You may need to use a service, such as You SendIt or Dropbox, to transfer the file back to the client, if it's too large for e-mail.

One more thing I learned from this project: electrical engineering is actually quite interesting. Maybe I'll pick up an "Electrical Engineering 101" book one of these days ...

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Be Organized and Keep Your Translator Happy

Quite a while back, I wrote about issues to note when writing for translation. During a recent large translation project, I realized that clients may also need to be educated on potential organizational issues related to translation. So here are some dos and don'ts for clients preparing for a translation:

  1. If there is a glossary, provide it up front, not a week into the assignment. This means scheduling enough time to develop the glossary before assigning the translation.
  2. If you want the translator(s) to develop a glossary in the course of the translation, tell him/her up front. Accept a format that can be exported from common translation (CAT) tools -- usually a tab- or comma-delimited file.
  3. If you absolutely need a glossary in a different format, expect to compensate the translator for the extra time spent preparing it.
  4. Proofread the original (source) text, paying particular attention to missing text, garbled sentences and similar problems that impede understanding.
  5. Remember, the translator is not a member of your staff. He/she is therefore not familiar with company-internal acronyms, such as abbreviations for names of departments or specific jobs. If you use these, provide the translator with a list (incl. the meaning/full wording of each acronym).

If you are a translator, are there any other issues to be added to this list?

If you are a translation buyer, what else do you provide the translator to ensure a smooth project?

Thursday, September 30, 2010

International Translation Day: Everyone Deserves Good Translations!

September 30 is the International Translation Day. The day is organized, in part, by the French-based International Federation of Translators (Fédération Internationale des Traducteurs), which also determines a theme for each year. This year's theme is "Translation Quality for a Variety of Voices".

In a world where various immigrant groups are increasingly maligned, it seems particularly pertinent to remind us of the world's diversity and its need for quality translations. The more people move to different parts of the globe -- be it in search of economic opportunity, to escape repression, or for more personal reasons -- the more important translation and interpretation become. To be sure, many of these immigrants will learn the host country's language well, but not everyone has the educational background, facility with languages or age to do so.

Independent of their facility with a given language, everyone is entitled to understand pertinent information in the country in which they live. That's where we translators and interpreters come in: to provide quality translations for everyone, regardless of where they come from or how they came to live in an unfamiliar linguistic environment.

Happy International Translation Day to everyone!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

How I Handled the Tornado and Other Service Problems

On Monday mid-morning my internet service suddenly stopped working, apparently due to a neighborhood-wide problem, according to my cable company. Service was not restored until the evening. I have written before about how I back up my clients' data and work in progress, as well as how I prepare for disaster. This is how those backup plans worked out during the tornado last week and the service problems on Monday:

I continued to receive e-mail on my Blackberry and could also respond to inquiries using that device. In addition, I could open Word documents and PDFs to assess a potential project before replying. Internet browsing is possible, but cumbersome and most sites don't display properly, if at all. I am considering upgrading to a smartphone with a touch screen. My husband and son each have an LG Ally and their phones let them browse the internet much more efficiently. If I do upgrade, should I get an LG Ally, a Motorola Droid or a Blackberry Touch? Does anyone have advice on that?

The bar a few blocks from my house advertises free WiFi, but I couldn't get it to work on my netbook. The middle-aged bartender confided that he had just bought his first computer a couple of years ago and "wasn't a computer guy", so he couldn't help me. Fortunately, there are several cafes with free WiFi (that works) a few subway stops from my house, so I went there instead.

During the tornado last Thursday, lights in my office flickered and I briefly lost power. My uninterruptible power supply did keep my computer and network operating, so I could save my work to a USB drive and shut everything down in an orderly fashion. I then plugged the USB drive into my laptop and continued working on that, just in case there were more power problems. As it turned out, there weren't, so an hour later I just turned everything back on and copied my work back to my desktop.

What kind of emergency plans do you have?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

What About Politically Objectionable Projects?

I recently received an offer for a translation job from an existing client where the subject matter was simply "Politics". I don't normally need to see sample text for jobs from existing clients, since I already have a sense for what types of texts these agencies accept. I also have a standard price per word set up with such clients. Thus subject matter, size and deadline are generally sufficient for me to decide whether I can take the project. With my usual bread-and-butter technical texts, knowing whether the text is about IT or mechanical engineering is usually enough detail. However, politics is different, I think. While I do believe that everyone should be able to express any political opinion he/she desires, I will not aid political doctrines I find reprehensible by translating them.

Last month, the Tanslators Worldwide group on LinkedIn conducted an interesting poll on the topic ("Do you refuse translations on ethical, moral, political, or religious grounds?", accessible only to members). Comments ranged from "No, I never refuse," through "This hasn't come up for me," to "Yes, I have done so on several occasions". At some translator events, I have spoken to colleagues who say they don't understand why I won't work for the U.S. defense industry or U.S. spy agencies. These are organizations I oppose during my free time, so why would I work for them in my professional life?

Conversely, I will aid causes I strongly support by volunteering for them, occasionally even providing a translation pro bono. It seems to me that if we take a stance against certain organizations or doctrines by refusing to work for them, we should also take a stance for other organizations or causes by volunteering for them, either as translators or by performing other work. While that behavior should not be limited to our profession, it does have its limits: even the most reprehensible defendant is entitled to a lawyer, and everyone is entitled to medical help, no matter the patient's political views. However, in these cases we are talking about upholding individual persons' rights, not helping to disseminate a particular point of view. To paraphrase Voltaire, "If I disapprove of what you say, I'll defend your right to say it, but I won't help you do so."

As to the "politics" assignment: I asked for more information on the specific topic and end client, but was told the project had already been assigned to someone else.

How do you handle offers for projects from/about groups/causes you oppose?

Friday, September 10, 2010

How to Proceed With New Clients

An e-mail I received recently made me think that it would be good to post a standardized procedure for handling requests from potential new clients. Some of my colleagues, such as Corinne McKay in her blog post "Responding to a request for quote", have written about their own procedures. To contribute to that debate, here is my approach:

  1. I receive a general e-mail inquiry.

  2. I check the background of the e-mail's sender (see my earlier blog post on Checking Out Potential Clients).

  3. If the results of that search indicate a professional company without complaints about non-payment, I reply to the inquiry requesting the following information (unless already supplied in the initial inquiry):

    1. Exact word count of source text
    2. Field of specialization/type of text
    3. Format of source text (Word doc, PDF, Excel spreadsheet, ...)
    4. Deadline requested
    5. Text sample

    If the results of my search do not indicate a professional company, or I see repeated complaints about non-payment, I decline the project.

  4. The client supplies the information requested.

  5. I evaluate the text sample, source format, total length and deadline requested in light of other pending projects. If I can handle this project, I confirm the word count and deadline and state my standard per word rate, as well as the total price and payment terms:

    1. A deposit of 50% of the total price prior to starting work on the project.
    2. If the project is expected to take less than 2 weeks, I'll invoice the remainder of the total price at project completion and expect payment within 15 days of invoice date.
    3. If the project is expected to take 2-6 weeks, 25% of the remaining total price is due after 2 weeks, with the final 25% again invoiced on project completion and due within 15 days of invoice date.
    4. For long-term projects (more than 6 weeks), I propose a schedule of partial deliveries, with due dates for partial payments.

  6. The client agrees to my price and terms, confirms the order and sends the entire source text.

  7. I send an invoice for the deposit, including information on where/how to pay it. Depending on the timeframe involved and the client's location, this may be my PayPal account or a bank account.

  8. The client pays the deposit and notifies me by e-mail or Skype, or I receive an e-mail from PayPal.

  9. I confirm receipt of the deposit and start work on the translation, backing my work up as I go along (see my earlier post on Backup Procedures & Disaster Preparedness).

  10. At the latest the night before the deadline I e-mail the completed translation to the client, asking for confirmation that the file was received.

  11. The client confirms receipt of the translation.

  12. During my next invoicing cycle (usually once a week), I generate an invoice for the remaining price of the project.

  13. I receive payment of that remaining amount and mark this project closed.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Does Your Language Determine Your Sense of Orientation?

Last weekend's New York Times magazine included an interesting article positing that our "mother tongue" may well shape our experience of the world -- not in terms of what we cannot perceive, but in terms of what we must perceive. In "You Are What You Speak: Does Your Language Shape How You Think?", Guy Deutscher uses the example of "geographic" languages, such as the Australian aboriginal language Guugu Yimithirr, and their influence on speaker's sense of orientation. Geographic languages described any location in terms of cardinal directions (e.g., "The ant is north of your foot."), while "egocentric" languages, such as most Western languages, generally describe location based on the speaker's or subject's position (e.g., "The ant is in front of your foot.")

Research performed with native speakers of such geographic languages shows them to have a superior sense of direction compared with the average speaker of an egocentric language. What this does not account for, however, is where native speakers of the respective types of languages grew up.

Take my husband, an English native speaker from a small town in Iowa. Even after living in New York City for 20 years, he generally gives directions in terms of cardinal directions (e.g., walk north on 7th Avenue, then turn East at 23rd Street) and can tell you which way a particular direction is, even in the midst of the city. Confronted with such directions, my New York City-born English speaking children say, "I have no idea what you're talking about. Am I supposed to turn left or right?" It seems to me that my husband's rural childhood is responsible for his sense of directions, not his native language.

Since known geographic languages are all indigenous, it stands to reason that native speakers of such languages would have grown up in rural settings. Many native speakers of Western languages, however, grew up in urban areas. So how much of someone's sense of orientation is related to the language they grew up speaking and how much is a result of the environment in which they grew up?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Pitfalls of Using Gestures

Ultan Ó Broin's blog post Natural User Interface Gestures. Are They Global? brought to mind a conversation I had many years ago with a Turkish-German court interpreter in Austria. He told me how judges in Vienna's court system kept misinterpreting Turkish defendants' body language. The gesture in question is the Turkish "no", which is expressed by jerking the head back, then bringing it forward; a gesture that looks very similar to a German nod of approval. The interpreter said that in one instance the judge had told him that his interpretation was incorrect, since "clearly the defendant is agreeing" with a statement the defendant had just vehemently denied.

Similarly, when I first moved to Mexico, I would walk away when my co-workers were gesturing for me to follow them because their gesture for coming (palm down, moving palm towards wrist) looked to me like I was being shushed away.

Just as gestures don't always mean the same thing in different cultures, so pictures and colors don't necessarily convey the same thing everywhere. In the West red is usually associated with danger, in Chinese culture it's the lucky color, certain body parts are considered rude in some cultures, ...

I understand how companies attempt to save money on instructions for their products by making them image-only. That way, the product -- such as the assembly-required chair I just bought for my home office -- can be sold anywhere in the world with the exact same package contents, including the instructions. All you need to do is slap a different label on the outside of the box and, presto, there is your Spanish, or Hindi, or Swedish, item. Besides, you don't need to have all these instructions translated into 20, or 50, or 100, different languages.

However, since images may have different meanings in other cultures, this approach may well backfire. I wonder how a pet-care company's all-image instructions would fare in an Arab country where dogs are considered unclean. Would the cute dalmatian licking the properly assembled pet-food station elicit the "oohs" it might in the West, or would it cause buyers in Cairo to return the product?

The moral of the story is, if a company decides to go the all-image route for their instructions (as Ikea does), it can't cut localization out altogether. Rather, localization professionals need to be involved in the design process for these instructions, so that potential pitfalls can be caught early on. No words doesn't mean no translation/localization required.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Always On, Even on Vacation

On the subway to the airport for this vacation, I answered a query from a current client regarding a project due a week after my return. By the time my family and I arrived at the airport, I have negotiated the project and received the final files for it. I wrote this post on the plane to New Orleans. While waiting at the gate, I used my husband’s Smartphone to check that I had not only written, but also turned on, my out-of-office outgoing e-mail message.

Modern technology makes such seamless work out of the office possible. A recent article in the New York Times decried the fact that family members are so engrossed in their constantly-on devices and services that they do not talk to each other anymore. That was evident when we were waiting at the gate: my son was listening to music on his iPod, my husband was answering an e-mail on his Smartphone and I was reading posts from e-mail lists to which I subscribe on my Blackberry. A few years back, when we had one plain cell phone for the entire family, we sat at the gate each reading a different book – less technology, but not more communication.

Because the technology exists, many clients also expect us to be constantly available. As self-employed freelancers, we could choose to leave our cell phones and laptops at home, but we may well lose clients if we are unavailable even for 2 weeks – let alone the 4 weeks of vacation common in Europe. On the other hand, without paid vacations, I do enjoy knowing that there is paid work waiting for me when I get back. As long as I can answer e-mails at my leisure, rather than within an hour or two of receipt, I don’t mind much negotiating projects with existing clients during vacation.

I do draw the line, however, at actually translating during that time or acquiring new clients. It takes time to perform due diligence research on new clients, and working on projects would clearly subvert the vacation’s purpose of relaxing with my family and learning about a new city. I will be on vacation until August 18, and may not post anything until after my return to the office. Then again, if I find any interesting tidbits about French (or Spanish) in New Orleans, I may post.

Laissez les bon temps roule (let the good times roll), as they say in New Orleans …

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out)

As with software, if the data fed into the computer program (read source text) is bad, the program's results (read translation) will also be bad. I thought of this when reading ultan's recent post "Information Quality, MT and UX" on Multilingual Computing's Blogos blog. ultan notes that quality information not only makes machine translation easier, but simply is better information that is more easily understood by both humans and machines.

So what is quality information? I think quality information consistent and concise, but well-written text with an audience-appropriate level of technical terminology. In this context, well-written refers to grammatically correct, clear structures free of spelling and punctuation errors. Clearly the amount and complexity of subject-specific terminology used depends on the text's end users. Installation instructions for consumers will need to be practically jargon-free (and contain explanations of any unavoidable terms), while specifications for computer programmers can contain quite a few acronyms and still be easily understood.

While this last statement is generally true, I have had to deal with source text that was replete with abbreviations specific to a particular company, without having access to an internal list of these acronyms (if such a list even existed). Since the assignment was the usual rush job via a translation agency in another time zone, there was no way to ask for and receive such a list in a timely manner. I did my best guessing the meaning of many of the abbreviations from context and annotated the rest with translator's notes.

I was initially surprised at how frequently source text -- even fairly lengthy whitepapers and similar types of text -- appears not to have been proofread, let alone copy-edited. After reading a couple of books on technical and business matters recently, I am no longer surprised. Even books being printed and sold in bookstores don't seem to undergo much of a quality-assurance process any more. A case in point is Tamar Weinberg's "The New Community Rules: Marketing on the Social Web", which I am in the process of reviewing for an upcoming issue of the Society for Technical Communication's magazine Intercom, which contains quite a few instances where sentences seem to have been hurriedly revised and fragments of the sentence's previous incarnation left behind or too much taken out. So if books aren't proofread any more, what can we expect from internal industry papers or instructions?

However, such poorly written source text not only hampers the flow of reading, it often also adds ambiguity to the text. After all, if there are two conjunctions when only one should be present, which of the two did the author intend to use? And if I pick the wrong one, the translation could be completely misleading. But never having seen the machine for which I am translating the instructions, how would I know whether the correct conjunction here was "and" or "or"?

Yes, we do need quality assurance for translations. But we also need quality assurance for the source text -- not only for the translator's sake, but also for the reader's sake. As programmers are fond of saying: Garbage In, Garbage Out -- GIGO.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Backing Up Work

The recent heat wave (and resulting meltdown of my sister's computer) had me thinking about backup procedures. Introductions to becoming a translator do state the need to back up at least work in progress and recent projects, but they generally don't provide specifics. There does not appear to be a "best practices" standard stating how frequently (hourly, daily, weekly, ...) and where (on the same computer, an external hard drive on site, off-site media, online storage) work should be backed up. Similarly, a discussion of the merits vs. dangers of secure online storage seems largely absent from the larger translation community.

Some translators' blogs do talk about backup tools they use. For example, Céline Graciet extols the virtues of her online backup to dropbox in her naked Translations blog. She synchronizes that backup with multiple devices, updating them automatically with the latest version of her work. That is certainly one way to go, but not the only -- or even the best -- one. There were a number of comments to Ms. Graciet's post, including a reference to a post in another blog, the Blogging Translator by Philippa Hammond. Ms. Hammond uses multiple online backup solutions. Both blogs briefly state that online backups are sufficiently secure, but don't actually discuss the pros and cons of online storage.

I tend to be fairly obsessive about backing up data (daily to secure online storage, completed projects to separate CDs for each client, weekly entire hard drive to external hard drive, printouts of all client orders). After just moving my office from a converted attic to a (cooler) 2nd floor room and lugging all those file folders with printouts, I wonder whether that's not too much safekeeping. On the other hand, I find it much faster and easier to thumb through a folder of printouts than to open a number of different e-mails in order to find the one I'm looking for.

For quite some time I was concerned about the security of online storage, but I finally took the plunge a few months ago and began regularly backing up work to a secure online site (using Norton 360, which is already my Antivirus solution). In the end, I figured that this wasn't any less secure than sending documents via standard e-mail. I still wouldn't upload my own financial data to such a site, however (although I do use my bank's online payment and account access system).

What are your thoughts on online backup solutions? What other backup solutions do you use?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Training Volunteer Interpreters in Small Immigrant Communities

Today's New York Times reports on a lawsuit challenging New York city agencies' compliance with Mayor Michael Bloomberg's order to provide translation and interpreting services to non-English speakers seeking city services. In "Language Help for New York Immigrants Using City Services Falls Short of Goals", Fernanda Santos quotes, among others, a woman from the Dominican Republic who said that workers at an upper Manhattan food stamp office ask volunteers in the waiting room to serve as Spanish-language interpreters.

For those of you outside New York, upper Manhattan is home to a rather large Spanish-speaking community. As a result, the chances that someone in the waiting room of this agency speaks both English and Spanish are rather good. However, the chances that this person is familiar with the specialized social services vocabulary in both languages and also possesses the other skills required for consecutive interpreting are quite low. Contrary to some people's beliefs, growing up with two languages provides a good foundation for becoming an interpreter and/or translator, but is not enough in and of itself.

If in a city where 24.5% of respondents in the 2000 census speak Spanish at home, providing Spanish-language services at an office that serves a large Latino neighborhood is such a problem, what does that mean for smaller immigrant communities? While the city -- and other large institutions dealing with the public on a regular basis -- needs to do better in providing translation and interpretation services for the major immigrant languages, it cannot be expected to do so for every language that might come up.

Which leads to the next question: how to ensure access to services for people from less-common linguistic backgrounds. Professional interpreters for these languages are clearly the preferred solution. If not enough (or no) such professionals exists for a particular language, using telephone interpreting services provided by an interpeter located elsewhere may be an option in some cases. But sometimes you need someone on site.

Professional translators' organizations, such as the American Translators Association, were organized to protect the interests of professional translators and interpreters. However, they are also in the best position to offer training in basic interpretation skills to members of underserved linguistic communities. Since there are not enough professional interpreters for these languages, such training will not take potential work away from existing interpreters. Rather, it will supplement existing interpretation services to ensure that non-English-speaking immigrants accessing vital services do not have to rely on the sometimes haphazard interpreting skills of children and other untrained volunteers.

The training I envison would focus on basic consecutive interpreting skills (note taking, breaking text into chunks, listening for key words, etc.), supplemented by medical and social services terminology in English, with English explanations of each term. It seems to me that it should be possible to get a philantropic organization to fund such an undertaking, so that the cost of the training could remain low, or the training could even be offered for free. And, who knows, some of the people so trained may decide to pursue this career and eventually become professional interpreters -- and ATA members.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Machine Translation Instead of Global English?

I just read an interesting article in the July 2010 issue of Wired magazine. In "No Language Barrier", Clive Thompson talks about how automated machine translation could make the emergence of a lingua franca obsolete since people can interact with each other using their own dominant language, with the machine providing the linguistic, as well as technical, interface. Such an interface could halt the spread of English as the de-facto lingua franca across the world, he argues.

While this sounds like good news to those of us who are concerned about the increasing influx of English into the world's languages and consequently increasing homogenization of cultures, it may not be so. Language and culture are certainly intertwined, but an American movie in, say, Samoan, is still an American movie with American cultural references, values and view of the world. Being able to communicate in one's own language is certainly a step forward in letting people across the globe communicate with each other, whether they know English or not. (Although whether that will entice my non-English-speaking mother to finally learn how to use a computer is another question ...). Technical solutions, such as automatic machine translation, cannot curb the march of U.S. culture across the globe. That can only be achieved by political and economic means.

Mr. Thompson also cautions that "Certainly any activity requiring serious precision -- legal proceedings, business discussions, diplomatic negotiations -- will still need expert human translators." He is certainly right in this assessment, although judging from some of the translations I have encountered and/or been asked to "fix", not all potential translation clients seem to think so. The challenge for us translators now is to educate clients why machine translation may be fine for a chat on Facebook, but isn't sufficient for a contract to build a new factory in Romania (even if face-to-face negotiations for that factory were conducted in less-than-stellar English).

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

International Technical Translation Conference

Last week was rather busy, what with all the work accumlating while I was in Portugal. Now that I'm (sort of) caught up, here is my take on the Tradulinguas Technical Translation Conference in Lisbon:

On Friday, I attended the following presentations:

  • Mathilde Fontanet's session on translating English technical texts

  • Suzanne Goujan's lecture on renewable energies terminology

  • DeAnn Cougler's presentation on terminology management

  • Jerzy Czopik's "Tagology for Dummies"

  • David Hardisty's talk on technical translations into English as "language B"

Mathilde Fontanet works for the translation department of CERN, the Swiss particle collider. I hadn't even known that CERN had such a department, but given the international collaboration this project requires, it makes sense to have a team of in-house translators. Ms. Fontanet spoke about some of the difficulties she and her colleagues encounter in their work. For one, English technical texts are often written by experts whose dominant language is not English. Having just finished a large software translation project myself, I can attest that this problem isn't limited to English, but can happen with German originals, as well. In addition, Ms. Fontanet said, U.S. technical texts frequently don't conform to European Union requirements in terms of the information that must be included (e.g., safety and environmental statements, ...). Translators aren't only transferring meaning from one language to another, they are also the original text's editors/proofreaders. Such functions distinguish human translators from machines, but that only becomes apparent if the human points potential problems in the source out to the client (and/or fixes them, if they're obvious errors).

Suzanne Goujan offered a number of (English) definitions for various terms used in the renewable energies sector. It had likely taken quite some time and effort to amass this information, but the lecture added little beyond what could be read in a book or handout. I had hoped for more discussion and examples in an in-person session.

DeAnn Cougler offered some helpful suggestions on managing terminology as a freelancer, as well in-house. She recommended scheduling a daily time slot for terminology work so that one's own database remained well maintained, making work easier and faster in the future. I should really do that, since I tend to stop working on terms once I complete a project. Over time, this leads to a jumble of terminology files that could use an organizational overhaul. Ms. Cougler also suggested tracking time spent on terminology research and offering such work as a separate service to clients, invoiced either by the hour or by the term. While that sounds like a good idea, I am not sure how many clients would be willing to pay for it. As far as they are concerned, such (sometimes time-consuming) work is part of what they pay for -- even if that pay is relatively low.

I had heard Jerzy Czopik speak at the ProZ conference in Vienna. This time, he talked about the tags inserted by many CAT tools into the text. While the talk was informative, much was familiar to me from my work coding HTML and XML/XSL. However, he recommended a tool, CodeZapper, that removes unnecessary formatting in MS Word. I'll have to try that one out (sounds like there is another follow-up post to be written...).

David Hardisty teaches technical translation into English at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa, where most students' dominant language is Portuguese. Many of his students will end up translating into their non-dominant language. Mr. Hardisty highly recommended Brian Mossop's book "Revising and Editing for Translators", which I'll have to check out. It does sound like a useful resource. He also thought that it would be helpful if technical translators took a class in technical writing. Having been a technical writer myself before becoming a translator, I very much agree.

The conference was held at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa. During lunch, another translator and I got lost and ended up in the student cafeteria. Fortunately, my companion spoke Portuguese, and we had quite an interesting lunch amid a crowd at least 20 years younger than either of us. Made me feel a little like I was back during my own student days ...

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Advertising in Lisbon and Vienna

Walking around Lisbon, Portugal before the start of the International Translation Conference yesterday morning, I noticed how little English there is on the signs on stores, ads on bus stops, etc. In Vienna at the ProZ conference last year, there seemed to be a lot more ads overall, and it seemed that every other one included at least some English or pseudo-English word or phrase. By contrast, Lisbon (at least outside the tourist areas) seems to have few ads beyond those on bus station shelters and shop windows. Most of the ads I saw were entirely in Portuguese, without any attempt at appearing "hip" or "global" by incorporating English or pseudo-English phrases. Even the "take away" signs so ubiquitous in Vienna food establishments are usually rendered in Portuguese.

So far I've also only come across two U.S. fast food chain restaurants and even these don't seem to display the gaudy visual clutter common in the windows of U.S. fast food restaurants. U.S. culture and commerce has certainly intruded in Portugal as well, including hamburgers sold in some otherwise Portuguese eateries. Refreshingly, though, that U.S. cultural influence seems much more restrained than in other European capitals, including Hamburg and Vienna.

Why is this so?

  1. Are there laws or local ordinances regulating the use of language in public settings, similar to the Academie Française?

  2. Does the Portuguese public resist the introduction of foreign phrases more than other cultures? If so, how is such resistance determined?

  3. Is English taught less frequently in Portuguese schools and advertisers therefore cannot assume that English phrases will be understood by the general public?

  4. Is the Portuguese market simply too small for many non-Portuguese companies to bother advertising here?

As best as I can tell, English is commonly taught as a foreign language here and the Portuguese-speaking market includes Brazil, which is certainly large enough to warrant advertisers' attention.

It would be interesting to find out:

  1. Whether my impression of relatively mono-lingual advertising is, in fact, correct

  2. If so, what forces are at work to inhibit the intrusion of English -- or other languages, in fact

  3. Whether some of these forces could be replicated to stem the tide of English or pseudo-English encroaching on other languages.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Following Up on Some Promises

In some previous blogs I noted that I would later post on some issue that I only mentioned in passing in the original post. Some of these I haven't seemed to get around to. So here are brief updates on the items I promised:

April 8, 2010 - "Language Swapping Site"

I signed up with lingomatch on the day of that post, but I haven't yet received a single e-mail in response to my listing at that site. It appears that the site's user base is still too limited to find someone to swap my German/English knowledge for their Spanish knowledge.

February 12, 2010 - "Wordfast Professional Training"

I installed and have used the new release of Wordfast Pro, but I can't detect much difference from the old version. One improvement I did notice, though: a setting now lets you determine which part of a word's glossary entry is displayed in the target language area when you pre-fill that segment (e.g., by using "copy source"). In the old version, both the source and target term for the word would display in the target language area, requiring rather annoying clean-up. I configured the new version to display only the target term, although for some reason that's still not the default.

December 23, 2009 - "ProZ Conference Vienna - Part II"

I signed up with Xing, but I have had few useful contacts so far besides connecting with translators I already knew from other venues. There is a job watch feature, though, where I set up the type of job, industry, etc., I'm interested in. I have received a few e-mails as a result. None have worked out so far, but at least they were specific enough to fit within my relatively narrow industry and specialization -- not bad for a non-translation-specific site.

I also downloaded a trial version of Anycount, which seems to work quite nicely, especially with PDFs. In addition to supporting a variety of file formats, it lets me add an entire list of files, so I don't have to open each of a set of Word files separately to get the count.

And I installed a trial version of Trados Studio, but haven't really had time to actually work with it. Since others have meanwhile written about both Trados and Wordfast, I won't bother with my two cents on this topic.

International Technical Translation Conference

Speaking of conferences: I will be heading to Lisbon, Portugal for the International Technical Translation Conference next week and will report back on it in early June.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Ideal Workflow

I recently received an e-mail requesting permission to reprint my April 1 blog post on client education in an upcoming issue of the American Translators Association's Chronicle. In that post, I promised to blog on my ideal translation process. So here is what I'd like that process to look like, from start to finish:

  • I receive an e-mail from a new potential end client requesting quote on translating documents attached to the e-mail.

  • I check the client on the web (more on that in another post) and evaluate the documents directly in my e-mail application. I decide I'm interested in the project.

  • I open a project mgmt/invoicing/translation memory application and input the client's basic information (name, address, etc., as well as language of communication) and flag him/her as a potential client, as a new client, and as an end client (as opposed to an agency), then attach the e-mail I received to that record.

  • I download the documents attached to the e-mail.

  • The software automatically creates a directory for them (based on a directory structure I previously specified) and assigns a project number clearly identifying this as only a potential project.

  • I initiate creation of a quote by selecting a couple of parameters (currency, price level, due date). At this time, I also specify the documents' subject matter(s), as well as source and target language variations (Austrian German, German German, U.S. English, etc.).

  • The software counts the number of words in the source documents (even if they're in PowerPoint, PDF or similar formats) and displays a quote based on previously defined conditions (surcharge for PDF format, deposit requirement for new clients, ...) in the communication language I specified for the client. It also creates an e-mail message to go with the quote (based on boilerplate text I have previously input).

  • I review the quote and click "send".

  • The software sends the e-mail, attaches it to the client record and automatically enters a reminder to follow up after a previously specified number of days into my electronic task list, with a link to a follow-up e-mail.

  • On that follow-up date, that task is displayed in my to-do list. I click a link in the task and the software displays a follow-up e-mail based on previously input boilerplate text and personalized with the client's name, date of initial contact/request, date and number of proposal, etc. Since my availability changed in the meantime, I edit the e-mail to propose a later due date. I am really interested in this project, so I decide that a second follow-up may be necessary. I select that option, as well as the form of communication for it, in the software, then click "send".

  • The software sends the e-mail, attaches it to the client record and enters the second reminder in my task list. Since I selected telephone follow-up for this one, the task includes a link to Skype.

  • The second reminder date arrives. I click the Skype link in the task, which dials the client's phone number in Skype.

  • I reach the client and he agrees to the project over the phone. I ask for a written confirmation, which the client agrees to provide by e-mail.

  • The client's confirmation e-mail arrives.

  • The software links that e-mail to the client's record. I flag the e-mail as confirmation of the proposal and change the due date. The software removes the "potential client" flag from the client record, and changes the project number from a potential project to a "current" one. It also enters a task in my task list with the due date and project number, as well as a link to the directory for the documents to be translated. If the due date is more than a specified number of days in the future, it also adds a second task a specified number of days before the due date to remind me to start the project, again with a link to the project directory

  • When that start date arrives, I click the link in the task, which takes me to the first of the source documents opened in the translation memory software. Based on the subject matter and language variations I specified earlier, the software selects the appropriate glossaries in the TM software. Since this is a new end client, it also creates a new translation memory with that client's name (I previously specified that each end client gets his/her own translation memory). If this had been an agency, the software would display a list of existing end clients where I could either pick one or add a new end client. The software also adds the TM and glossaries selected to the record for this project.

  • Since the source files are PDFs, I direct the software to convert them to MS Word. The software uses Acrobat and a multi-lingual OCR program to provide an MS Word document with all images removed, but formatting intact and image captions preserved; text flows throughout the entire document rather than being corralled in text boxes, except for very special cases.

  • I translate the text using the translation memory and glossaries set up above. During that work the software automatically saves a copy of the files on which I am working in a specified interval.

  • In the course of the translation, I decide that a separate glossary for a new subject matter would be helpful.

  • I create that new glossary by adding a term and specifying "new" rather than picking an existing glossary. In addition to creating the new glossary on the fly, the software adds that new subject matter to the list of subject matters from which I can pick when initially adding a project. It also adds the glossary to the record of glossaries/TMs used for this project.

  • When I am finished with the translation, I can preview the translated document as it will appear to the client. Any changes I make in this preview are automatically also made to the TM.

  • Each day at a preset time, the software backs up any projects I worked on during that day to an external hard drive attached to my home network. It also tracks the time I spent on each project.

  • When I am finished translating and editing a project, I tell the translation memory portion of the software that I'm done. It saves the translated files in the appropriate format (MS Word for Word files and PDFs, Excel and PowerPoint files in their original formats) and displays these final files.

  • I briefly review the final translated files to make sure formatting didn't go astray or caption text, etc. is missing, then click "project completed" in the main software.

  • The software creates an e-mail to the client with boilerplate text and the final files attached.

  • I review that e-mail, adding a note to wish him a good trip later that week and click "send".

  • The software sends the e-mail to the client, attaches it and the project files to the client record, backs up all project files to the external hard drive, marks the project as completed and enters a task in my to-do list for the next day to follow up on whether the files were received.

  • The next day, the client e-mails back that the files arrived safely.

  • I open the follow-up task and click the "files received Ok" option in the task (the other options being "send follow-up e-mail" and "resend files").

  • The software flags the project record as ready for invoicing.

  • During the next weekly invoicing cycle, the software automatically invoices this client, based on the parameters I had set during the creation of the quote (language, price level, etc) and using my standard terms.

  • I review and approve the invoice, changing the standard terms to accommodate the client's billing cycle (which he had explained in my phone call). I can also edit the standard e-mail the software created to go with the invoice.

  • The software sends the e-mail and creates a task in my to-do list to follow up on payment a specified number of days after the invoice's due date.

  • The client does not pay by the due date.

  • A link in the follow-up task that appears on my to-do list goes to a boiler-plate follow-up e-mail. I review and send that e-mail.

  • The client pays my bank account electronically, which triggers an automatic e-mail from my bank with a standard subject line, format and e-mail address.

  • After initial setup to specify these bank parameters, the software recognizes this as a bank e-mail and retrieves the pertinent details from it. During the next invoicing cycle, the software notifies me that this invoice has been paid.

  • I approve the payment receipt and the software marks the invoice as paid and enters the payment in the accounting portion of the software, including crediting it to the appropriate bank account.

I know that this kind of seamless integration of various disparate softwares and level of customization for my particular workflow is probably a pipe dream. The challenge now is to see how much of it can be implemented with existing commercial software at a reasonable price ...

Friday, April 30, 2010

Backup Procedures & Disaster Preparedness

In a previous post I talked about trying out online backups. I have since set up such backups and put together a comprehensive backup plan. Here is what I do to keep files safe and continue working should disaster strike:

I keep the client's original files both in a separate directory for the project on my hard drive and in the original e-mail with which the client assigned the project. In addition, I keep a hard copy of the assignment e-mail and/or PO, as well as any special instructions the client might have sent. On that copy I also note the translation memory and glossar(ies) used for that project, as well as its due date and the date and time I sent the completed work to the client. This gives me a physical reference of the scope of work and resources used, which is also useful if a follow-up assignment arrives. A quick look at the client's file and I can ensure that I use the same glossaries and translation memory as I did for the prior project, which in turn ensures consistent use of terminology.

After stopping work on a project for longer than a brief break, I back all project files up to a CD specific to the client. I also back up the completed project there. Over time, this provides me with a complete collection of all projects completed for this client during the calendar year. Since I keep these CDs and the associated hard copy of instructions, etc., for 5 years, I can refer back to prior projects should a follow-up assignment arrive years later.

In addition, my entire client directory is backed up to a secure online storage site every night. Every Friday, all files that changed on my hard drive during the week are backed up to a network-attached external hard drive. Both these measures ensure easy access to all information -- both pending work and invoicing/payment data, as well as translation memories and glossaries -- should my primary computer crash. Since I also have a laptop, and other members of my family also have computers, a potential computer failure should cause only a short disruption in work on my current projects (long-term, of course, it would be a big headache).

My laptop includes a second, swappable battery, so I can continue work for up to 6 hours, even if power fails. Other safety measures for such outages include uninterruptible power supplies for my computer, printer and business telephone line, as well as for the network router and cable modem. These power supplies permit orderly shutdown of systems in the event of an abrupt power failure, minimizing the chances of corrupted files or damage to equipment.

Should my broadband internet connection fail, I can take my laptop to several cafes with free wireless internet access which are located within a few subway stops and are open until 1 am. And there's also my Blackberry, where I can communicate with clients by e-mail or phone (Skype mobile), even if I am not in the office or there is no power. That Blackberry can even be used as a modem for e-mailing files, if none of the Wi-Fi cafes were available or open.

Of course, if half of the United States is without power for several days, all of these measures will be of limited use. But short of that, I should be able to complete any outstanding projects on time, even if disaster strikes. Which, however, leaves the question of backing myself up, not just the equipment. I haven't solved that one yet, but I'm working on it ...

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Checking Out Potential Clients

A recent question in the Translators Worldwide group on LinkedIn prompted me to write this post. An English-Spanish translator was describing a potential job offer she received by e-mail which raised a few flags for her. She wanted to know whether that e-mail might be a scam, rather than a real translation project.

As small-scale businesses providing services to far-flung (sometimes international) clients, we face this situation not infrequently. How do we know that a potential client will, in fact, pay us after we deliver the translation? Worse yet, how do we make sure the bank account information we may provide on our invoice for purposes of direct payment is not abused to hack into our account digitally and syphon off our money?

The short answer is: we can't make sure. But we can take a few precautions. When I get a request from a new client, I check a few things:

  • I google their company name and look for:

    1. a professional-looking company website with physical address information (i.e., a house number and street, not just a PO box)
    2. other websites/forums referencing this company

  • For U.S. companies, I use's reverse lookup function to check the name and address connected to the phone number. If the phone number is unlisted, it's probably not a real company.

For agencies I also:

  • check the blue board for other translators' experiences with that company.
  • check for other translators' experiences with that company's payment practices.

If there are no references at all on the web to this company and/or the company has no website, I assume it's not a real company -- at least not one that would work internationally and therefore need translation services.

I have sometimes taken calculated risks with jobs for which I wasn't sure I'd get paid, but I generally only do that with small jobs.

If the client looks like a potential payment problem, I ask for 50% of the estimated cost up front by PayPal. That way the potential client has no bank information. I transfer incoming PayPal payments to my bank account, so if anyone could get at my PayPal account, I wouldn't lose much money.

Granted, there are legitimate potential clients out there who are just not good at marketing their business -- or don't need to market it on the web, e.g., because they have enough word-of-mouth referrals. My brother's niche business manufacturing high-end musical instruments is such a case, for example. But how do I know this is not just someone who thinks they have a great idea the world will pay for, but then finds out that the world is not interested and consequently has no money to pay their suppliers (including me)?

In the end, I generally trust my instincts. If it looks fishy, it probably is. I may have lost out on some potential assignments, but in the end I have gotten paid most of the time -- even by private individuals in Australia.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Language Swapping Site

A blog posting featured in MultiLingual News' weekly newsletter alerted me to an interesting website, called lingomatch. It is intended to help people who want to learn a foreign language find a speaker of that language to practice with. In exchange, they'd teach their partner their own language. My daughter used a similar system run by the University of Leipzig's (Germany) foreign language department for its students to learn rudimentary French while studying there.

The site seems to be still fairly small, with fewer than 50 ads listed in New York City, for example. As the blogger noted, it's also currently limited to large cities. While this service may not be necessary in very small towns where people know each other, it would be particularly helpful in smaller cities, where there may not be as many bilingual people as, say, in New York City.

Such a swap of linguistic knowledge is, of course, no substitute for an actual language teacher, who not only speaks the language in question, but also knows how to teach it (not to mention being familiar with its grammatical structure, rather than simply taking grammatical constructs as given). It is, however, a great supplement to a language course or a good way to practice a language that was once learned formally, but has remained dormant since.

The ads list only one "speaks" language, presumably the person's dominant language -- which, however, raises the question of how truly bilingual people could list both languages as options for teaching others. Particularly in places like New York City, where many people do grow up with English plus one or two other languages, such a situation is easily imaginable. Note to lingomatch's developers: please allow multiple selections (limited to two or three maximum, however) in the "Language I Speak" drop-down menu of the "Post Ad" screen.

I just posted an ad to find someone to help me revive my Spanish skills. (I used to live in Mexico City, but that was a long time ago.) I'll report in future posts on how that search works out. (Some of my friends are Spanish speakers, but having a dedicated time, place and person for learning a language seems a better way to stay on track.)

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Client Education & Translation Processes

Yesterday I went to the Barnes & Nobles text book store on 5th Ave. and 18th Street in Manhattan (New York City). The store bills itself as "the largest bookstore in the world" on some of its windows facing 18th Street. Not finding any books on translation theory or practice in likely sections (Foreign Language, Linguistics, Reference), I asked a store clerk. After looking my request up on a computer, he announced that the store didn't carry a single book on translation.

In the March 2010 ATA Chronicle (the American Translators Association's magazine), Howard Clark calls the U.S. "an immigrant-based, yet largely language-ignorant society" in his opinion piece "Clients, Freelancers & Translation Agencies: Productive Partnership or Missed Opportunities?" It seems to me his assessment is spot-on. Mr. Clark then continues that, given this fact, "client education is critical".

Right again, but how do we, as translators, educate an end client whose identity we may not even know? This should be the translation agency's responsibility, but in my experience in the real world of short deadlines and tough competition for large projects that education is frequently given short shrift. If we work directly for end clients, our chances of explaining how translation works and what is required for a sucessful, high-quality product, are much better.

One resource for doing so is the American Translators Association's Client Outreach Kit. Another is a page on our workflow, either posted on our website or sent to prospective clients along with other promotional literature. The advantage of such a page (which agencies sometimes already have) is not only client education, but also a way for translators to learn best practices from each other. Maybe another translator has already found a solution to an issue I am still struggling with. If he/she has posted his/her translation process, I can profit from his/her experience, rather than having to re-invent the solution.

While each of us works a little differently, much of the process is likely the same -- or at least very similar -- for all of us. Through sharing our own workflows, we may be able to define a relatively standard process for non-agency projects. Such a standard process would, in turn, simplify client education. End clients would have a better idea what to expect when hiring a translator and may therefore be more likely to actually provide the resources and time we need to produce a high-quality translation.

Based on Linda L. Gaus's "Top 10 Pet Peeves of a Technical Translator" (ATA Chronicle, February 2009), here are some items to be incorporated in educating clients about translation processes:

  • Provide context
  • Provide reference materials
  • Provide specialized terminology
  • Have time for questions
  • Don't assume you speak the target language better than the translator
  • Proofread/edit the source documents
  • Finalize the text before translation begins
  • Provide diagrams/illustrations where appropriate
  • Empower one person to decide translation questions
  • Schedule sufficient time for the translation

Look for a future post on my own workflow and ideal translation process.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Translation Industry's Fee Structure

One of the comments about my last post on machine translation (The Changing Role of the Translator) was that while post-editing machine translations pays less, it also takes less time. That's true -- if the machine translation was a reasonable understandable rendering of the source text in the target language. This is sometimes the case, but not always. I have worked on some translations (even ones purportedly performed by humans) where the effort to "fix" an incoherent -- or just plain wrong -- translation didn't take significantly less time than translating the document from scratch.

That's why, in the context of becoming post-editors of machine-translated texts, we need to change the current fee structure in the translation industry. We should be charging by the hour, not by the word -- at least for editing work. This would be fairer to both sides. If the translation being edited is in reasonably good shape to begin with, the client pays a lower rate than he/she would if paying per word. And if the translation performed by the machine (or another human) is really bad, the translator doesn't lose money by spending hours fixing it and being paid only for a fraction of that time.

Many other service professionals charge by the hour - lawyers and accountants, for example. If I hand my accountant a well-organized set of records already in digital form, he/she spends less time producing my tax return and I pay less for that service. If I hand him/her a shoe box full of receipts, I have to pay for the time it takes the accountant to sort through the mess -- at accountant rates. This should provide an incentive for me to keep decent records in the first place. (For the record: I use accounting software compatible with my accountant's and send her the digital file at the end of the year.)

Similarly, a per-hour charge for post-editing would provide an incentive for end clients to use translation software that may not be free, but will produce reasonable-quality results, rather than using rules-based online freeware. And if the end client insists on using the free online service, the translator at least gets paid for the extra time he/she has to spend to fix that translation.

Look, for example, at Joanne Moss Design's Bloopers page for bad translations. The shoe tag she shows needs to be re-written from scratch to be comprehensible. The text about Ludwigshafen, on the other hand, doesn't need much work to make it flow smoothly in English. On a per-word basis, however, editing the Ludwigshafen text would cost the client much more then the shorter shoe label, while taking the post-editor much less time. If post-editing per-word rates were based on the time it took to "fix" the Ludwigshafen text, the translator/editor would lose money when confronted with the shoe tag. If the rates were based on the time required to edit the shoe tag (we should be so lucky!), the client would overpay for the Ludwigshafen text. A per-hour fee, on the other hand, would do justice to both types of text.