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.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Changing Role of the Translator

I just read an interesting op-ed by David Bellos in last weekend's New York Times. In "I, Translator", the director of the Princeton translation program offers a brief overview of machine translation, from its infancy in the U.S. at the start of the Cold War to its current Google Translate iteration and concludes that machine translation cannot replace human literary translation.

A point well taken, but literary translators constitute a fraction of the translation community. Most of us don't work on War and Peace but on such prosaic texts as legal contracts, medical documents or technical manuals. Quite a bit of these documents consist of "boilerplate" or otherwise at least semi-standard text -- that's why translation memory tools have become so useful to human translators. Because of this standardization and repetition, such technical text does lend itself to machine translation, just as the original text is a prime candidate for standard content management systems. This move towards further automation may put both translators and technical writers out of business -- unless we adapt.

As Google Translate and similar systems parse ever-increasing quantities of multi-lingual web content -- including my own bilingual website -- their translation engines approximate human translation ever more closely, at least in relatively common language combinations, such as German-English. But while a business contract doesn't need to be good prose, it does need to be extremely accurate -- approximation just isn't good enough. That's also true for medical and technical texts. So while Google Translate can provide a basic idea of what the parties to a contract agreed upon or how to operate a particular piece of machinery, humans still need to ensure that nothing has been mistranslated and that the end result flows smoothly and is easy to understand.

That's where we human translators come in: as editors to verify and refine the somewhat crude machine translation. To some extent we are already performing this role when we edit the "fuzzy matches" provided by our translation memory tools. Post-editing machine-translated text would be similar, just with a much larger translation memory. The question now becomes: how do we come up with a compensation model where we can still make a living, even though this editing will garner a much lower per-word rate than traditional translation?

Monday, March 1, 2010

Native Language vs. Dominant Language

Your native language - that's the language(s) you grew up with, of course, you might say. That's also what most translation agencies and sites mean when they ask about a translator's native language(s). Frequently, more than once choice is permitted in the "native language" field, acknowledging bi-lingual childhoods. But what about bi-lingual adulthoods?

The German word for native language is "Muttersprache" -- mother's tongue. I have met German translators who insist that one's native language is, indeed, one's mother's language, even when one grows up in a household where the father speaks a different language. That seems to me only true if the mother provides most -- if not all -- childcare during a child's first 2 or 3 years of life. While that is still relatively common in many German-speaking countries (where maternity leave is generally longer), in the U.S. it's often the nanny or daycare provider who teaches a child his or her first words. Some parents even deliberately hire a caregiver speaking a different language, so that their children can grow up bilingual, even if both parents are monolingual.

A friend of mine was born in Argentina, spent his toddler/preschool years in Israel and started school in Austria, where he remained until adulthood. Through all these moves, the language at home was German. He did attend preschool in Israel and hence learned Hebrew as his second native language, but didn't use that language again after age 5. When he returned to Israel as an adult, he found that some of his forgotten Hebrew came back, but with the vocabulary of a 4-year-old.

I, on the other hand, grew up in an entirely monolingual family (albeit with the more ex- and intensive foreign language study required in Austrian public schools). Many agencies and translator sites would therefore consider German to be my native language. However, my entire professional education and most of my adult life were conducted in English, and that continues to be my language of daily discourse. I therefore find it much easier to translate into English, and the results tend to be more idiomatic, as well.

This is particularly true in my specialization, IT. When I left Austria more than 25 years ago, I had never actually used a personal computer. Here in the U.S., I learned not only to use computers, but also to repair, maintain and document them. While I can understand computer texts written in German, I am much more fluent in English "computerese", and therefore translate from German to English, rather than the other way around.

There are any number of circumstances in which someone might initially grow up with a particular language, but be immersed in an entirely different language community as an adult, eventually acquiring a better facility with that new language than he/she had with their initial one. This happens to native peoples and migrants around the globe, if they move to a place where their childhood language is not spoken.

It seems to me a much better term would be "dominant language", meaning the language one is most fluent in. "Native language" suggests something one is born with -- a fact that doesn't change later in life. "Dominant language" acknowledges that for some people the language in which they are most fluent may change during their lifetime.

Translators, in particular, frequently end up in that profession precisely because their linguistic environment changed over the course of their lives. Some people continue to conduct their daily lives in their language of origin, and feel more comfortable in that language. But some switch languages more thoroughly, even writing literature in that new language. (Full disclosure: I write children's and young adult stories in English.) If one can be a novelist in a language one didn't initially grow up with, one can surely translate into such a language, as well.