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, CĂ©line 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.