Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Send End Clients a Checklist/Questionnaire Asking About Project Information

Gina Wadley from the Society for Technical Communication mentioned in an online meeting yesterday that she sends a guide to language service providers (LSPs) who translate her company's documentation and other materials. In addition to basic information, such as a list of the files included that need to be translated, that guide also provides information about the documents' intended audience, what should not be translated (e.g., programming strings), and similar instructions. In addition, she provides the LSP with a glossary as an Excel spreadsheet.

During our conversation, Gina suggested I create a checklist/questionnaire for clients that asks for some of the information she provides to her LSPs, such as audience, intended use of the document, available glossaries, etc. This is an excellent idea I will try to work on after the holidays. If all of us request such specific information from our (end) clients, companies who contract for translation services will get used to providing this information up front.

So far, I think I would like to include questions asking for the following information:

  • What is the intended audience (programmers, end users, general public, ...)?
  • What is the intended use (online help, printed documentation, ...)?
  • Is there a Q&A process after the translation has been received? If so, what is that process and who is involved?
  • What is the final deadline for the translated product (compared to the deadline for the translation)?
  • Are there internal glossaries, company-specific abbreviations, existing product descriptions, websites, etc. in English? If so, please provide that supporting information.

What else do you think should be included in such a questionnaire/checklist?

I will be spending next week with my family and won't post. I will be back on January 4. Happy Holidays!/p>

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Are Translation Apps at All Useful?

Machine translation has certainly come a long way since its infancy just a few years ago. So is it good enough to provide the basic idea of a message you have received in a language you don't speak? Not quite, it seems.

Several of my family members collaborated on my combined birthday/Christmas gift: an iPad. Having tried for some time now to come up with a justification for buying a tablet computer -- and failed to do so -- I was overjoyed. Browsing through its app store, I came upon a free translation utility, "Free Translator". Once I downloaded it, a small note in the corner said "powered by Google translate". While Google generally can't provide a polished translation, it is often good enough to get the gist of a text.

So I decided to test it with the German sentence from one of my clients giving me the go-ahead for a project and confirming its due date. The German sentence read "Der Auftrag ist erteilt, Lieferung Mitte nächster Woche OK!" The app returned "The order is issued, starting mid-next week OK!"

This does sound like an understandable English sentence, doesn't it? Well, yes, except for the fact that "Lieferung" means "delivery" (i.e., due date), not "starting". Were I to rely on the translated version of this order confirmation, I wouldn't be able to deliver on time (the project involves 6 PDFs of 2 pages each).

The purpose of small, free apps such as this one is precisely for a reader to understand the basic idea in an e-mail that was written in a language he or she doesn't speak. Good English grammar, let alone polished style, is not necessary in that context, but accuracy is. Even if terms are only "sort of" right (e.g., "udder" instead of "breast" in a sentence about a woman's cancer diagnosis), humans can often discern the actual meaning. However, if the translation is simply wrong (as in "starting" instead of "delivering"), there is no way for a person to know that he or she has have been given the wrong information.

If one cannot rely on such apps to provide even the basics of a message, there seems little point in using them. To answer the question in the title, then: apparently not.

Caveat: I did use Google Translate last year to render "Merry Christmas" into Tagalog for my son-in-law's card. He tells me that while the phrase wasn't idiomatic, it was understandable. So sometimes it does work. But how do I know when it does?/p>

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

How I Plan to Target Swiss Direct Clients

Yet another Swiss text to translate. I've never been to Switzerland (unless you count quickly passing through on the way to somewhere else in Europe), but as I wrote previously I'm becoming quite familiar with Swiss business German. With the Euro in crisis, maybe Switzerland is the place to find direct clients. So how would I go about this?

That's actually a good question, since directories of foreign companies are hard to find at my local business library here in Brooklyn, NY. The library does have a German company directory, but not a Swiss or Austrian one. So I tried to come up with a game plan for finding and then targeting potential Swiss clients:

  1. Create a tri-fold brochure specifically geared towards Switzerland (based on my generic brochure) and have a small number printed by a low-cost online printer.
  2. Use the Swiss version of Google ( to search for Swiss IT, transportation/logistics and other technology companies.
  3. For each company found, check whether or not its website has an English version and note contact information for the person who is most likely to handle translations.
  4. Search for these contact people, as well as their companies, on the LinkedIn and Xing professional networks, note additional details on their background and see whether I can invite them into my network.
  5. Consider getting a paid subscription to either or both networks, so I can contact people "out of my network", then contact those I cannot invite into my network otherwise.
  6. Follow up with an e-mail several weeks later detailing my experience in translating Swiss texts, as well as with relevant subject matter (IT, etc...). Offer a free short test translation. Mention LinkedIn/Xing connection and announce brochure mailing.
  7. For any replies saying that they don't handle translations, ask who does and e-mail that person. Also find them on one or both professional networks and connect there.
  8. Three weeks later, mail the brochure created in Step 1, with a cover letter detailing previous contacts.
  9. A month later send follow-up e-mail inquiring whether they received the brochure and would like a free test translation.

I'm not sure what I will do after that last step, but this should keep me busy for a while with marketing.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

How Intelligible is Your English to a Global Audience?

Yesterday's Science supplement to the New York Times featured a profile of Steven Pinker, a psychologist and linguist who wrote The Language Instinct, among other books. The article included a sidebar of "Pinkerisms", quotes from some of his writings. Here is one I found particularly interesting: "Thanks to the redundancy of language, yxx cxn xndxrstxnd whxt x xm wrxtxng xvxn xf x rxplxcx xll thx vxwxls wxth xn “x” (t gts lttl hrdr f y dn’t vn kn whr th vwls r)." (from The Language Instinct).

Native English speakers can decode this relatively easily as "You can understand what I am writing even if I replace all the vowels with an 'x' (It gets a little harder if you don't even know where the vowels are)." But how would people who use English in their business lives, but aren't near-native speakers of the language, fare? I imagine my brother, who sells custom musical instruments around the world, calling: "I think this might be English, but I can't tell. Can you figure it out?"

To be sure, most business communication isn't that unintelligible to speakers of English as a foreign language. But convoluted sentences rife with jargon, augmented by misplaced words that spell check didn't catch, incomplete phrases and circular logic are all too common in technical, legal and business writing. That's as true for German (and, I suspect, other languages, as well) as it is for English. If it takes a native speaker two or more passes to understand a paragraph, how will someone with a more limited command of the language struggle through the text?

Since English is the global lingua franca, and professional texts are  increasingly not translated into other languages, it behoves technical communicators to consider non-native-speaking audiences when they write. As translators who work with English, we are uniquely positioned to provide guidance on this topic. After all, we are at home in multiple languages and cultures, and interact regularly with business people from other countries. Many international translation agencies communicate with their freelancers in English, even if the project manager is, say, a native Spanish speaker, and the translator works into Russian. Maybe we can turn this experience into a sideline: editing English texts for a global audience.

PS: A plug for myself: I am giving a presentation on "Writing for Global Audiences" at the Society for Technical Communication's annual conference next May in Chicago./p>

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving and Linguistic Diversity

According to EyeWitness to, two members of the Pawtuxet tribe spoke English when meeting the most recent immigrants to their shores, the Pilgrims, at Plymouth. Subsequent interactions between  Native Americans and the new arrivals were also conducted in English, as was the first Thanksgiving in 1621. There is no record of the Pawtuxet requiring these immigrants to learn the local language. By contrast, staff at a recent United States Customs and Immigration Services appointment I had were rather dismissive of anybody there who spoke little English. More disturbing was a comment by a translator (not working in Spanish) during lunch at the recent ATA conference that "there is entirely too much Spanish in the U.S." and that this constitutes "a problem".

It seems to me that translators and interpreters should especially support the right of people to speak their own language -- if for nothing else, because our collective livelihood depends on it. Even if a particular translator does not speak the language in question, positing that one's own language combination is somehow superior to a different set of languages, is misguided, at best. As language professionals, if a specific language is prevalent in our environment, we should attempt to learn at least its rudiments.

Countries can have bi- or multilingual populations, as Switzerland, Belgium and many countries in Africa and Asia have demonstrated. When my children visited Southern Senegal a few years ago, they met a number of other teenagers who were fluent in three or four languages: the two main African languages in the region, Wolof and Mandinka, the former colonial language (which is still the official tongue), French, and English, which was taught in school as a foreign language.

So if you live in the U.S., learn at least a little Spanish. It not only facilitates your interaction with some of your neighbors, but you may even learn something about other traditions, including food. How about substituting platanos (mashed green bananas) for potatoes at Thanksgiving dinner?

If you are in the U.S., have a good holiday!/p>

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A LinkedIn Company Account

Lindsey Pollak spoke this afternoon about LinkedIn and its use as a business tool. During the Social Media Business Forum at the New York Xpo for Business, Ms. Pollak explained that in addition to a personal profile page, members could also set up company pages on LinkedIn. She explained that these are similar to Facebook fan pages and could be used to market oneself as a business, rather than an individual.

When I got back home, I tried to set this up on my own LinkedIn page. So now I have a company page. The next step, of course, is using that page to market my services.

This raises the question of upgrading my LinkedIn account from the free "Basic" version to one of the paid ones. For me, the main difference would be that I could contact people on LinkedIn who are not already connected to me through a mutual acquaintance or shared group. I'm not sure, however, whether being able to do so 3 times per month is worth $25 a month. Another benefit is additional profile information about people who are not in my network. That might come in handy when research companies to target as potential direct clients.

Are you on LinkedIn? If so, what do you think?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

ATA Conference Boston - Review of Sessions II

This is the second part of my session summaries from the recent ATA conference. You can read Part I on sessions dealing with technical translations/terminology here.

"The Entrepreneurial Linguist: Lessons from Business School" by Judy Jenner

Ms. Jenner emphasized that even a one-person translation business run out of one's home is a business that must be run professionally. This includes maintaining a well-designed website, a website-specific e-mail address, a separate business telephone number and marketing materials that advertise the value one's translation services add to a client's business instead of a resume that looks like a job application. Since networking and a personal connection are important in obtaining business, a professional photo of the translator is important on the website and other marketing materials. As sellers we set the price of our services; that price should include a minimum charge, as well as annual adjustments for inflation and surcharges for working on weekends and holidays, Ms. Jenner said.

"Translating Digital Media: Marketing 2.0" by Jon Ritzdorf

Mr. Ritzdorf spoke about translators who can market themselves to direct clients in ways that go beyond traditional translation and interpreting services. He focused on three areas: video subtitling, mobile applications and search engine marketing. Translating subtitles for marketing videos may require first timing and transcribing the original text and adjusting the translated text to fit the timing of the original video. The interface for mobile applications not only needs to be translated, but the application itself also must be tested in the target market. Translators here can act as in-country experts who ensure that the application functions as intended in the context of the local infrastructure and can communicate any problems in the language of the application's producer. Keywords used in search engine marketing not only must be translated, but also adapted for the target market, since customers in different markets may not search for the same terms, even in translation. As a user of local search engines, the translator again can act as the in-country reviewer/tester who can also communicate in the client's language.

These are just some of the sessions I attended. I may implement tips from a presentation on using speech-to-text software (specifically, Dragon Naturally Speaking) later (and blog about it).

One of the nice things about language-related conferences is that not all presentations are in English. This gave me a chance to attend lectures presented in German, as well as Spanish, which exposed me to current German business language and honed my Spanish comprehension skills in a dialect I was unfamiliar with (Argentinian, it turns out).

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

ATA Conference Boston - Review of Sessions I

German-English translator Annette Cyrkel took this photo at one of the networking breakfasts at the recent ATA conference in Boston and graciously let me use it. Here are my summaries of three sessions on technical translations/terminology. I'll review two more sessions on the business/marketing end of our profession next week.

"A Dilemma for Language Service Providers and Translators: Subject Matter Expertise and Internet Style" by Manisha Mittal

Ms. Mittal works for Language Scientific, a translation agency specializing in technical and scientific documents. She explained how her agency analyzes incoming projects and matches translators, subject matter experts and editors with a specific project. Unlike more generalized language services providers, Language Scientific requests fairly detailed information from its end clients. This includes target audience, specific speciality within a subject, type of text, in-house style guides and glossaries. It then assembles a team of translators, editors and proofreaders, at least some of whom are also subject-matter experts in the given sub-speciality. The agency is looking for additional freelancers.

"Technical Writing for Into-English Translators" by Karen M. Tkaczyk

Ms. Tkaczyk defined technical writing as text that conveys informaton accurately, explains technical ideas and is focused on the user. For a technical writer a romantic poem simply becomes "John loves Jane." She then provided a number of specific tips for editing your translation into better technical writing, such as:
  • write concisely; if necessary, divide long sentences into multiple shorter ones
  • reorder thoughts to make them logically coherent or to present events in the correct order
  • turn nouns into strong, active verbs
Translators should pick a specific style guide to follow whenever a client doesn't specify a particular style guide, Ms. Tkaczyk suggested. The presentation concluded with a list of common stylistic errors, such as spacing between units of measure. An extensive list of resources was provided in a handout.

"Search-fu! Finding Terminology on the Internet" by Alex Lane

Mr. Lane focused on the ways in which Google searches can be customized to return the specific results a translator might need. One of the most useful, I think, is the fact that a search query can contain words in more than one language. Google will interpret the languages concerned and return bilingual texts that fit the query. Other ways to find terms include exploiting a site's URL structure to find the same document in a different language (e.g., if a search returns, replace "English" with "German" to see document1 in German) and restricting searches to specific sites or sites with a specific country code. Mr. Lane recommended keeping track of the searches performed, in case terminology choices are questioned later.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

ATA Conference - German-English Translation in the Renewables Sector

I arrived in Boston yesterday for a pre-conference seminar about German-English translation in the renewables sector. The conference in question is the 52nd annual conference of the American Translators Association. The seminar was a workshop led by Craig Morris, who, in addition to translating materials about this subject also gives presentations to energy industry executives and others. Before the seminar, he had e-mailed attendees a homework of sorts: a few texts to be translated in advance of the session.

We started by trying to translate a fourth text, a short interview about some of the policies in Germany that are designed to encourage development in the renewable energy industry. As a matter of fact, the texts we had been given in advance were also geared more toward the policy side, rather than the technical end of "alternative energy". In the course of discussing these translations, Mr. Morris provided some technical background, visualized in helpful diagrams.

Next was a short presentation on where and how to research terminology related to renewable energy. Mr. Morris particularly emphasized Wikipedia as a helpful tool. I also use parallel Wikipedia entries in German and English to research other technical terms. While Wikipedia can be unreliable on some topics, most of the basic technology and science articles seem to be quite well written by people who have a thorough understanding of the topic at hand.

After a brief break, the seminar concluded by going over the translations we had been asked to prepare in advance. All in all, I learned a number of useful facts about the technology involved, as well as German and U.S. policy regarding renewable energy. This being a translation conference, the focus on policy documents was probably warranted, but being the geek I am now I want to attend a session on renewable energy technology. Maybe I can find something back in New York...

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Work-Life Balance: How Do You Achieve It?

I just finished working on the project about which I blogged last week and I'm preparing to attend the annual conference of the American Translators Association in Boston next week, while (finally) applying for U.S. citizenship, so things have been a little busy around here lately.

Sitting at my computer until late night pretty much every day last week (plus a good part of the weekend) got me thinking about "work-life balance". Most of us do enjoy (at least some) of our work, but we also have lives beyond that work: families, partners, friends, hobbies or other interests. Many agencies expect translators to be "on" all the time. A few weeks ago, I received a phone call around 11 pm wanting to talk about a potential translation project. It turns out the caller was in my time zone, apparently oblivious to the fact that even though she was still working, most other people were not.

Since most of us work from home, we can't just "go home" at the end of the work day. Part of the advantage of working as a freelancer is that I can set my own schedule: run errands in the middle of the day when stores are relatively empty, deal with school emergencies without having to negotiate with a less-than-sympathetic boss, etc. The flipside, however, is that I sometimes have to work well into the night to make a deadline.

Doing this every once in a while seems a fair trade-off (assuming any urgent family/childcare responsibilities can be delegated to a partner). However, for many translators late-night work becomes a regular feature of their lives. That's when the work-life balance seriously tips to one side. I haven't quite figured out how to make that stop.

If I have some time off, I panic and take the first project I'm offered. Almost invariably, other, better paying or easier to work with, clients will then also want me. While I do reject projects, I frequently find myself either wishing I hadn't agreed to a project, so I could take the next one being offered, or taking them both and working crazy hours.

How do you handle the balance between work you enjoy and spare time?

Because I will be in Boston from Oct. 26-30 for the annual conference of the American Translators Association, I may not write a blog next Wednesday.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

What Does a Translation Agency Do?

I am editing the (British) translations for a large project - partly construction-related, partly business/legal documents. So far, so good. I have British translators edit my (American-inflected) translations for the British market and I'm happy to return the favor by "Americanizing" British translations. But this case doesn't just encompass various MS Word documents that have to be checked against the German originals and modified for a U.S.-based end client. This time, much of the original documents consists of scanned-in contracts, invoices, schedules, etc. -- some with handwritten annotations and crossed-out sections, some even with post-it notes containing handwritten comments still attached to printed matter when it was scanned. The scans were then converted to PDFs.

All the agency's technical department did, apparently, to convert these documents to something from which translators could work is to use "Save As Word document" in Acrobat. The resulting "originals" are of extremely poor quality, with much gibberish, missing sections and strange text boxes where items have been initialed or annotated.

This seems to me begs the question as to what exactly an agency's role is. Of course, part of a translation agency's job is to get end clients -- in particular, end clients who need translations into more than one or two languages -- and to match them with translators who will handle the end client's projects. But beyond that basic function, it seems to me agencies also should be educating end clients and evaluating the documents they receive for translation.

In this particular case, for example, I would have expected the agency to tell the end client that the quality of the "originals" they were sending (which included scans of entirely hand-written documents, by the way) was insufficient to provide a reasonable translation within a very tight time frame. I would also have expected the agency's "technical department" to assess the quality of the converted PDFs and, when it was insufficient, to use methods beyond "Save As" for producing decent-quality documents in the original language.

One such method might be to convert the PDF to image files (such as jpgs), then run these files through a multi-lingual OCR (character-recognition) program. For my own end clients, I use ABBY ScanToOffice and find that the quality (and translatability) of the Word documents generated by this process far surpasses that generated by simply using Adobe Acrobat. Any other process that produces originals which can be easily processed with standard CAT tools, such as Wordfast or Trados, would be equally welcome.

How do you handle low-quality "original" documents?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Working in a Construction Site

Last week, my house resembled a construction site: an electrician and his assistant were drilling and hammering in the basement and a telephone repair person was fixing the wiring on the outside of my house. Add to this scheduling an exterminator and finding someone to repair my broken dryer, and I felt like I had suddenly become a general contractor. Meanwhile, however, there were translation and editing deadlines to meet.

Part of the trick to keeping my sanity were noise-cancelling headphones. I had bought these a year or so ago when the avenue near our house was being resurfaced and the noise from various construction machinery was rather deafening. They came in handy last week. Without music to drown out the residual noise, these earphones still cut out enough of the mayhem for me to concentrate on the work at hand. At the same time, because they don't work as well without a deliberate sound, I could still faintly hear the electrician or telephone repair person, if they needed something from me.

According to my children, noise-cancelling headphones work much better if you listen to music through them. So when I get some time (maybe after the ATA Conference later this month), I should load some of my CDs onto my computer. I find that it impedes my concentration if I understand the words to whatever music is playing. This means either instrumental only or songs in languages I don't understand. Unfortunately, much of our music is in German, English, Spanish, French or Scandinavian languages (I once lived in Stockholm).

There should be a home-office deduction for music, but since there isn't, I'll stick with our collection of classical, Arabic, Greek and Russian music. That should keep enough ambient noise drowned out to get me through the next two weeks of three rather large editing jobs arriving back to back.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

International Translation Day - Bridging Cultures

This Friday, Sept. 30, is International Translation Day. In celebration,, the online translator's community, is hosting a virtual conference on Friday, as well as "the great translation debate" tomorrow, Thursday. The International Federation of Translators (FIT) calls on local organizations to commemorate the day in some form.

Some national organizations, such as the British arm of PEN have heeded that call. Here in the U.S., the American Translators Association (ATA) lists the day on its calendar, but has nothing specific scheduled. In fact, that calendar entry simply links to the statement on the FIT website.

That statement encourages us to image a world without translators and asks how we would communicate with each other in such a world. It calls translators and interpreters "brokers of peace and mutual understanding". By contrast, the ATA homepage lists "Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says language training critical to U.S. interests, security" as an item in its Twitter feed.

I, for one, chose this profession to enhance global peace and mutual understanding among nations, not to aid U.S. (policy) interests. So I will celebrate the building of cultural bridges between peoples and ignore Mr. Panetta.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

"Project Manage Your Life" Presentation at STC Meeting

As promised in my tweet last week, here is a summary of the presentation "Project Manage Your Life" by Anita Dhir that I attended at the Society for Technical Communications' meeting (New York Chapter) last Thursday.

Ms. Dhir started with the phases in managing any project: proposal - planning - implementation - closing down. When managing professional projects, managers and/or participants sign off on each phase before moving on. In one's personal life, such sign-off may involve soliciting the help of family or friends or outlining specific tasks for the following phase. The projects a person undertakes in his/her private sphere should align with that person's life goals, whatever form they may take. Just as in professional circumstances, life goals should also be SMART: specific - measurable - applicable - realistic - time-bound.

Another aspect of successfully managing one's life is good communication, which includes visual aspects, such as clothing, as well as the tone of conversations. It takes only 7 seconds to make a first impression, but 21 repeats to change that impression. This statistic shows how important it is to make a good first impression.

In addition, today many families, as well as work teams, are dispersed geographically. This means that important visual clues in communication, such as body language, are frequently missing when we speak with/write to family members or friends who are located far away. Photos and videos can help bridge that visual gap, but the tone of any communication must be controlled even more carefully, since it cannot be counterbalanced by visual clues.

Finally, project managing one's life helps to better allocate one's time, so that activities support achievement of one's life goals. After all, time is the only absolutely non-renewable resource, Ms. Dhir emphasized. Once it has elapsed, it can never be brought back.

Follow reliable translations on Twitter: @reliabletran.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Integrating Social Media Accounts

I finally took the plunge and signed up for Twitter (@reliabletran). My initial plan had been to ease into it slowly, mostly reading other people's tweets and tweeting infrequently myself. Next, I was going to sign up for a social media integration and scheduling tool to automate tweets at preset times. Es kommt immer anders als man denkt (It always works out differently from what one might have thought), as my mother would say.

During this start-up phase I tweeted about a blog post by Catherine Christaki that I had found helpful. As it turns out, Ms. Christaki is on Twitter (@LinguaGreca) and had been tweeting my blog posts for some time. She tweeted my existence on Twitter in her stream and now I have a number of Twitter followers. So now I have to tweet something to keep people interested.

As a result, I spent part of today trying to find an integration tool that would do the following:
1. Automatically post the title and a link to my blog posts to Twitter, LinkedIn, Skype and a box on my website's homepage
2. Let me schedule additional tweets to post only to Twitter at specific times
3. Allow me to post to the tool from my phone and netbook
4. Also automatically update specialized/non-US social networks, such as My STC, Xing and ProZ.

So I signed up for, as well as TweetDeck and investigated HootSuite. I didn't sign up for that last one because they tweet paid ads in my Twitter stream unless I pay a monthly fee. allows automatic posting to Twitter, LinkedIn, my blog and a custom URL (i.e., my website), but does not support scheduling posts in advance. TweetDeck supports scheduling, but won't work with custom URLs. It will, however, send to, among other accounts. Next, then, is piecing together a chain of different tools that will accomplish at least 1-3 above. (I haven't found anything that will let me do 4.) I am working on that ...

The next book I am reviewing for the Society for Technical Communication is "The Social Media Survival Guide" by Deltina Hay. Maybe it will shed some light on how to better handle this integration.

If you are on Twitter, let's follow each other. My handle: @reliabletran.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Good Client, Bad Client

Last week, I received an e-mail from an agency I had not worked with before asking whether I'd be interested in a particular translation project. I do get such e-mails from time to time, but for the most part these notes emphasize that the agency is looking for "your absolutely best price" or some other way of saying "we're looking for cheap labor". This agency was different, not just in their initial e-mail. Here is why I like my interactions with them so far:

Even though their initial e-mail was clearly sent to many translators, it told me how they had found me, why they needed to contact a number of translators at once, and what exactly they knew about this project so far (including sample text). While they did bargain about the rate I quoted them, they proposed an only very slightly lower rate and apologized for having to do so on this particular project. They were also willing to work with me in terms of my availability and have kept me informed each step of the way about the status of the project. As it turns out, their client is late in sending the source flies. Rather than simply assuming the translators they had assembled would work on this project during a different time frame than originally agreed upon, they only asked to be informed about our availability later on.

This is quite a contrast from another agency with whom I sometimes work, who simply informed its translators that it was trying out a new system that would require all of us to perform additional editing, as well as quality assurance for its existing TMs (which we have to use remotely) without any additional compensation. In the past, the agency had asked about my availability before assigning work. On Monday, I received an e-mail about a project from one of their end clients for whom I had translated before. That e-mail simply assumed I would take the project and deliver the translation by the next morning. Since I receive e-mail on my smartphone, I was able decline even while I was baking a cake for my neighbor's Labor Day party.

Because of time constraints, I may not wind up working on that first agency's project, after all, but I do look forward to other projects with them. As for the second agency, I think I'll be too busy when their next project comes around ...

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

More Conferences to Attend - Why?

Here I am, barely back from the International Translators Federation congress in San Francisco, and I just registered for my next conference. This time I'll be going to Boston for the American Translators Association conference.

Is all this jet-setting really worth it? Well, for one, I'm not exactly jet-setting. I try to find the cheapest way to get there (in the case of Boston that is a $15 or so ticket from a discount bus company), then find a cheap hotel that's accessible by public transportation. In Boston, this proved to be harder than it had been for other conferences, but I finally did find something cheaper than half a double room at the conference hotel. Telling from Google maps, it's even within walking distance of the conference - although a little bit of a hike. The conference fee itself is fixed, but I always register early enough to get the early-bird discount.

Despite the economizing, though, I do spend quite a bit of money on these trips. While I have only gotten work as a direct results of two conferences, establishing contacts with potential referrers and/or clients does seem useful to me. In addition, conferences do provide much more in-depth information on current trends and issues in the profession than magazines and online articles do.

Then again, maybe I'm just rationalizing these trips. I really like to travel and going to conferences gives me an excuse to do so. I always try to make room for at least a little exploration of the city in which I'm staying, even if that means staying up rather late or hauling my luggage with me while sightseeing just before the bus/plane back to New York.

I'd appreciate any suggestions on a. cheap accommodations in Boston (the reservation I made can still be cancelled) and/or b. things to see there on a Sunday (the conference ends late Saturday, so I'm staying over until Sunday).

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Keeping Up With Your Field

I specialize in technical translations, particularly IT, but I haven't actually been an IT manager or technical writer for more than a decade. (I was both of these things -- consecutively, not simultaneously -- before embarking on a translation career in 2000.) So while I still deal with any electronics- or wiring-related problems at home and for friends and family, I no longer spend my days immersed in computers. Since technology changes fairly rapidly in this field, I need to make a conscious effort to keep up with the latest terminology.

To do so, I subscribe to a couple of technology magazines, such as Wired, and regularly read online computer articles at sites such as CNet. I do own some specialized computer dictionaries, but by the time such a dictionary is printed, it is already outdated. On my trips to Europe, I pick up the latest issue of various computer magazines so I can keep up with the German terminology in the field -- although much of that is English anyway.

IT is probably extreme in terms of terminological change, but even in less rapidly-changing fields, such as finance, new terms develop, or at least enter the mainstream vocabulary. Before the recent economic crisis, for example, few people knew that a number of risky financial instruments even existed, let alone knew what they were called. Now everyone is familiar with subprime mortgages and various types of swaps, among other terms.

Specialized printed dictionaries rarely can keep up with these changes in a timely manner. That is why most of us rely on online resources in our terminology research. I use LEO, the online German-English dictionary originally developed by the computer science department at the Technical University of Munich, extensively, in addition to various other sites.

What are some of your favorite online resources?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Report From the FIT Congress -- Part II

Last week, I summarized the first three of six sessions at the congress of the International Federation of Translators. Here are the remaining three summaries.

Nicholas Hartmann "The Beginning of Wisdom: Some Practical Aspects of Technical Translation"

As a service provider, the translator is not only expected to provide a quality product on time, but also needs to be flexible and adaptable in terms of the client's terminological preferences and deadlines. Technical translations into German are frequently reviewed at the client's by German-speaking professionals with very good English skills, but not native fluency in English. This sometimes gives rise to "educated German disease": the belief of German third-party reviewers that their English is superior to that of the native-speaking translator. Coupled with the tendency of large companies to develop their own in-house terminology/terminological preferences, this poses a challenge for the translator. When working through an agency, it may be difficult to have that terminology clarified, since access to the client and its subject-matter experts will be restricted, if not impossible. For this and other reasons, translators should aspire to work for direct clients, rather than agencies. However, such terminology discussions and potential evaluation/revision of source text, if that text is unclear, do take time for which the translator ought to be compensated. One way to do so is to charge a per-project fee. Another is to try to charge a higher per-word fee to incorporate that extra work.

Rosana Wolochwianski "Threat or Opportunity? The Emerging Role of Machine Translation Post-Editing"

Historically, machines have increasingly replaced repetitive human tasks, and machine translation is no exception here. However, machines cannot make ethical decisions, so a human post-editor is still required to ensure that the machine output is accurate. There are three types of post-editing of machine translated text: full editing fixes stylistic issues and makes the text read smoothly, minimal/partial editing renders the document understandable and rapid editing only removes the most blatant/significant errors. End users' expectations of the quality of the text are frequently lower than the expectations of experienced translators. Translators working as post editors must lower their quality standards, particularly when asked for partial or rapid editing. Such constant exposure to flawed language, however, may affect the post editor's linguistic development in the long term. I would add that minimally edited machine translation, among other issues, also promotes acceptance of lower-quality text in the general population who keeps reading/hearing ungrammatical or confusing language in various media.

David Rumsey "The End Game: Knowing Your End Client"

Freelance translators are at the end of the chain from end client via agency to the translator. But the agency's contact at the end client has his/her own supervisor, who also has a supervisor, ... Each person in that chain has his/her own needs and perceptions of the translation process. This means different players in this chain emphasize a different pillar in the service matrix: speed, quality or price. To meet these competing demands, the translator must remain flexible, particularly when dealing directly with end clients. By understanding the client's own system -- i.e., what steps precede the translation, how the completed translation will be used -- the translator can provide a better product and ensure smoother collaboration with the end client. Such information about the end client is, however, usually not available when working with agencies. Translators should therefore try to work directly with end clients as much as possible. In the ensuing discussion I also noted that there are also stakeholders beyond the end client, namely the audience for the completed translation, such as the readers of a manual for an electronic device. (See also my guest post about audiences on the ATA Science & Technology division's blog ).

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Report From the FIT Congress -- Part I

Last week, I listed six sessions as highlights of the congress of the International Federation of Translators, which I attended last week in San Francisco. Here are summaries of the first three of these sessions. I will summarize the remaining three next week.

Maggey Oplinger "Hybrid Careers: Atypical Translation Skills in the Workplace"

When working in such hybrid professions, the translator does not simply render the source text accurately in the target language, but rather re-writes it to better fit the target culture and customs. This means there is no complete source text against which to proofread the translated text. Johnson Controls, where Ms. Oplinger works, has an information storage system in multiple languages where text is tagged, so that information can be retrieved independent of the language in which the source text was written. Many of the hybrid jobs described are in-house positions, although some tasks (e.g., reviewing/editing) are sometimes outsourced. When managing an atypical workflow in house, it is important to plan all facets of the project (e.g., linguistic difficulties likely to be encountered in the target market), to clearly manage the project, to include all involved parties (e.g., monolingual subject-matter experts) in the project team, to clearly define the workflow and to plan for production (e.g., printing, shipping) after the translation/transcreation phase of the project has been completed. Monolingual teams must frequently also be educated about the need for translation/transcreation work on a specific project.

Nataly Kelly "Translation Market Trends: What Freelancers Need to Know"

There is a growing market for outsourced (i.e., provided by freelancers rather than staff, not necessarily outside the U.S.) language services, but most of that growth is in multimedia localization and similar work, rather than traditional translation. The U.S. market is fragmented into many language service providers and buyers. The buyers may even include different departments within the same large company. Most of these use multi-language vendors (i.e., translation agencies), but over half the large buyers of translation services use freelancers directly. Ms. Kelly's employer, Common Sense Advisory, publishes annual pricing surveys. In the U.S., end clients pay agencies US$0.26-US$0.28 per source word for German to English translations. Other trends include movement towards transcreation (i.e., re-writing, rather than translating, the source text), crowdsourcing (i.e., non-professional bilingual volunteers providing translations), machine translation, faster turnaround times and globalization of products and markets. Ms. Kelly noted that the buyers of crowd-sourced translations are generally not the same as those buying traditional translation services and that machine translation is often used to disseminate information internally or to provide fast customer support, rather than to update marketing materials or similar text. An audience member also noted that agencies increasingly use automated project management systems, where the translator and computerized system also take on aspects of the project manager's traditional role.

Panel discussion "Creating a Lasting Partnership: Working with LSPs in the Age of Post-Editing"

The panelists were Kåre Lindahl of venga corporation, Michel Lopez of e2f translations and Uwe Muegge of CSOFT. All three agencies work in the technology sector, with e2f translations specializing in post-editing of English<->French machine translations. At venga corporation, the translation tools are built into an Agile software development environment. Agile development means that individual portions of the overall product are being translated as the project moves along, rather than having the entire help system translated at the end of the software development cycle. While this guarantees a steady workflow for the translator, this setup requires translators to work remotely on the agency's own system. However, agencies using such a setup do not always provide training on their own specific tools. Since in an Agile environment source text is still being developed, translators can -- and are expected to -- provide feedback on that text. Either an hourly rate or a combination of hourly and word rates was proposed to compensate translators for the extra time required to provide feedback on the source text. It seems to me that that hourly rate should also be paid for the time it takes a translator to learn the agency-specific tools/environment, if no training is provided. During the discussion period, I noted that remote work on the client's servers can cause problems if that server is located in a different time zone and crashes during that time zone's off hours, but during the translator's working hours. I have encountered that problem before and found there was nothing I could do except to wait for the client's IT department to get into the office the next morning (while I was asleep in the U.S.).

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A Brief Dispatch From the FIT Congress

As noted last week, I am attending the congress of the International Federation of Translators (Federation Internationale des Traducteurs - FIT) in San Francisco. Despite a good number of cancelled sessions (some of which were offset by last-minute additions), I found at least one presentation to attend during each of the 5 one-hour slots per day over the last three days. Taking in that quantity of information in such a short time does get tiring after a while, however. Two more keynote speeches tomorrow and the congress will be over.
A few highlights so far:
I will report more fully on these sessions next week.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


Sauregurkenzeit (literally: pickle time) is what German-speaking business people and journalists call the summer months, particularly July and August. With Europe's customary 4+ weeks of vacation per year and school out, many businesses there operate on a greatly reduced staff. As a result, few new projects are scheduled during this time, so there is not much need for translation services. This would then be a great time for us translators to take a break, too.

Unfortunately, here in the U.S. vacation time for employees is usually much less generous. So while we might be able to take a month off, our partners often can only take a week or two. A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I spent a week vacationing in and around Washington, D.C. -- not exactly off the grid, but interesting all the same.

Since my return, projects have been slow to arrive. With the heat wave we have had here in New York, I found it difficult to concentrate in the middle of the day when the temperature in my office reached the mid-80s (Fahrenheit) or so. So using that time for relatively mindless filing and general organizing seemed like a good idea. I've also tried to use some of this slack time to increase my marketing efforts. On the other hand, with everyone to whom I am marketing myself away, that doesn't necessarily work so well, either.

I'm about to leave my office again for a while -- this time to attend the Congress of the International Translators Federation in San Francisco next week. I am taking my netbook and I will monitor my e-mail on my smartphone, but I am not accepting new projects for next week. I'll try to blog next Wednesday, but that's the night when the Congress holds an international dance party, so I may not get to it.

Have a relaxing summer!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Is Volume Pricing Appropriate for Translation Services?

Freshly back from vacation, I received an inquiry about pricing for a rather large translation project. Some translators argue that because the same amount of work per word goes into a small project as does into a large one, we shouldn't offer volume discounts. "We sell a valuable service, not shoes," I've heard say.

While I certainly agree that selling a professional service is different from selling everyday items, a large project does lower our cost, as well. That cost reduction may not be as dramatic as it is for a retailer receiving a steep volume discount from the wholesaler, but it does exist. For one, I can spend the next two or more weeks just working on the project, instead of having to spend part of my time in unpaid attempts to get work.

Then there is the fact that the more familiar I am with a particular text and the way it is written, the faster I am translating it: much of my terminology research already occurred during the first twenty or thirty pages, I become accustomed to the writer's style and "get into the groove". So I do think that volume pricing has its place even in translation.

That said, beware of agencies requesting the lowest possible price with the promise of large quantities of future work. You don't know whether that work will actually materialize, you still have to negotiate each project separately with the agency, and if the work is from different agency clients, the time savings from working on a consistent piece evaporate.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Client Reviews and "Signing" Translations

I recently edited a rather good, mostly idiomatic translation. A few days after I submitted my work, I received a note that the client had feedback on the translation and editing. When I looked at the file attached to the note, almost all of the changes turned what had been an idiomatic text into an almost literal translation that no longer sounded like it had been written in the target language (in this case, German), but rather like a German version of a U.S. text. I did point this fact out, but the end client has the final say ...

This was a translation for hire, so my name was not publicly associated with the end product. An article I read recently advocated that translators "sign" their work so they can get credit for their efforts. As I recall, the article further argued that such authorship declarations would counteract the proliferation of less-than-professional translators, who would not want to have their name associated with their work. I am not so sure that this argument would hold, but in any case what would I do in a case like the one described above?

I wouldn't want my name associated with that end product. In this case, I saw the changes made. Frequently, I hand a translation in and never hear from anyone again. Presumably someone is proofing/editing my work, but I generally do not know who that person is or what changes have been made. This situation is somewhat similar to that of a writer whose work is edited. However, a writer usually knows the editor (frequently the same person who assigned the article/bought the book) and may have a say in the changes being made.

The technical documents I translate usually don't even acknowledge the author(s) of the original text, much less the translator. Since such text does not require much poetic talent and was generally either written by employees or as a work for hire, that seems fine to me. Fiction -- and to some extent marketing material -- is a different story. Here the translator is more of a "transcreator" who is basically ghostwriting the original in a different language. And that effort should be acknowledged -- not only in the work of fiction, but also in any reviews thereof.

On an administrative note: Sorry for not posting last week, but we wound up having to deal with a bedbug infestation. I did get the translation I had promised out, but I had absolutely no time to do anything else besides dealing with those nasties. Next week will be missed again, I'm afraid, because I will be on vacation.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Feast or Famine: the Freelancer's Eternal Lament

Last week, I wrote about trying to market myself. This week, I wish fewer clients wanted my services. Earlier this week I was working on three projects simultaneously while a fourth one was waiting in the wings. Now I'm down to two projects and had to decline two more because I can work only so many hours in a week. Besides, sometime this weekend I have to catch up on invoicing and following up with people I met lately at a couple of networking events.

That dilemma of too much work one week, none the other, is, of course, familiar to any freelancer. But the problem seems to be exacerbated in the translation industry where many projects have extremely tight deadlines. Even if a project were large enough to keep one translator busy for a few weeks, it usually needs to be done so quickly that it is divided up between different translators rather than spread out over time. Not only does this worsen each individual translator's uneven cycle of work, it opens a whole other host of problems in terms of different writing styles and terminology.

This brings me back to the fact that translation is frequently an afterthought at the end of a production cycle, rather than a planned step with appropriate deadlines. I have written about this before, but it bears repeating: end clients need to learn that the translator needs time to provide a quality product and that they therefore must build that time into their project plans. But as long as end clients can get 24-hour turnaround on translating 10,000 words, they won't learn. So language service providers -- agencies, but also translators -- must educate them about the time involved and refuse to do rushed, low-quality jobs.

That, unfortunately, does not appear to be where the profession is headed. I, for one, am looking for direct clients where I can negotiate terms and deadlines in advance. That, however, only works for the precious few companies that don't already have a contract with an agency and don't need their text in 20 different languages. It remains to be seen whether I can actually find -- and convince to hire me -- enough such clients so I can get out of the rat race translation has become. Stay tuned for updates ...

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Writing Advertisements for Myself

Does anyone remember Norman Mailer's "Advertisements for Myself"? Well, I'm sure Mailer was much better at advertising himself than I seem to be.

After receiving an invitation to join the New York German-American Chamber of Commerce, I started to research (smaller) German companies who just expanded into the U.S. or are in the process of doing so. It turns out there are a number of companies that fit this description, especially in the alternative energy sector. After beginning to compile a list of names and addresses, both at German headquarters and at the U.S. branch, I tried to write a letter I could send to them to introduce my services. Despite reading a few books about marketing per se, it quickly became apparent that I really don't know how to write my own sales letter.

So what does someone who works with words do when they have difficulty doing something? Find a book on the subject, of course. I am now reading Robert Bly's The Copywriter's Handbook, which is subtitled "A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Copy That Sells". It's mostly meant for people who are selling other people's products, but I'm hoping I'll be able to extract enough information (and then act on that information) to write sales copy for my own business. So far, I've it's given me a few ideas on the letter's subject line and research I need to do before writing the actual body text.

After writing that sales letter in English the next challenge will then be to do so in German, as well -- this time aimed at the headquarter's staff rather than the branch office. So where in New York would I find a book about copywriting in German for the German market?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Office Away From Home

I just returned from a Webgrrrls networking event at a co-working space in Manhattan called "WeCreate". The space is located in one of the old manufacturing buildings around Union Square with an industrial elevator staffed by an "elevator man" (why aren't there any elevator women?) who manually closes the metal gates enclosing the elevator as it rides through the shaft. The space itself features long wooden communal tables, a shared coffee machine and bathroom, as well as a conference room fashioned by partitioning off one end of the loft-like space. There is also a shared printer, WiFi and a (possibly staffed) receptionist's table.

So why would anyone pay between $50 and 200 a month for basic membership to work here in his/her own business? For people with absolutely no space for a desk at home, this is probably quieter and nicer than their local coffee shop. Given recent cuts to the public library system here, an open branch library -- especially one equipped with WiFi -- may not be available when needed. Plus one meets other entrepreneurs -- unlikely in one's own home.

I do have a good-sized home office (my grown daughter's old bedroom), so why would I be contemplating space elsewhere for which I have to pay? Mostly, I'm not really looking that much, but meeting others around the water cooler does have its advantages. Plus, I wouldn't want to meet potential clients in my own home. Is that really enough to justify the cost of such a space? I'm not sure it is, particularly for a space that offers absolutely no privacy, no way to store anything and very limited workspace beyond parking my laptop.

There are, however, part-time shared spaces that offer more of a "real" office. That may be worth exploring if I am marketing myself to end clients and need to present a more professional image than my converted bedroom with its home-made desk extension and 20-year-old filing cabinets. The space I saw tonight does rent the conference room to non-members on a one-time basis, and so do other spaces. So maybe that's the way to go ...

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Are Conferences Worth the Price?

In the past, I've attended conferences organized by professional organizations, such as the Society for Technical Communication (STC) and the American Translators Association (ATA), the online community, the German technical communications organization tekom and a Portuguese translation agency, Tradulinguas. Only one of these, the regional ProZ conference in Vienna in late 2009, directly led to actual translation jobs. On the other hand, I met a number of people at these events and eventually signed up with new agencies whose representatives I met at the conference.

With many conferences becoming ever pricier and the fact that I also have to cover airfare and lodging myself -- not to mention the time it takes away from potential translation assignments -- I have to carefully evaluate the potential benefits of attending out-of-town events. I decided against this year's STC conference because of its fairly steep admissions fee, but I kept vacillating about the conference hosted by the International Federation of Translators. It's only held every three years and this year it's in the U.S. -- in California, but that's still a lot cheaper for me than flying to, say, Shanghai. After looking at the conference program, I initially decided that there weren't enough sessions relating to my particular interests and specialization to be worth the money I'd have to spend.

But on Monday I did, in fact, register for the conference and book a flight and hotel, as well. The conference program hasn't really changed, but conferences are not just about the lectures, but also about meeting other attendees, presenters and exhibitors. I already received two responses to last week's post about a potential bilingual ghostwriters' network, so I reasoned that it would be helpful to meet other translators from around the world. And what better way to do that than at an international translation conference?

So I'll be out of the office (although possibly posting to this blog) from July 31 through August 5. I also plan to attend the ATA conference in Boston in late October, so that will be another 4 days or so not accepting translation jobs. And then there is my actual vacation, from July 9-16 in Harrisburg and York, PA; Baltimore, MD; and Washington, DC. Let's hope all these "out-of-office experiences" won't dent my workload (and income) for the year too much ...

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Translators as Ghostwriters?

Yesterday I attended an ASJA (American Society of Journalists and Authors) workshop on ghostwriting. It sounded interesting and it was free, so why not. Listening to the speakers on the panel, it occurred to me that American experts who are not good at writing aren't the only ones who need a ghostwriter. America has any number of scientists and other experts who came here to study and stayed on or arrived after completing their studies elsewhere and remained. Depending on the person's background and subject matter, they may or may not be highly proficient in well-written English.

There are famous fiction writers and journalists writing in English whose first language wasn't English -- but there are also scientists and other experts who grew up elsewhere, are highly proficient in the English vocabulary of their specialty, but not so great at communicating in English with a wider audience. It seems to me there is a niche here for bilingual (or multilingual) people who write well in English. When I asked about a market for that particular niche at the workshop, I was told that this was something to be explored. Later I was encouraged to put together a network of translators-ghostwriters for different languages.

One of my projects quite a while back was a combination translation/editing job, where an Austrian non-profit had run a project with high school classes in various countries. The students were communicating in English within the project and the teachers produced reports on their activities in English, as well. However, since this was a social studies project, some of the teachers involved had limited English skills. It fell to me to edit the English-language reports and to translate the ones from Austria (which had been written in German in the first place). The fact that I spoke Spanish and French turned out to be quite helpful when editing English-language reports from Latin America and francophone Africa. When the text was unclear I could basically "re-translate" it back into the writer's dominant language and thereby deduce the intended meaning.

It seems to me that ghostwriting in English for experts whose first language is not English, but who nonetheless know their subject matter mostly in English would be a similar process. For that reason, it would be helpful to such experts to have a ghostwriter who speaks their dominant language. I don't know how many German-speaking scientists or technicians might be interested in writing a memoir or popular science book on their specialty, but it does sound like an area worth exploring. Now if any other translators out there are interested in ghostwriting, maybe we can put together that network ...

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Slang as Marketing Speak

Back in April, the New York Times reviewed a 3-volume dictionary of English slang, Green's Dictionary of Slang. In the article, entitled "Slanguage", Ben Zimmer, a former On Language columnist for the the New York Times, compares Green's Dictionary to the first slang dictionary, Eric Partridge's Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, first published in 1937. While much of what used to be considered slang has either fallen into disuse or become part of accepted speech, Zimmer notes that the word "booze", for example, has existed as a slangy expression for liquor since the 1500s, yet is still in use -- and considered slang -- today.

This review got me thinking how useful a bilingual edition of a slang dictionary would be for translating marketing text. Some of the marketing texts I sometimes wind up translating rely heavily on "hip" language, i.e., modern German slang. Often that takes the form of pseudo-English words or English words and phrases used with a somewhat different meaning than they have here in the U.S., at least. Finding "real" English equivalents to some of these isn't so easy, particularly if I don't know exactly where and for whom the translation will be used. Slang is, after all, frequently rather local and specific to certain demographic groups.

A printed dictionary seems not the best way to capture the rapidly changing usage that slang represents. However, an online version (preferably free) with suggested equivalent expressions in other languages would be really helpful. I assume that many translators specializing in marketing materials keep their own glossaries of such slang terms and usage for their particular language combination. Now if all of these glossaries could be combined in a searchable database online, translators who only occasionally dabble in marketing speak would be helped immensely. Anyone willing to try to put that together?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Why Write for Free?

A while ago I had offered to write about my work for the Society for Technical Communication's journal, Intercom. I was now asked to provide such an article this week. The column in question is called "My Job" and offers a first-person account of a particular technical communicator's work. The text is accompanied by a photo of that communicator at work. That photo request caused a super-fast office cleanup in the midst of deadlines and enlisting my son (an artist, but not a photographer) to take pictures of me at my desk. You can see one of the results at right.

This is the fourth (unpaid) piece I have written this year, and I just committed to writing another book review by the end of July. In addition, I am waiting to hear back on proposals I have submitted for writing 2 other articles. Except for the "My Job" column, none of these articles are about myself or my company. So why am I spending all that time to write for free? I studied journalism in college, so maybe I should just become a freelance writer ...

The object of this exercise is marketing my translation services, of course -- although if someone wanted to hire me to write original copy, I might be interested. (Any editors reading this?) All the articles I submit include a short biographical note with my name, company name, website and blog. If readers of the article (or blog post or book review) find my writing interesting and/or helpful, they will share it with others. And if they, their friends or acquaintances need translation services, I hope my name or company will come to mind.

I do list these articles on my website, but to get more mileage out of that work, I should ask about posting them in their entirety on my website, as well. So here's an item for my to-do list: Contact the persons to whom I submitted these pieces and ask about copyright. If I can post them, I'll note in a future post where they are all located.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Deadlines, deadlines ...

Galina Kakhoun recently asked in the Translators Worldwide forum on LinkedIn whether deadlines had gotten shorter over the past 10 years. I do think that deadlines have gotten tighter.

In part that is because business (and private) life in general has accelerated, at least in the industrialized countries. Some of this is due to technology improvements, which have also enabled translators to work faster (think CAT tools). Part of the problem, however, is that clients have unrealistic expectations, coupled with disregard for quality.

I just saw a posting for an 8,800-word legal text to be translated literally overnight. Such speed is only possible if absolutely no terminology is researched, and the first draft is not edited/proofread at all. We translators need to educate clients about the time and effort it takes to produce a good translation and refuse jobs on too-tight deadlines. If the poster of this job is consistently told that the translation cannot be produced in that timeframe, he/she will change the deadline and, hopefully, learn to set a more realistic one next time.

We also need to get better at negotiating deadlines. Often the initial deadline is flexible -- the client just doesn't tell us so. Faced with a Friday 5pm deadline, for example, we can ask for Monday morning instead; the translation would likely simply sit in someone's inbox over the weekend, anyway. If a client asks for a certain deadline and I have already committed to other projects, I'll explain the situation (without specifics, of course) and ask whether the deadline can be moved by a couple of days. Often, it can.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Chief Cook and Bottlewasher

As I sat down to another round of bill paying and client invoicing on Monday, then spent more than an hour inputting contacts into my database, generating cover letters and stuffing envelopes to mail brochures, I thought about how much time I spend on the mundane tasks that go with running a business. It being a holiday in most of Europe, there were no client requests to deal with, but I still could have spent that time more productively: finally take that Trados certification test, read the latest ATA journal or write new text for my website. None of these activities would be billable, either, but at least they would move my skills and business forward.

So today I picked up a few more books at the Brooklyn Public Library's business library, including Jeffrey A. Landers' The Home Office From Hell Cure. Landers advocates outsourcing many of these mundane tasks, including hiring a virtual assistant -- basically an off-site secretary/data input person/mail room clerk. I'm not sure how that would technically work with the client database that resides on my hard drive or how I would then sign the cover letters generated off-site, but I suppose these details could be worked out. The larger question is actually two-fold, I think: a. do I really want to manage someone else? and b. do I need to wait until I generate a higher income or will hiring a virtual assistant generate that income?

About a.: I was a middle manager once (in IT) and I hated it. On the other hand, here there is no boss above me telling me to push my assistant. So maybe it would be okay.

On b.: Hiring a virtual assistant would only generate higher income if I spent the time so gained by marketing myself. Since I'm not particularly good at marketing (and don't like it, either), I'm not sure such outsourcing would, in fact, generate more income.

So maybe the answer is not to hire a virtual assistant, but to outsource the marketing -- or at least parts thereof. The problem here is that marketing consultants tend to be expensive. Also, telling from the marketing books I've read, the industry doesn't seem particularly attuned to the special characteristics of marketing a one-person, relatively low-cost service internationally -- which is essentially what would be needed to market a translator. So where would I find someone who doesn't just give me cookie-cutter advice, but really understands how the translation industry works -- both here and in German-speaking Europe?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Catching Up on My Reading

I found out today that the main Brooklyn Public Library's foreign language section just closed for renovations until mid-June. I guess that gives me time to catch up on the books I did take out, but didn't have time to read yet. So here are some books I recently read and found helpful (not all were from the library):

Make Your Contacts Count: Networking Know-How for Cash, Clients, and Career Success by Anne Baber and Lynne Waymon. Not all of their advice is applicable to one-person businesses selling a business-to-business service, such as translators, but there is useful advice, including how to best network at conferences and how to plan for networking events.

Los Mejores Narradores Jóvenes en Español from Granta. A collection of Spanish-language short stories, not necessarily easy, but good for brushing up my Spanish. As with all short story collections, some are more my taste than others (and a couple I just didn't finish).

The New Media Monopoly by Ben Bagdikian. I read a (much) earlier edition of this book back in college when I majored in Media Studies. It's quite interesting to see what has (and -- even more interesting -- what hasn't) changed since then.

I also enjoy reading Wired magazine -- as does the rest of my family, so we have to negotiate who gets to read it first. The May issue is devoted to exploring humor -- what makes us laugh and why. Did you know there is actually an academic field of "humor studies", complete with an International Society for Humor Studies? Now, I think that is funny in itself.

So what are you reading?

PS: The Science and Technology Division of the American Translators Association just published a post I wrote for the the divison's blog. It's about The Society for Technical Communication (STC).

Happy holidays to those of you who celebrate Easter or Passover!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Translation Bloggers Community

During my further reading on marketing strategies I came across the advice to create a two-tiered website: one section would be aimed at potential clients, the other would be for peers.That seems to me makes a lot of sense. On the one hand, we want to attract potential clients, on the other hand, we are also looking for referrals from other translators. Besides, working by ourselves in our home offices, we need the cross-fertilization that comes with talking to others in the same profession.

This blog is already mostly about working as a translator and seems to be mostly read by others in the profession, or entering the field. So it will become the "peer section" of my website. To that end, I've added on the right-hand side a list of links to other translators' blogs and compilations of blogs. My website, then, while retaining a link to this blog (and vice versa) will become even more of a(n attempted) client-acquisition vehicle.

There are, of course, any number of translators' blogs out there. The American Translators' Association lists some of these in its "Blog Trekker" section, but that is only a small number of the available blogs. To turn all of these individual blogs into a conversation we need a common platform on which to exchange our ideas. Sure, we can read and comment on some of the posts, maybe subscribe to several better-known blogs, but none of us has the time to read everything that's being posted by colleagues.

I'm not talking about Watercooler or some of the other fee-based groups that exist. I also don't think creating yet another proprietary platform would be helpful. Instead, we need to find a way to connect all our existing blogs into some sort of network-- preferably one that can be searched by topic, in combination with posting language(s). So, if I'm interested in how other translators have handled non-payment issues from agencies in Eastern Europe, for example, I can check one location rather than having to search various forums and blogs. Since by definition we all speak more than one language -- but none of us speak all the languages in which such information may be available -- it would be helpful if such a search could then be limited to certain languages.

Is this a pipe dream? Would it be helpful? Could it be done? What do you think?

Maybe this is not feasible.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

English Only Threatens Our Livelihood

Reading the review of "You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity" in last weekend's New York Times book review section and Steve Nunez article Language Law Requires Lawmakers to Speak English-Only on, the Tucson, AZ, ABC affiliate, brought to mind a couple of incidents I encountered a number of years ago both in Austria and the U.S. Both times I was chastised by people not involved in the conversation for speaking the "wrong" language with my children -- English in Vienna and German in New York. Spanish-speaking friends have encountered such boorishness much more frequently.

Besides the obvious moral issues with English-only legislation, such attempts at reigning in the U.S.'s overall multilingualism and multiculturalism should be cause for concern to us language professionals. What does it mean for court interpreters if court proceedings are only conducted in English? How many translators make government documents and forms understandable for Spanish or Chinese speakers? This is not only a political issue, it is also an economic issue for an entire profession.

Professional organizations, such as the American Translators Association, as well as language professionals outside these organizations, should therefore vigorously protest Arizona's and other states' attempts to, in effect, outlaw foreign languages. Maybe it's time to take this issue out of states' hands and once and for all declare the U.S. a country of many languages, many cultures and many religions -- at least on the federal level, if not as an amendment to the constitution.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

When Is a Hot Dog a Boiled Puppy?

Going through back issues of Wired magazine to cull articles worth keeping, a pull-out quote in a March 2010 article on Google's search algorithm caught my eye. It read "The synonym system knew that a dog was similar to a puppy and that boiling water was hot. But it also thought that a hot dog was a boiling puppy."

To be sure, Google has long since fixed that particular search problem, but it does illustrate nicely why translators are unlikely to be supplanted by machines anytime soon. By the way, Google Translate correctly translates hot dog into German, showing both the anglicism "hot dog" and the German variation on a hot dog, "Würstchen" (little sausage). However, its translation of "boiled puppy" into German results in the ungrammatical -- albeit understandable -- "gekocht Welpen" (it should be "gekochter Welpe", since puppy is singular and Welpe is masculine).

All languages contain any number of expression that cannot be taken literally, although it seems to me that English has a greater share of these than some other languages. The IT field, in particular, is rife with expressions which were re-purposed from other contexts (the mouse on my desk is not grey and furry, and when I save this post I'm not rescuing it from drowning or spiriting it away in a vault).

On the other hand, technical instructions are a good candidate for standardized vocabulary, which in turn would be easier for a machine to process. As I have argued in a previous post, we technical translators may find ourselves increasingly editing machine-produced output. However, as I have also argued, this role is only a viable alternative if the way we are paid changes. A per-word rate simply does not take into account the varying amounts of time such editing may take -- independent of whether the text being edited was produced by a human or a machine.

The challenge now is to insist both on a change in the payment structure and a reasonable hourly rate. Unless all (or, at least, most) of us do so, the race to the bottom in terms of pricing will continue and translators producing quality copy will, indeed, be supplanted -- or will have to work for what amounts to minimum wage when viewed on an hourly basis.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

To Tweet or Not to Tweet?

Anthony Gottlieb's essay Montaigne's Moment in a recent edition of The New York Times book review section reports that Michel de Montaigne has been called the first blogger. This 16th century landowner and magistrate's ruminations on his thoughts included such "fascinating" tidbits as his wine preferences, as well as quotations from many classical works -- an early version of links, it could be argued.

The self-involved nature of Montaigne's musings calls to mind tweeters who feel compelled to announce to the world that they ran out of tea or are bored in class. (The mom in me makes me want to reply to the latter: Pay attention instead of tweeting and you might actually learn something.) Books and articles on business marketing now counsel regular tweeting (daily, not weekly or monthly). Okay, but does anyone have profound and interesting things to say that often? So if I'm supposed to send out 140-character missives on a daily basis -- if not more frequently -- I'll wind up tweeting about trivial things.

These articles advise tweeting about current projects, and doing so frequently to show that you are busy working. First of all, many of the non-disclosure agreements I sign would make it difficult to tweet anything other than shallow generalities, along the lines of "I'm translating a long technical guide from Switzerland." Then, if I'm really that busy working, I don't have time to tweet. And if I have time to tweet, then I don't have projects to write about.

Frankly, I have a hard enough time coming up with topics to blog about every week. I am willing to give tweeting a try if I can think about a large enough supply of ideas to write about. To that end: What topics would you, kind readers, like to hear about in this blog (and/or on Twitter)?

Here is one tweet I could have sent if had a Twitter account: My guest blog post on audience-focused documentation was just published on the ATA Science & Technology Division's blog.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Where Is Translation Aid for Japan Relief?

The recent earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan bring to mind the translation community's response to the earthquake in Haiti more than a year ago. Numerous countries offered help and sent personnel to assist in search and rescue operations, relief efforts and medical treatment. Since Haiti's language, Haitian Creole, is not spoken widely outside the Haitian community, volunteer translators and programmers collaborated in putting together an English-Creole translation tool during one weekend to help aid workers communicate with the local population.

Googling "translators and aid to Japan" today yields some translation companies offering discounts and expedited service on Japanese language translations to organizations helping in the aftermath of the earthquake, as well as one company offering free 300-word translations to facilitate aid. One post on a Linkedin translation group list said Translators Without Borders was also helping the translation effort in Japan, but I could not find any information about such aid on the group's website.

Japanese is, of course, much more of a world language than Haitian Creole, so that many more professional translators, as well as translation tools are available for that language. In addition, many Japanese speak English fairly well, as do probably many of the foreign relief workers. This is one of the instances where a global lingua franca can be quite helpful -- if not life-saving. On the other hand, such foreign-language skills cannot be assumed of the entire population in the affected area, so that volunteer interpreters would still be quite helpful, I assume.

One way we non-Japanese speaking translators could help, I think, is by contributing to a fund that would reimburse Japanese-speaking volunteer interpreters for their lost income if they spend the next week or two assisting foreign aid workers in Japan instead of working on paid projects at home. If anyone knows of such an effort, please post information in the comments section (and otherwise disseminate widely, maybe through the American Translators Association or the International Federation of Translators.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Can I Add a New Specialization?

Bette Frick and Liz Willis wrote about not specializing in their technical communications business in the latest issue of Intercom, the magazine of the Society for Technical Communication ("Focusing Your Business: Support for the Independent Consultant or Contractor"). Even though they are not specializing in any one technical area, they are focusing on providing only certain types of services that use their individual strengths.

My increased marketing seems to have paid off not only in more potential projects, but especially in more IT-related translation work. On the one hand, I appreciate that tendency, since I find such texts faster and easier to translate, with less terminology research required. While Ms. Frick and Ms. Willis state that as generalists they tend to learn more new things than specialists would, I found that most of the legal and business documents I receive for translation are pretty similar and, to me at least, not particularly interesting. After all, a contract is a contract, whether it's for selling a gadget, an assembly line or a cake.

On the other hand, a couple of times I worked on documents relating to clean energy technologies. While they required quite a bit of terminology research, I found they offered fascinating insights into, e.g., how wind turbines work. Since Germany is somewhat in the forefront of such technology, I am hoping to work on more documents relating to alternative energy.

While my non-translation background is in IT, not energy, a few more energy-related projects might launch me towards a new area of specialization ... Besides, pretty much all energy generation and distribution systems use some computer technology (as does just about anything else technical), so this could dove-tail nicely with my software background.

For the time being, at least, I do appreciate the relative ease and speed of IT projects, though. Keep them coming!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Too Much Marketing?

In the wake of my attendance at the tekom conference late last year and as part of my New Year's resolutions, I've sent out quite a bit of marketing material lately. Now I seem to be finally reaping the benefits, in the form of translation projects. That's what I was aiming for, so that's good, right?

Well ... I did want to generate more business in the form of projects being offered. But now I find myself in the (some would say enviable) position of having to turn projects down because there are too many coming in at once. That state of affairs is, of course, fairly common to the freelancer's life and has happened in the past, as well. I have always made good on my promise of quality delivery on time and therefore won't take on more projects than I can successfully handle.

The difference is this: established clients understand that sometimes I have too much work and will need to turn them down. Occasionally they will even postpone a deadline and wait for me to catch up on on my workload. While new clients understand this, too, in principle, if I turn them down more than once, they'll wonder why I bothered marketing to them in the first place and stop offering me projects. Then the draught of work will set in and I will start marketing more, and ...

So how do I know when I have enough potential clients in the pipeline and should stop trying to acquire more? Frankly, I don't know how to determine that. Are there any rules of thumb? Do you have any experience with this? Your input is appreciated.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

"Schwyzerdütsch" in IT

Somehow I wound up with several IT-related translations from Swiss German this week. While written Swiss business German is much closer to standard German than one would expect when hearing the spoken language, it does have its peculiarities. Oddly, a number of Swiss words and phrases -- at least in the IT world -- seem much closer to their English equivalent than to the corresponding word or phrase used in Germany.

On the other hand, I sometimes have to resort to googling Swiss websites (via to find out what a particular term means. So far I have always been able to find at least a website that uses the term in enough context and/or explains it so I can figure out what is meant, even if most of these websites do not appear to be bilingual. Come to think of it, many of the Swiss German websites I have encountered in this way not only didn't have an English version, but also didn't appear to have been translated into French or Italian, the other official Swiss languages. That seems a little odd, especially after browsing a number of Canadian website that all opened with a page to choose the English or French versions -- although admittedly these were websites in Quebec.

In any case, a couple of years back I had a spate of Swiss texts to translate and finally bought myself a Swiss German-English dictionary (the well-known German dictionary publisher Langenscheidt produces such a dictionary). While this helps with general business texts, it's a relatively small general-purpose dictionary that lacks many IT-specific terms. Does anyone know about a Swiss German-English IT dictionary?

Then again, I remember calling IT support in Switzerland when I was the network supervisor for a department in a Swiss bank in New York. Most of the people I spoke with weren't Swiss and spoke German (or French or Italian) as a second (or third) language. Since many of them were Indian (not an outsourced help desk, but Indians living in Zurich), we communicated much more easily in English than in German. So I wonder whether some of the more English-sounding IT terms I am encountering are indeed Swiss German or were coined by IT personnel who is more at home in English than in Swiss German.

It might be interesting to speak to people at IT-related companies in Switzerland about this, but I doubt I will have a chance to visit there any tiime soon...