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.