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.