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.