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.