Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Translator's Education Never Ends

I had a couple of very interesting meetings with translator colleagues -- some of whom also function as very small translation agencies -- here in Vienna. Our e-mail communications are usually limited to exchanges about a specific project or topic. That is certainly appropriate for the medium and the fact that such conversations tend to take place in the middle of our workdays. A (very) occasional after-hours face-to-face meeting, on the other hand, affords us the opportunity for much wider-ranging chats.

One of the things I learned in these meetings is that the Austrian translators association, Universitas, holds summer courses on terminology at the University of Vienna. Something to bear in mind for Summer 2013, when I'll be back in Vienna for my father's 80th birthday anyway. Spending a summer in Austria would also be a good immersion course in contemporary German. Like most translators, I do try to read regularly in my "other" language(s) (i.e., the one(s) in which I'm not living), but actually living in that linguistic environment 24/7 is different.

I consider trips back to Europe part of my continuing education as a translator. So is the class in green building/alternative energy that I will attend in New York starting in early March. It should help me better understand how solar energy and similar technologies work. I have translated a few documents on photovoltaics, but wound up resorting to Wikipedia to help me understand the technical concepts behind the text I was translating. That understanding (and credentials, since the class prepares for a certification exam as an LEED associate) should pave the way for more work in the alternative energy sector.

But a translator's continuing education isn't limited to source and target languages, as well as subject matter. It should also include changing technologies both in our field and for general use. This means keeping abreast of new CAT (Computer Assisted Translation) tools, terminology databases and social media networks, as well as administrative software, such as CRM (customer relationship management), project management and invoicing programs. Another thing I learned in my meetings here is that the CAT tool memoQ is becoming rather popular in Europe and is apparently more flexible than Trados, which I use. I'm not sure I want to spend money (and time) on two tools, but I'll certainly investigate the program after I get back.

PS: I will be on vacation the next two weeks, so won't post again until my return in early March.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Will Controlled English Take Over Technical Communication?

The Society for Technical Communication organizes regular web seminars (webinars) on a variety of communications-related topics. I attended last night's webinar on "Controlled Language", presented by language service provider TedoPres.  Controlled English -- also called Simplified English -- is used to standardize technical texts, as well as to make them more concise. It limits writers to a list of approved terms and imposes a set of grammar and style rules in addition to general English grammar. The vocabulary list and rules differ from company to company, so that there is no one single "Simplified English" standard. However, there are specifications, such as Simplified Technical English (used in the aerospace and defense industries), which can be adapted to a specific company's needs.

Using such controlled vocabulary and grammar ensures consistent use of terminology. It also guards against ambiguities and needlessly complex sentences. That, in turn, makes translation easier and more efficient. Consistent terminology allows me to use my translation memory tool more effectively. Clearer source text helps to avoid mistranslations due to erroneous interpretation of the original. The same is true of simpler sentence structures.

All this streamlining usually also reduces the amount of text to be translated. According to the webinar, use of controlled language reduces translation cost by 20-30%. However, too concise a text can become ambiguous when the intended audience is not considered. The presenter cited one example from an airport in Canada where the instructions included the phrase "clear runway". Everyone working there left the area in question, except for the snowplow driver, who entered the runway to clear away leftover snow.

In addition to reducing translation cost, controlled language also makes the text easier to understand for speakers of English as a second language. While writing in English for global audiences does not require the use of a specific controlled language, many of the rules for simplified English apply in this situation, as well.

So does the proliferation of English-language documents read by global audiences, as well as the drive to reduce the expenses associated with expanding a business internationally mean that in the future most technical text will be written in a controlled language? The trend seems to point in that direction, although marketing considerations probably pull the other way. I'll look at the relationship between technical information and marketing tactics in a future post.

PS: I am leaving for Austria this Friday, Feb. 10, for three weeks. I will try to post at least once during that time, but possibly not more often than that.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Language Learners as Translators?

The recent newsletter of the American Translators Society contained a summary of an article published by New Scientist (Great Britain) about a free language learning website called Duolingo (Learn a Language, Translate the Web). At this point, it only teaches German and Spanish. So far, so good.

But Duolingo not only teaches its users a new language, it has them translate from that language and check translations provided by other learners of that language. This is not just a learning exercise (incidentally, apparently not supervised by a teacher), but Duolingo uses these efforts to build paid-for translations of websites.

Not to disparage talented language learners, but I wouldn't dream of translating from a language I hadn't thoroughly mastered. Unless the website in question consists entirely of short subject-verb-object sentences, maybe with an occasional adjective thrown in, I doubt very much that such a translation would adequately grasp the subtleties inherent in the original.

Granted, the initial translation is reviewed by other amateurs before being accepted. But simply having several people who are just learning a language deem a particular translation correct does not make it so. I have edited text translated by professionals who had mistaken a subject for an object in a long German sentence. How much more likely is such a mistake for someone who is not fully fluent in the language?

Duolingo seems to be another step in the continuing decline of linguistic quality, both for translations and text written in the author's native language (to wit: typos, grammatical errors and repeated text in books printed by large publishers). Can we stop that decline? Is it even worth trying?