Wednesday, November 28, 2012

This Blog Moved

This blog has been moved to and is now running on a Wordpress platform. I will no longer update this version of the blog. Please visit my new blog location for more thoughts on language and translation.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Presenting at tekom & What I Learned

The tekom conference is over and I am on the overnight train to Vienna, in a sleeper car where they just served us breakfast - a nice bonus. My presentation went better than I expected, but in the process I learned a few things:

  • A four-year-old netbook is too slow to efficiently manage my business while on the road and to follow up on conversations I had at the conference.
  • The resolution on that netbook also isn't quite sufficient for a conference projector. My slides did display, but were a little fuzzy.
  • The laptop I use next time should support extending the display to a second monitor, so what is displayed on my laptop doesn't have to match what the audience sees (see below).
  • I need to learn more about the firewall and security settings on my machine so I can get online on public networks with strange settings.

While attending other presentations I also learned a few things about speaking at such conferences:

  • Each slide should have a footer with the company logo/name and slide number. I added a footer with my company name at the last minute. The logo in an appropriate resolution/size would probably have been better and I couldn't get the slide numbers to display.
  • My slides need to look more professional. I used the background from my stationary and the blue and purple colors from my website, but I need to spend some time with fonts and a crisper layout.
  • Rather than having my speech on paper, I should have it on the laptop - probably as notes for each slide. That, of course, only works if the laptop supports dual monitors with the display extended to the second monitor, not duplicated there. I probably was the only presenter at tekom who used paper notes.
  • If available, I should use the wireless headset rather than the microphone on the lectern. That way the audience can still hear me when I turn to the screen with the laser pointer to highlight some aspect of a slide.
  • It might be good to also record the presentation in advance. For one thing, I can time it more accurately. Plus, if I get sick before a presentation I may be able to give the talk remotely.

Now I need to digest all the new information I tried to absorb during the last three days. I'll report on the presentations I attended sometime in November, after I get back to New York.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Back to School?

This time of year when I see my teacher daughter setting up her classroom and my student son-in-law buying textbooks I get a little nostalgic for my own college days. Since then I have taken a couple of classes here and there, but now that both my children are grown I could go back to school more permanently. The obvious choice would be to get a degree in translation studies. Since I already have a BA, I'd want to go for an MA. The only such programs for German translation, however, are in California and Ohio. Plus, they are full time, so I would have to somehow put my current business on hold for a couple of years and then resurrect it after I have my masters. I'm not sure that would even be an option.

Translating various technical documents I do get an impromptu education in different areas of science and technology simply by researching terminology for a given job. I find Wikipedia particularly helpful for providing a quick overview of, say, electrical heating systems - my most recent project. That project, as well as several others over the years that involved electrical circuits, has piked my interest in electrical engineering.

At age 52 it seems a little late to start a new career - particularly one that would involve several years of study first. But I wouldn't necessarily have to become a full-fledged engineer. An introduction to electrical engineering might be enough to satisfy my curiosity - or spurn me on to learn more about the subject. Starting this Fall wouldn't really work since I'll be in Europe for two weeks in the middle of the semester to speak at the tekom conference in Germany. But there's always the Spring semester.

Meanwhile there is no shortage of one-night lectures on various topics here in New York. These are frequently held in bars. While that is problematic for young people who are interested in science, I'm certainly old enough to attend. Time to start researching ...

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

US Translators and UK English Requests - Accept or Refuse?

I just read an interesting post about US versus UK English by Jill Sommer (@bonnjill on her blog Musings from an overworked translator. Jill explains why she declines requests to translate into UK English and how simply changing the spelling of certain words doesn't turn a text into UK English. The comments section for that post features a spirited discussion about how different the two "Englishes" really are.

Like Jill I am sometimes asked to translate into UK English and i generally decline. However, in technical writing at least, a somewhat hybrid form of English seems to be emerging. When I explain to clients that living in the U.S. I don't feel comfortable enough with British English to translate into that variety of English, I am sometimes told that proper UK English is not what they're looking for anyway. Rather, they want a non-country-specific "global English" with British spelling.

Well, I can (and have done) that. Such a hybrid form wouldn't work for legal texts, where not only the text, but the legal system itself needs to be translated. But in my specialty, IT, most terms were coined in the US to begin with. And frequently the translation I provide is not really - or not exclusively - intended for the UK market anyway. Rather, specifications, data sheets and similar materials are translated into English as a lingua franca. UK spelling is requested because that is the spelling most Europeans learn in school. As long as my clients are clear about the fact that my terminology and style will be based on US, not UK, English, I'm happy to run the finished translation through whichever spell checker they prefer.

Other clients (agencies) have said that providing a US English translation for what will eventually be delivered to a UK end client is okay because they will have a UK proofreader/editor change it to conform to British English. Conversely, I have been asked to "Americanize" a translation done by a UK translator so that it can be delivered to a US end client. If the agency knows that the editor will need to change quite a bit to adjust for the other variety of English, they won't fault the original translator for "poor quality", and everyone is happy.

So while I don't accept work that specifically calls for UK English, some of these workarounds allow us to exploit time differences across the Atlantic, as well as provide the internationalized English many end clients are really looking for.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Should I Become an Agency?

Last week I wrote about suddenly hitting a feast period in terms of workload when I had expected the usual Summer famine. That trend seems to be continuing. I am working on a large project that will now take me through the end of the month. Yet, agencies with whom I have sometimes worked in the past keep contacting me about projects they'd like me to take.

So far, I have simply told these agencies that I'm too busy right now to take on more work. When asked who else I could recommend, I either gave the agency the contact information for a colleague or referred it to the American Translators Association's website referral service.

At the same time, my net earnings are rather low for the well-over 40 hours a week I put into this business. Freelance friends (not translators) have counseled me to "become a manager" if I wanted to make better money. In the translation industry that would mean opening my own (mini) translation agency.

My friends are probably right about the earnings potential - I could be earning money from translations performed by others while earning additional money from the translation work I do myself. There are large agencies who farm work out to small agencies who in turn work with individual translators. Becoming one of these small agencies seems possible, even without direct clients of my own.

Plus, a pool of translators who work in different language pairs might get me direct clients whose needs extend beyond my own language combination. If I specialized in into-English translations, I could edit/proof the translation without necessarily being fluent in the source language. (Always sending the edited version back to the translator for verification, of course!)

I was a middle manager once (in IT) and hated being squeezed between the boss' (read: large agency or end client's) demands and the needs of the people I managed (read: the translators with whom I would contract). On the other hand, I wouldn't be stuck with the same boss day in and day out. If an end client's demands were too unreasonable, I wouldn't have to accept subsequent projects from that client -- should they even be offered after I told the end client that his or her demands couldn't be met.

Then there is the whole question of vetting someone else's work. How would I know that the freelancers I contract with for other languages provide high-quality translations? Even if the English translation they sent to me were fluent, how do I know that it is accurate? If I limit my agency to languages I read (German, Spanish, French, maybe Swedish), I can catch glaring errors, but probably not more subtle problems. Besides, part of the idea of becoming an agency would be to offer more languages and this approach would severely limit the number of languages I could contract out.

Networking is the key to getting both clients and translators for an agency. I'm not particularly good at networking, even online - and worse face to face. Given a choice, I'd rather sit in a corner with a book than talk with strangers at an event.

So maybe this whole agency thing is not for me, after all ...

Thursday, July 5, 2012

What Summer Slump?

Now that summer has not only officially arrived, but school vacations have started across most of the U.S. and Europe, I was expecting the same drop in projects I had experienced the last few summers. This year seems to be different, though.

First there was a famine period in early June. I thought the summer slump had arrived early this year, perhaps fueled by economic uncertainty over the fate of the Euro. Then there were several inquiries about relatively large projects, including one possibly later this summer. And now I am working on a good-sized project with a longer-than-usual deadline because the project manager is out during the intervening week.

In addition, I had to decline two other projects for lack of time, in part because I was planning to spend the July 4 holiday with my family instead of translating. And today I had an inquiry for another long-term project, although the details on that one are still rather hazy.

With both my children grown I don't need to plan vacations for the peak summer months any more, so this feast of work coming in is quite nice.

On the other hand, with temperatures consistently in the 90° F range here, a slower pace wouldn't be so bad. The trick may be to adopt a Mediterranean rhythm: work early mornings and late nights and take an extended nap in the early afternoon. Sleeping during the day in noisy New York City isn't so easy, though. Maybe I should reconsider installing an air conditioner in my office ...<.p>

What are summer work loads like for you in general? Does this summer look like it might be any different? Is that good or bad?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

STC Summit Chicago - Writing for Global Audiences

As promised, here is the text of my presentation, "Writing for Global Audiences", at the recent Society for Technical Communication (STC) Summit in Chicago. In Part I, Part II and Part III of this series I reviewed conference sessions related to translation and freelancing.

Writing for Global Audiences

by Barbara Jungwirth, reliable translations llc
at the 59th STC Annual Conference, May 20-23, 2009 in Chicago, Ill.

Hi. I'm Barbara Jungwirth of reliable translations. I translate and edit software documentation and other technical documents between German and English. Before becoming a translator, I used to write software documentation.

Increasingly, English-language technical documents intended for global audiences are no longer translated into multiple languages. Instead, technicians and others are expected to be fluent enough in English to understand these texts in their original language. While these professionals generally know the English terminology for their specific field, their overall command of the language may not be quite so fluent. Add to this the fact that the English spoken in, say, New Delhi or Capetown differs considerably from that spoken in New York or Chicago and you can see how a document written for an American audience may be difficult to understand elsewhere.

But if you are mindful of some issues that may pose problems to non-native English speakers you can greatly increase the likelihood that global audiences will understand your document. In this presentation I will outline two areas of potential problems:

  • Writing issues - that is word choice, grammar and syntax
  • and
  • Formatting issues - that is text formatting and images

Finally, I will briefly talk about evaluating how your text may fare with a global audience.

Writing Issues

One of the most important writing issues is consistency in word choice: use the same term for the same concept. If a widget is a widget in the help system overview, that same widget should not have morphed into a thingamajigg in the section on installing widgets and a gizmo in the appendix about different widget types.

A corollary to this rule is to use standard terms with standard spelling. If the widget is spelled "w-e-e-g-i-t", a reader unfamiliar with the term cannot look it up in a dictionary and is forever left to wonder what this item might be. Also, minimize the use of words with the same spelling, but different meanings. These are sometimes confused even by native speakers and are often difficult to distinguish for non-native speakers.

Similarly, use the literal meaning of words, and avoid wordplay and metaphors. That said, many modern computer terms are, in fact, non-literal versions of older words -- e.g., mouse -- and universally understood in their new meaning. So, don't try and find a more "literal" word to describe a computer mouse -- when reading a manual, no one will think of the furry animal when encountering this term.

Don't use words in non-standard ways, such as using nouns as verbs and vice versa. When it comes to grammar, most languages are not as flexible as English. When reading foreign-language texts, many people subconsciously translate into their native language. The closer you stick to "schoolbook English", the easier it will be for non-native readers to translate the text for themselves.

Long convoluted sentences with many dependent clauses are difficult to understand even for native speakers. Complex concepts with many variables can still be explained in a series of sentences. Each of these sentences should refer to the concept explained in the previous sentence by name. Non-specific pronouns, such as "this," are harder to interpret than if the specific term to which "this" refers is repeated.

Most non-native speakers reading technical documents in English will be quite familiar with the terminology specific to their particular field. They may, however, not know colloquial expressions common in documents written for U.S. readers. This applies especially to expressions referring to sports, movies, or cultural icons. References to politics and religion, as well as anything even slightly off-color, should obviously be avoided when writing for people from different cultures.

Keep in mind that time zones, units of measure and national holidays differ among countries. Some of these references may be unavoidable, but don't add unnecessary references to location-specific items. In particular, don't provide unnecessary measurements. Since most of the world operates on the metric system, the reader will need to convert all such measurements.

Avoid acronyms and abbreviations as much as possible. If they are unavoidable, provide a list of abbreviations. That, however, does not necessarily apply to very common acronyms, particularly when the acronym may be better known than the phrase from which it derived (e.g., UNESCO).
Write in a formal tone. Many languages distinguish between two (or more) forms of address, depending on the degree of familiarity between speaker and addressee (or writer and reader). Being too formal is rarely considered offensive, while being too familiar can offend. That said, don't start using archaic phrases or stilted language. Imagine you are addressing, say, your local mayor -- assuming you are not from a small town where the mayor is your personal friend. You wouldn't call him or her "His Excellency", but you wouldn't slap his or her back, either.

Formatting Issues

While it is relatively easy to understand how vocabulary and syntax issues may affect understanding, formatting questions are often overlooked. Bulleted or numbered lists may be a better way to illustrate a set of options than a long paragraph describing the choices available. Tables, too, can present the relationship between distinct pieces of information in a fairly intuitive way.

Not all images are worth a thousand words, but procedures can sometimes be summarized in flow charts that require little linguistic knowledge. That said, writers and designers need to be mindful that a left-to-right progression is not necessarily obvious for readers who come from right-to-left (or top-to-bottom) languages. The significance of specific symbols may also not be apparent to everyone. Most U.S. readers will recognize an eight-sided red sign with white lettering to mean "Stop", but the corresponding road sign in Japan is triangular and in Tonga the sign is a white circle with a red triangle inside.


When creating documents that will be read online also take into account slower download speeds and differing standard fonts on non-English computer systems. A page that downloads quickly over your broadband connection and displays nicely in Verdana may look quite different on a machine running the Russian version of Windows and using a dial-up connection. Whenever possible, try to test online documentation in the countries where it will be mostly viewed.

Evaluating Your Work

Besides trying to test under local technical conditions, it's a good idea to have colleagues from the countries where the document will be mostly used read your text. What seems perfectly clear and understandable to you may not be so for someone coming from a different language. If people who actually live in the target countries are not available, native speakers of the languages in question who live in the U.S. are a good second choice. Failing that, people familiar with the native languages of the people likely to read the text may be able to point out significant problems.

Two other presentations at this Summit cover related topics: Bruce Poropat will speak about "Plain Language for Technical Writers" immediately following this progression and John R. Kohl, the author of The Global English Style Guide will be speaking tomorrow at 11:30. I have also prepared a short list of additional resources, which you are welcome to take.


  • Ugur Akinci, Ph.D. "How to Write for an International Audience". Technical Communication Center (Jan. 29, 2009).
  • Gerald J. Alred et. al. Handbook of Technical Writing, 9th ed. (New York, NY: St. Martin's Press), 2009.
  • John R. Kohl. The Global English Style Guide: Writing Clear, Translatable Documentation for a Global Market. (Cary, NC: SAS Institute, Inc.), 2008.
  • Michael Kriz. "10 Tips for Writing International Technical Content". The Content Wrangler (July 8, 2011).
  • Philip Rubens. Science & Technical Writing: A Manual of Style, 2nd ed. (New York, NY: Routledge), 2001.
  • Edmond H. Weiss. The Elements of International English Style: A Guide to Writing Correspondence, Reports, Technical Documents, Internet Pages for a Global Audience. (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe), 2005.
  • Dovie Wylie. "Tips for Writing Globally". Multilingual Computing, 10.1 (Oct. 1998).
  • Sun Technical Publications. Read Me First! A Style Guide for the Computer Industry, 3rd ed. (Sun Technical Publications).

PS: This was a short "Progression" session. I will be holding a full 45-minute session on the same topic at the tekom conference in Wiesbaden Germany, October 23-25.