Of tomatoes, translators and the importance of context

Car flashing headlights
Sometimes technology doesn’t make life easy for translators. Sometimes translators don’t make life easy for themselves either. I was recently trying to explain to a fellow translator why I always insist on receiving the actual formatted source text before starting work, but I think he thought I was just being awkward and a little bit old fashioned. I mean seriously, who, in this day and age, needs to see what a text will look like when it’s printed? He didn’t say as much but I could detect this young hipster’s incredulity at my “old-world” approach.


Now it might well seem old-fashioned and a little pernickity, but the fact that the files to be translated were in XML format and translated using a TM tool meant that, without the formatted source text, the translator was effectively translating blind. The same applies to any text you translate using translation memory tools.

Example of text in XML

A typical text in XML format

When you’re dealing with a text like this, it’s all too easy to miss out on the kind of contextual information that would otherwise help you to make appropriate translation decisions. If you can’t tell whether a segment is a caption for an image, a chapter heading or even an ordinary paragraph sentence how do you know what’s the best way to translate it? If you see the word Garderobe in the text, but can’t see the photograph that goes with it of a sign on a wall with the same word, how do you know not to translate it? You need to know what came before the sentence, what comes after it and what is around it before you can properly understand and translate it.


I always thought it was obvious that the context of a sentence is important when translating but apparently not everyone shares this view. But how do you explain a fairly nebulous and intangible idea like context?

Car headlight controls
After a couple of rounds of emails, which didn’t seem to be getting us anywhere, I started thinking of how people communicate with each other by flashing their car headlights. This simple act of flicking a switch several times usually means “go ahead, you can pull out in front of me“. When the recipient of your good deed thanks you by flashing their hazard lights, you flash your headlights again to say “you’re welcome” – same sign, same interaction but slightly different context.
Other times you might flash your lights at someone who is driving too slowly, driving on the wrong side of the road, or at someone who cuts in front of you in fast-moving traffic and the meaning is similarly clear. Some people even warn other drivers about a speed camera by flashing their lights. The number and frequency of flashes may change but the same basic “utterance” has a number of different meanings depending on the context.


To complicate matters, this simple language (which has been likened in sophistication to the communication skills of insects) is also culture-dependent. In France, apparently, flashing your lights means “stay where you are, I am not letting you pull out in front of me“. But you can still understand what each flash means because, assuming you’re paying attention, you are aware of the context and what is happening around you.


Although it’s probably a silly example that has nothing to do with translation per se, it does sum up the idea of context. Pretty much anyone can translate a sentence, but not everyone can come up with the right translation at the right time. To paraphrase the late Miles Kington, knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad. Let’s hope my translator friend figures it out too.


The Rube Goldberg Approach to Translation

As a general rule I don’t have too much of an issue with doing test translations for new clients or agencies. Some really good agencies even pay translators for these tests. The logic behind test translations is pretty sound because it doesn’t matter what you have on your CV, the proof of the pudding is in the eating and the only way to gauge how good you are as a translator is to see a sample of your work.

Recently a translation agency made contact with me and, after the usual introductions, asked if I would like to work with them on technical translation projects. After much to-ing and fro-ing we were both satisfied that we could work together. I outlined my experience and specialisations, they described the type of projects they get and we both agreed that there was great potential for future work. Hell, we might even get matching tattoos. Rates and terms were agreed without so much as a whimper. Everything was going well until the issue of test translations cropped up.

The epitome of inefficiency - a Rube Goldberg Machine

The epitome of efficiency?

This agency had a pretty weird approach to test translations. Instead of a test translation at the start of our working relationship, which is the customary thing to do, they announced that they ask translators to complete short test translations for each project. The translator who produces the best test translation is then awarded the particular project. I read and re-read the email several times to make sure I understood what they were proposing, hoping that I had misunderstood. But no, when they received a job from a client, rather than contacting a translator who they had already screened, tested and knew was suitable, they would start a mini screening process before work could even start on the translation. I can imagine this being pitched to customers as a way of ensuring that “only the best translators are used” for their projects, and it’s probably well intentioned, but does anyone seriously think this is good practice?

Aside from the startling inefficiency of this Rube Goldberg approach to operations management, which disadvantages both customers and translators alike, things became even more interesting when I queried whether translators would be paid for producing numerous test translations over an extended period of time. The hitherto brisk and prompt exchange of emails suddenly ground to a halt. I never received a response and can only assume that it confirms my worst suspicions.



Translators readying themselves for a revolution

One of my articles on rates of pay for translators was recently republished in the ITIA Bulletin – the monthly electronic magazine of the Irish Translators’ & Interpreters’ Association – and almost immediately afterwards I noticed a large jump in the number of people visiting my site. Naturally I was pretty pleased by this, after all you kind of hope that someone will read your articles. Two days later, however, the numbers went through the roof with hundreds of hits in just one day. What was even more unusual, I thought, was that they were all coming from various towns and cities throughout Italy. Ever the pessimist, I wracked my brains to see if there was anything in the article that could possibly have insulted an entire nation. But no, that wasn’t it. Had they found out that I love their food, their music and their culture and they were rushing to tell me that yes, they loved me too? Maybe, but that wouldn’t make so many of them visit my humble little website. Would it?

Translators to rise up against the tyranny of agencies and forums

Translators rise up against the tyranny of agencies and job forums

No. It turns out that the Italian translation community is in the midst of a proper fight against scurrilous agencies who try to impose outrageously low rates on translators and generally treat translators like glorified typists aided and abetted by race-to-the-bottom job auction sites. Now translators aren’t known for their fighting spirit. Normally we might sit and give a muffled grumble or start to write a strongly worded email but before long we turn back to our computers and get on with translating (Those 7000 words of medical reports aren’t going to translate themselves you know!). There’s no fight in us at all. In fairness, with most of us working as self-employed contractors, it does feel that there’s not much we can do. Or so you would think. Cue the Italian translators who, like modern day Gladiators under the banner of their translators association, have said “Enough is enough. The abuse of translators has to stop!”

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Weird translation request of the week

I got an enquiry from a client I work for on a regular basis asking whether I would be available to do a translation review for them. I’m pretty busy at the moment and can’t really take on any more work just yet but I thought I’d have a look at it and see if there was any way of tweaking my schedule to fit it in. The email arrives with all of the files attached. Looking through the English texts first I noticed a few “odd” formulations and some generally unidiomatic expressions here and there. This is nothing surprising – most things need to be proofed and this is why people have translations reviewed and edited.

But when I went to open the source file to get a feel for the project I realised that there was no source file. Thinking that this must have been an oversight on the part of the PM I went back to the email whereupon I spotted the following: “This is a translation from Chinese. The client won’t give us the source text but we’re pretty sure that the translation is factually correct”.

Needless to say the prospect of trying to edit a translation without benefit of a source text for clarification didn’t appeal and certainly would have taken more time than I had to spare. Now this probably isn’t worth a post all of its own but I love the comedy value of an Irish translator, living in England who translates from German and Spanish into English being asked to review a translation from Chinese, a language he doesn’t speak. You really do have to love translation sometimes.


Weathering the storm in university

The new academic year is well and truly underway in pretty much every university everywhere and for most of us, academics and students alike, it’s a very hectic and, in some ways, exciting time as we meet our new students eager (hopefully) to learn new skills, put the finishing touches and generally come to grips with the new timetable and the bizarre room allocations which see us trekking to the most far flung outposts of the campus.

There are easier ways of weathering the storm

There are easier ways of weathering the storm

This year, however, I’ve noticed that we have a lot more students than we had last year and it’s gotten me wondering why. Last year, I don’t think anyone was surprised at the lower numbers because it came in the midst of the hysteria about the global recession and nobody was certain about anything. In such a climate, you can understand the reluctance of people to commit to the expense of higher education. Why would you leave a job to go back to university when there’s a chance you might not find another one for a while?

But while this explains what happened last year, it doesn’t explain this year. Now, we’ve all come to terms with the recession and most of the feelings of shock, horror and panic have gone, giving way instead to a grim acceptance that the economy will be in tatters for years to come and employment prospects are going to be quite dismal unless you do something beef up your arsenal with some new qualifications.

Are people realising that the best place to sit out a recession is in university? After all, providing you have the money set aside or can get a big enough loan, going back to university full-time means you have at least one full year where you don’t have to worry about whether you’re going to be made redundant. From my own experience here in Sheffield (which is purely speculative and by no means conclusive) this seems to be borne out in part by the make-up of students. We are seeing fewer international students but a lot more European students, particularly UK students. This would seem to suggest that the scarcity of money is causing people to reconsider the expensive business of foreign study; international students pay much higher fees than UK or EU students. But it does suggest that UK students are doing the sensible thing during a recession and waiting it out in the relative calm of university. I’d also wager that the same thing is happening in many other countries. By the time they’re ready to go back to the real world, they’ve survived another year of doom and gloom with their sanity relatively intact and they’ve acquired some new skills which will give them the chance to either change career direction or rejoin the workplace with a competitive advantage. It’s really not a bad idea at all!