A column with practical tips for practicing translators.
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I head the translation department at a major bank in continental Europe. In addition to handling our company's more sensitive translations, my job involves coordinating workflows to subcontractors. We require half a dozen language combinations, but mainly French, German and English.
Over the years our bank has been approached by any number of translation companies/agencies, big and small, each promising us high quality, specialized translators, fast turnarounds, etc. I know enough about translation, banking and management to sort out the sheep from the goats, and quickly send glib sales reps packing. But here's the problem: even when the initial contact is good and we get excellent work and service at the outset, this never lasts. Within about a year (18 months at most) quality starts to slide and we are forced to look elsewhere.
We pay well and I go out of my way to provide healthy lead times, helpful feedback and so on. I have a feeling that the crux of the matter is these suppliers' fixation on growth at all costs; in expanding their operations, they somehow "forget" to service the customers they've already signed up. How can I bring this message home?
Dear Big Bank,
Why not grab the bull by the horns and ask the translation company representatives who come calling how they see their business developing?
In this scenario, the guys who say "Well, we'd like to expand but it is extremely difficult; there are relatively few economies of scale in the segment that interests you and us because there are so few genuinely skilled translators, so we are growing only very slowly" go on your shortlist. The ones who announce exponential growth, upcoming flotations and offices opening in London, Paris, Milan and Zurich (not to mention major investments in the ultimate technology that will generate savings of 300%) get a cup of coffee and a don't-call-us-we'll-call-you.
Past this initial filter, once you have selected a provider do be sure to set out your expectations in writing at the start, and hold the supplier to themup to and including charging a penalty for work that falls short of the mark.
You might also insist on knowing the names of the translators who do your work. Make it clear that you do not plan to circumvent the company, which will still be providing plenty of added value in project and glossary management, updating style sheets, etc. Maintain contacts with these people through the company by phone and email, and considering inviting them (the translators, not just the project managers) over for a meeting once every six months or so, to visit your in-house departments and see how their texts are being used. Establishing and maintaining a personal link really does pay off. At the very least, you'll be able to see when the translation company starts replacing experienced translators with juniors.
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I have a 4-year experience in translating from Korean into English, although my native language is Russian (I am Russian-Korean), but I translate into English because not many English-native speakers understand Korean and dare to translate from it into English.
I have been doing very well so far and received recognition in Korea, where I live.
But recently I had a very unpleasant incident: one of the Korean translation agencies for which I have been working for over a year and who ranked me as the best translator in their company, asked me to translate the website of the most renowned hotel in Korea; they said they wanted me to do it since it was a really "big client."
Before I started, I visited several of American and Canadian hotels' web sites to learn the style and hotel expressions, and did pretty much of research. So I did my best in carrying out this project, but when the work was finished and sent to the hotel, a hotel person called the agency saying that they had an American journalist there who said my translation was bad. The Korean guy from the hotel admitted that he himself did not know whether my translation was good or bad, but as a matter of fact the American journalist said my English was "not perfect."
The agency (who has no experience in dealing with such problems) called me immediately and complained about my work. I said "Just send me a "visual proof" that shows how bad my work is." When the requested "proof" came, I found that the hotel people (probably the journalist) had corrected only a tiny part of my translation, while over 90 percent of the translated text remained in its original state. I was really infuriated and said to my agency that my work was not corrected that much. But since the hotel people kept on complaining, the agency sent my work for proofreading to two Korean-Americans, who instead of "improving" my work spoiled it! They corrected the right expressions and sentences into wrong, placed commas where commas are not used, and the whole thing looked really bad! I was mad for the third time again!
Now, when I have repeatedly demonstrated to my agency that I was right and that my work was 90 percent perfect, they treat me as if I have betrayed them and spoiled their reputation. In addition, they had to spend extra money on proofreading (the agency does not usually use proofreaders because of high costs and send translation orders unproofread!).
I am highly recognized in the translation business in Korea (another my agencya 100% American-owned companypraises me and gives me credit for my work) and I know that my hotel translation was high class, but the first agency refuses to listen to me (and I have quit it, actually). But I feel so much betrayed!
The most ridiculous thing is that another jerk (sorry for obscene word) has made a "final proofreading" of my work and his version was the one that was posted on the hotel's web site, and if you take a look at itit is a total mess! What should I normally do in this situation? What would you do to prove that I had been unfairly treated?
Seething in Seoul
Nice language combination you've got there, and your decision to use your relative rarity in selling your services makes good sense. We'll look into some of the trickier sides of that in a minute.
First, however, a word on dealing with complaints.
At some point in every translator's career, a client (or acquaintance of a client, or client of a client or spouse of a client) will criticize a text you've produced. How you react in the very first minutes on the phone or at the keyboard will set the tone for the rest of your relationship, so it is worth thinking about this in advance. There are plenty of optionsa meeting in person to discuss the project; a revision or rewrite; apology and waiver of your fee or part of it if you are at fault; arbitration through a third party; or simply standing firm and writing off this particular client. But to get that far you've got to keep the temperature down and the atmosphere businesslike: losing your temper is unproductive and unprofessionalas is groveling and caving in, of course.
So... you were absolutely right to keep your cool and ask very precise questions about (1) who was challenging your text and (2) exactly what he/she said, and in what context ("it was bad" doesn't make the grade).
But... surely everything would have been a lot easier if somebody had established up front (with the agency and/or end client) who was doing the revising, editing and proofing, including such, er, "details" as what the hotel thought they were getting and who was carrying the can.
Promotional texts like websites are high-wire acts, challenging even for an expert native speaker. Operating in this segment of the market without a safety net is crazyeveryone trundles along happily until the shit hits the fan (pardon the obscene expression) and the finger-pointing begins.
In this case the agency was clearly at fault for not assigning an editor at the very beginning; by the time they started frantically incorporating changes from Korean-Americans with dubious credentials it was probably a lost cause. Call us cynical, but we bet they've got the Q word scattered throughout their glossy brochure (as you say, the client is not in a position to judge what has been delivered).
But to protect your own reputation and build your business, you, too, should draw some conclusions. While your command of English is impressive, your letter includes examples of non-idiomatic usage that are jarring to a native speaker, which is probably what set the American journalist off.
You already have a highly professional approach to researching your jobs, you've got a dynamite language combination and your language skills are strong. Why not use this incident to rethink the text types you deal in? If you want to work at the for-publication end of the marketand it sounds like there is demand in your marketeither locate agencies that employ editors and proofreaders, or consider linking up with a freelance editor who will provide the fine-tuning that demanding clients require. In short, use this as an opportunity to detach yourself from the clutches
of slap-dash agencies like this one and go after your own direct clients.
Direct clients often are more appreciative of high-quality translation work
and also tend to provide more feedback and interactive support. It's
harder work for you as a translator (you'll have to aim for 100% accuracy)
but the rewardsnot just financial, but also personalare also
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I am an Argentine lawyer, 40 years old, and am moving with my family to the U.S. next year. As my law degree is useless in the U.S. I am trying to find a translation program in which my former degree could help me to get a job after I graduate. I would like to obtain your impression about the "FIU certificate in Legal Translation & Court Interpreting" offered by the Florida International University: is the certificate a good one, and will it allow me to get a good job?
You go to the head of the class, sir, for realizing that a law degree on its own does not qualify anyone to translate legal documents. To succeed, translators must have a firm grasp of the many major and minor differences between legal systems, not to mention great linguistic sensitivitywriting skills in their native language, and awareness of nuance in their foreign language(s).
FA&WB are not familiar with the course at Florida International University but suggest you consult the directory of translation programs in North America published by ATA (http://atanet.org). You might also drop an email to ATA members working in legal translation in your language pair for their opinion.
Keep in mind that while a good translation program can teach you a lot, no diploma will guarantee anyone a job. Professional translators are judged on the work they produce, day in, day out.
Building a career as an into-Spanish translator poses particular challenges right now. Our U.S. contacts tell us that a lot of the into-Spanish translation that used to be done in North America has now shifted to Argentina, drawn by rock-bottom prices ($.03 a word?). This trend is not going to last, but you will have to keep it in mind. There is always work for good people, but many of the currently cheap translators in Argentina are goodthey have four-year degrees in legal translation (during which they go to law school for a year) and have worked at the big Buenos Aires law firms. These firms are now laying off lawyers (you may have first-hand experience of this)having parted ways with their translators a while back, no doubt.
One option might be to study to become a court interpreter, an area where jobs are not being sent to Argentina (for obvious reasons). If you do take a one-year certificate course in translation, be sure to get out there and network in bar association meetings to link up with people who need your services. Your Argentine degree should serve you well here.
We wish you and your family all the best as you settle into your new life in the US.
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
You two emphasize the importance of client education, and in one way I agree. But if you think of translators en masse, there is also a great need for translator education. With so many working in isolation, many tend to find their own comfort zone and stay there regardless. As I get to talk to a lot of both young and old translators, I am constantly struck by how many lack the will to break out of their comfort zonei.e., learn a new subject, offer different services, learn new things, invest in learning/equipment/dictionaries etc.
Few universities equip students to really launch a career or run a small business (though perhaps this is getting better?), and with everything changing around us, there are few safe little islands. I'm confident many universities could run short courses or summer schools aimed at their newly hatched students or MAs, and others. Professional bodies have a problem in that they are dependent on hiring premises and finding people to run the courses, but surely this is not insurmountable.
One of the great weaknesses in the translation industry is that so many translators have to invent the wheel all over again and find out things for themselves. There is a huge gap in the market here; it's about time somebody did something about it!
You said it, not us. Although we, too, have noticed that some of the loudest moans and most abject hand-wringing in the translation community come from those trading on language skills acquired decades ago and appliedsometimes misappliedfor years in a vacuum. The market has long since headed elsewhere, and the more attractive options are open only to those willing to invest the time to investigate.
Fortunately there is a growing number of opportunities for anyone prepared to venture outside their comfort zone (nice expression, that).
National and regional translator associations always post upcoming events on their websites, but the truly energetic should cast a wider net. For those working into English, courses organized by the Society for Technical Communication (http://www.stc.org/) are good value in our experience, as are the often free programs offered by professional associations in areas you have specialized in or might want to specialize in. Not to mention Chamber of Commerce events. There is no time like the present to get out and stretch your world view.
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I'm looking for translator and interpreters course in New York. So far, the only school I've found is NYU. Do you know another school in New York where I can take these courses?
Student in the City
Robert Bononno has compiled a list of translation programs around the world that you can consult for free at http://pages.nyu.edu/~rb28/t-schools.html. While not necessarily exhaustive, this is updated regularly we are told (last update: October 2001).
You can also try the American Translators Association which has a few links on its site (http://www.atanet.org) and is currently updating a book by William Parks on college and university courses in the US. You can order Translator and Interpreter Programs in North America, A Survey ($20 members, $25 nonmembers) at http://www.atanet.org.
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
Wordface's query didn't state what "something controversial" I'd written in my column. What was it?
The correspondent sounded as vague as most of yours. I try to make concrete suggestions to translatorsat present on rule-governed and expressive punctuationusually with examples. Take it or leave it. Your Wordface Worker is being superior, above the conflict, a vague wistful wondering comment, and no point at all.
Why don't your correspondents state their names? What are they hiding? I'm neither a maverick nor a scholar, just a pathetically serious person.
There's a misunderstanding hereseveral, in fact, and we hope we haven't contributed to another one of those tiresome practice vs. theory skirmishes (which miss the main point, to wit: how, concretely, can one most effectively teach or consolidate translation skills?). Nor do we want to get into an I-can-out-concrete-you match with you, Professor Newmark.
With regard to Wordface Worker, here's the inside dope: in a 3-minute lull between coordinating a morning fax and revising the work of a close-knit team of 6 translators working for 15 financial analysts, themselves revising investment strategy hourly as equity markets plummeted, all the while tracking European Central Bank policy statements and interest-rate movements with one eye and the latest developments in Enron-land with the other, our intrepid translator correspondent stumbled on your "Translation Now" remarks to the effect that English is superior to all other languages http://home.clara.net/patriciatreasure/linguist_3_2002/newmark.htm) and wondered if he was on the same planet.
As he moved on to your paragraph on slang ["Both literary and non-literary translators have the task of finding a modern language that is easy and natural and avoids the numerous vivid neologisms, formerly called slang (e.g. 'anorak', 'eye candy', 'road rage'), which are normally old words with new meanings, that are too closely bound up with the contemporary translator's culture but are not appropriate to the time setting of the SL text."], a big fat brokerage report hit his desk, chockablock with poison pills, triple witching, the infamous dead cat bounce, white knights and inverse head-and-shoulder chart patternsall images that speak to readers in other world financial markets.
Mind you, the bit about commas (rule-governed or expressive) may have hit home.
But not to worry. We hear that Wordface Worker is reconciled following your latest comments that good writing is as important in non-literary as in literary translation. http://home.clara.net/patriciatreasure/linguist/newmark.htm. We enjoyed that one, too, although if you are exhorting translators to "rigorously exclud[e] the superfluous in information texts" we suggest that you also remind them to use a source-text wordcount for their invoices.
FA & WB
P.S.: We dole out pseudonyms liberally, following in the footsteps of such American columnists as Dorothy Dix and Garrison Keillor (ah, the late lamented Mr. Blue!), all in a spirit of good fun.