Translation history was made in Washington DC on September 10-11, 2004, and I was lucky enough to be there.
s far as I know, it was a world first: four clients combining efforts to offer their freelance translators a seminar. Some clients do promote events for translators, but this one was different, because the main intention was not to convince participants that it was our good luck we were chosen to work for them, but to help create a stronger partnership between client and vendor and to help translators provide better services.
Stronger partnership bonds and you are our most important assets are two of the emptiest clichés of our time, of course. However it took me a minute of Anne Van Wylick's (IMF) welcome message to see that these two concepts were taken seriously by our hosts. Anne is an Advisor, Language Services, at the IMF, a professional translator and thus one of us. Only she had crossed the dividing line and was now on the client side of this world, and that step gave her a better perspective over the two-way relationship between translator and client, a perspective she was ready to share with us.
Anne's message was short and concise, as were all the others that followed. Concision is a virtue, but its downside is that it prevents me from sharing the contents of the presentations with you: no way I could summarize all the points made during one and a half days within a reasonable space. All I can do is to comment on a few points that, in my personal opinion, underlay the whole event.
IFIs are interested in quality...
We often complain that clients cannot be bothered with quality. One of the phrases typical of our conversations is the infamous they don't want it good, they want it by Thursday. Of course, IFIs (International Financial Institutions) want it by Thursday, but they want it good too. Better than that, they recognize they share the responsibility for the provision of good translations. That is why they offered the seminar in the first place.
Some of the presentations dealt specifically with text issues, the how-to's we all love and need. The venue being the United States, the largest attendee group was translators from Spanish into English. As a consequence, the presentations stressed the means to produce good English texts and how to produce good English translations from Spanish originals. But many of us translated from other languages into English or from English into other languages, so that the presentations, excellent as they were, would have to be reworked for our benefit. On raising this point during a Q&A period, I was informed that we were to receive a CD-ROM with copies of all the presentations, and I am eagerly awaiting mine. Perhaps they will also consider letting us download the files from their sitesso that we won't have to pay taxes on the "imported" CDs.
Other presentations dealt with another important aspect of the quality issue: the meaning of the texts we translate. One of the points I have always held is that the quality of any given translation is limited by how well the translator understood the original. The IFIs seemed to be of like mind, since we had experts teaching us the fundamentals of certain areas often dealt with in the texts we translate. This, I believe, is of the utmost importance: too many translators place excessive confidence on bilingual glossaries but a bilingual glossary is absolutely useless unless you understand what you are reading and double-check the translation with authoritative sources.
And, of course, there was the important business of providing feedback. How often the usual loneliness of our profession has been worsened by the absolute lack of reaction from clients? You deliver the translation, the client pays you and that's it. Nobody says a word about our work. You may be placed on the "A" list and get tons of jobs, which will lead to the conclusion that they liked your work. But why did they like it, for Pete's sake? Or perhaps you don't get a job for a long time and begin to suspect they simply did not like what you did the last time. But, again, what happened? Perhaps something you could change, who knows? But they never say a word. And Claudia Engle (IDB) told us about how important they think it is to maintain an ongoing dialogue with their translators and how they are working on that side of our partnership.
...they see translation as a business...
Among the speakers there was Andrew Draheim, who is actually a Business Manager for the World Bank. Many of our colleagues sneer at the word business. They see themselves as some sort of intellectuals, aloof from base and worldly things like money and efficiency. I do not share in these views. Translation is a business, our relationship with our clients must be handled in a businesslike manner, and Andrew analyzed some hard data he had collected on our dealings to the profit of all present. It seemed that he could say a lot more than the clock let him. Perhaps he would care to share more of his findings with us sometime in the future.
During the course of the seminar, we were given valuable information on how translations are processed and why. The fact is that some of us would like to receive Word files with stylistically perfect texts, with plenty of time to translate them impeccably and take a short vacation before we have a good old final look at what we had done but, unfortunately, that is not a perfect worldnot even a fair one. Language services people have to handle things as they come and there is often very little they can do but pray for the best. I knew that and so probably do you, but it was good to see the constraints in more detail, to learn how the machinery works and how the gears mesh and, of course, the better we understand the problem, the more likely we are to find a reasonable solution. And it was even better to see that they understand our side of the situation and are trying to make our lot easier and our burden lighter.
... and are interested in technology.
Translation is fast becoming a high-tech activity and that poses a special problem to IFIs, in my personal opinion, although nobody said as much during the seminar. The point is that people who translate for IFIs often are more experienced (read: older) translators and, as such, often averse to new technology. But there is no escape and the era of translators who use their computers as glorified typewriters is nearing its end. Terms like tagged file, segmented file, XML, TMX are now probably more common in our conversations than irregular verb and preposition once were and there is no use in pretending they are not.
I do not know about your clients, but most of mine can be divided into two categories: a diminishing one that confuses CAT and MT and an increasing one that says: "Buy Trados, or else."
It was very refreshing to learn that IFIs belong to neither of the above groups. They know MT is one thing and has its uses, and that CAT is another thing and there is more than one CAT program worthy of consideration. It was great to learn that we should expect segmented files in the future and will be free to deal with them as we think best, provided the results achieved are acceptable to the IFI that requested the job. It was also wonderful to see Maridale Jackson (IIC) saying that she uses a certain program and is happy with it, without for a minute insinuating that if we want to work for her we would be required to purchase that particular product.
Resources, resources, resources...
Rare was the speaker who did not open the door to a new resource for us. In some cases, the resource was already available; in others it was to become available shortly. The number of times someone said we are putting the finishing touches on it or something to that effect clearly showed that there is a concerted and strong effort to provide us with the resources we need to provide them with a better product. This is a great step in the right direction, given the fact that IFIs have very specific language requirements and even a competent translator is sometimes at a loss with the vocabulary involved.
Claudia Engle (IABD) closed the seminar. She was very happy and it showed. The event had been an unqualified success and it looks like even the most optimistic of the organizers did not expect that much. The grapevine had it that they expected about 40 attendees, but more than 140 came. Extraordinary results, if you keep in mind that it was the first of its kind and we now have so many translator-oriented events competing for our time and money both in the U.S. and abroad.
In her closing remarks, Claudia did me the honor of quoting from a comment I had made the day before: "As I live in Brazil, flying to Washington DC for a two-day seminar cost me a lot of money, but it was worth every penny of it." On second thought, I'd say it was worth a lot more.
Then she invited all of us to the next seminar. She may rest assured that I will be there.