Three Lessons: Humility, Collaboration, Perseverance

This post originally appeared on Word Prisms and it is republished with permission.

All three – in that order – hold the key to becoming a world-class translator.

An interviewer, who was also a writer, once asked me how many words I’d translated before I published my first translated book for the American Institute of Physics. I imagined he expected an answer of perhaps ten thousand or so.

“About two million,” I replied.

Two million?! How is that possible?

“That’s a conservative figure, I think.”

I explained that I was young and had been dictating scientific translations from Russian into English for publication in scientific journals for almost a decade when I published my first book translation. I kept two technical typists busy full-time.

I might have added that I was also personally responsible for perhaps 1% of all US East Coast consumption of editorial red ink scrawled all over my translations.

It turned out that my translator-editor colleagues at the American Institute of Physics, Plenum Publishing, the Optical Society of America, the Congressional Research Service, the World Bank and the U.S. national labs, to name just a few, were even better than I was.

I thought of myself as a terrific translator at the time – don’t we all? I knew my subject-matter cold. I could write convincingly and clearly. I had completed tons of college coursework in translation at Georgetown and had published translations with nationally renowned Russian scholars at the Smithsonian. I’d been selected by scientific publishers from many hundreds of applicants, often the only translator chosen in a given selection round. The staff at the American Institute of Physics would always call me “Dr. Hendzel” when I called because many of the other translators on the translation program held PhDs in physics (I didn’t)  and they were wary of offending somebody (I would politely correct them, but they would just as politely ignore me.)

So this editorial brutalization took some getting used to.

Twice a week I’d receive these fat packets stuffed full of hard-copy final corrections (later I’d receive red-lined electronic files). It was feedback on a massive scale, constantly, every single year, across dozens of sub-disciplines in physics, optics and engineering, and seemingly without end.

It occurred to me that this level of collaboration and correction was a lot like the scientific enterprise itself.

You learn three things from this kind of decades-long editorial mauling.

1. Humility.

2. Collaboration.

3. Perseverance.

Welcome to the Commercial Translation Market

Fast forward a few years to when I jumped feet first into the commercial translation market with my company ASET.

The first of many sobering realizations you come to in the early phases of building a premier boutique translation company is that you cannot possibly do all the work yourself, even if you do dictate.

After seeking out and examining the actual translation work produced by your commercial colleagues, you soon begin to realize that something is terribly wrong.

The commercial translation market appears to be radically different from the scientific publication market in some very crucial ways.

Don’t get me wrong. Some of the work is genuinely good. This warms your heart and brings a smile to your weary face. But much of the technical, legal and even financial translations produced by some of the most visible and recognizable names in the commercial translation industry – even those with graduate translation degrees and certifications a mile long – are dramatically and bizarrely uneven.


This comes as a bit of a shock. How is this possible?

The quality spectrum and relative distribution looked something like this:

Publishable – Good – Understandable – Technical Fiction – Embarrassing – WTF?

After you’ve carefully evaluated several hundred translation samples yourself and had thousands more assessed by your former scientific-translator colleagues you do trust, a pattern begins to emerge.

The translators whose work is most solid – technically accurate, well-researched and elegantly written – are those who have had excellent technical subject-matter training (whatever relevant field) and have been translating professionally for a minimum of ten years. A decade appeared to be a tipping point.

But that’s only a start. Far more crucial to real expertise was the way these translators worked for all those years.

The Essential Role of Collaboration

The best translators had dodged the bullet of working in total isolation. They had spent their careers working in a massively collaborative environment – either physical or virtual (sometimes both). These people had been revised. They’d been edited. They’d been re-written. Their texts had been scrutinized, disemboweled, blasted apart and re-assembled.

They’d been fine-tuned and polished and burnished and shined.

Their translations had been at risk their entire careers: At risk for acceptance or rejection or revision by their own colleagues who were right there in the trenches working with them.

They would project their translations on screens at translation conferences and stand by them. They would reflect and consult and discuss with the session attendees ways to improve them.

Often conference interpreters who also worked as translators – the ultimate experts in collaboration and active learning from each other – were, surprisingly enough, much more flexible and receptive to instruction and guidance than were (written-only) translators with subject-matter training working into their native language of English.

Angry Isolationists

This rejection did not go over well with some of the translators whose work I evaluated, heavily edited and then rejected for requiring far too much intervention on every level.

“Your changes are a matter of opinion,” some sniffed (perhaps, but their translations were describing a physical world that did not actually exist).

“Here are my responses to your changes,” they would say, writing out 20-page single-spaced responses defending terms they “found in the dictionary” but made no sense in the context, to the extent that their context made any sense at all.

“Translators are creative artists and do their best work alone, like authors do,” some translators argued, often angrily and vociferously. It was pointed out to me more than once that Shakespeare worked alone (seriously). They would dispute the most minor of points and reject all feedback on principle. Most of these objections followed Sayre’s Law: “In any dispute, the intensity of the feelings is inversely proportional to the value of the issue at stake.”

“I’ve Never Had a Complaint from a Client.”

Then there were the translators who would defend their translation quality based on the specious and puzzling notion that they’d “never had a complaint from a client.”

This could not be true, first, because I was a client, and my rejection of their work based on a careful assessment was about as “complaint-y” as it gets.

Second, veterinarians never have complaints from their patients, either – nor do coroners – for perhaps the same reason that some translators don’t. Many clients cannot accurately assess translation quality – certainly monolingual clients can’t – so they say nothing at all.

Silence should not be confused with a vote of confidence.

The Exorbitant Price of Arrogance

All humans have an enormous cognitive and emotional investment in self-image. And translators are running a business, which supports their very livelihood. So these are some very sensitive grounds on which we tread.

Unfortunately, these translators had made the regrettable decision somewhere in their careers to defend their ego and self-image over all else, even (and especially) the quality of their product. This is a doomed strategy in a competitive market. It’s also an unfortunate one given the opportunities we all have to learn from colleagues through collaboration.

And even a modicum of modesty – or a realization of the limits the complexity of the world place on us – would have unwound all that defensive energy and pointed them into a much more productive – and ultimately happier – direction.

Author bio

Translator, linguist, media commentator and business executive Kevin Hendzel draws on over 35 years of experience in the translation and localization industry in a broad range of roles, including translator, language lead, company owner, lexicographer, media commentator, and national event panelist.

As the official translator of 34 published books in physics and engineering and 10,000 articles for the Russian Academy of Sciences, Kevin Hendzel is one of the most widely published translators in the English language.

Kevin’s professional background includes an extended period working on the US-Russia Direct Communications Link, also known as the Presidential “Hotline,” where he was Senior Linguist of the technical translation staff. Between 1992 and 2008, Kevin worked to advance ASET International Services Corp. to become the leading firm on all nuclear programs in the former Soviet Union before selling the company with his business partner in 2008.

Kevin was the original architect of the ATA national media program launched in 2001. Between 2001 and 2012 he served as National Media Spokesman of the American Translators Association. During that period he appeared on CNN, FoxNews Live, ABC World News Tonight, CBS News, NBC News, MSNBC, National Public Radio, Voice of America, PBS, The New York Times, the Washington Post, the AP wire service, ReutersThe Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionUSATodayWired and many more outlets promoting translation and interpretation services as vital to commerce, diplomacy, security, and culture.

Summary post: The thorny problem of translation and interpreting quality

As professional translators and interpreters, we are always striving to provide high-quality services to our clients, be that translation, interpretation, revision work, etc. Yet what does high-quality work look like as a language professional? How can it be measured and how do we know if we are providing quality work? Drs. Geoffrey Koby and Isabel Lacruz tackled this massive subject in their academic introduction to a volume of Linguistica Antverpiensia, New Series: Themes in Translation Studies that focuses on the issue of translation quality.

Their introductory article, The thorny problem of translation and interpreting quality, talks about how translation and interpretation quality is measured around the world with a handful of examples and explains why it is so hard for many professionals to agree on what translation quality really is.

The main problem with discussing translation quality is that there is no set definition nor a widely accepted tool for measuring it. The authors discussed the possibility of two largely acknowledged definitions put forward in an article for Revista Tradumàtica: tecnologies de la traducció:

Narrow definition: “A high-quality translation is one in which the message embodied in the source text is transferred completely into the target text, including denotation, connotation, nuance, and style, and the target text is written in the target language using correct grammar and word order, to produce a culturally appropriate text that, in most cases, reads as if originally written by a native speaker of the target language for readers in the target culture.”

Broad definition: “A quality translation demonstrates accuracy and fluency required for the audience and purpose and complies with all other specifications negotiated between the requester and provider, taking into account end-user needs.”

These two differing ideas bring up the question of whether high-quality translation and interpreting is indeed necessary for all projects. Machine translation (MT) and post-editing have made this question even more relevant nowadays. Is it not better to have a translation produced by MT that does not use well-formed language or sound native, but gets the idea across for instances where the text would not have been translated at all? Perhaps, but would that text still be considered quality work? That is where many views differ.

So, despite a lack of a universal basic definition for translation quality, how can one’s translation quality be measured? Different associations and government organizations around the world certify and test translators and interpreters to ensure that they are competent language mediators. However, assessing language professionals varies greatly in form, content, approach, length, etc. for each exam.

Many translation exams are based on either a holistic assessment or a points-off system. The ATA certification exam uses the points-off system where errors of various severity levels have different point values and will be deducted from an overall score. However, Koby and Lacruz state that this system fundamentally emphasizes failure and not what the individual did right. The correct is assumed; the incorrect is pointed out. Yet if full accuracy means zero (or nearly zero) errors, then an argument can be made for preferring error-based assessment over holistic assessment.

In regards to editing and proofreading practices in translation, revisers will often make unnecessary corrections to a translation. This inhibits the accuracy and the quality of the text and also wastes time and money for the client. The authors point out the need for more research in this area that would incorporate explanations from revisers as to why they made changes in order to classify them as “necessary” or “unnecessary” and keep a holistic view of the translations to see how they affect translation quality.

The second half of the introductory article discusses the different articles in the volume, which present ways that translation, revision, MT and post-editing, interlingual live subtitling, and interpreting quality are assessed. For brevity purposes, here are some of the ways that researchers differed in opinion in regards to assessing translation quality alone.

Research from the FBI concludes that there is a third aspect of assessing translation in addition to source language comprehension and target language writing skills. Translators that produce quality work also possess translation proficiency, a separate ability to translate well, which must also be assessed.

Another set of researchers believe that translation quality can be determined by looking primarily at the target text, as opposed to measuring the adequacy of the transfer between languages. They assessed this through the use of corpora and extracted several features to be analyzed. The researchers concluded that this method, in addition to constructive feedback, would be a better approach to assessing quality in translation.

Yet two other researchers disagree with both of these theories and suggest that a Calibration of Dichotomous Items (CDI) method is more appropriate for assessing translations. This method takes translations of the same material from a large group of translators and identifies the segments where there was a large difference in translation quality. Then, they decide which translations are acceptable and which are not, but they do not attempt to rate the quality of the translations in a more refined way.

A final set of researchers analyzed the different testing approaches for translators in Finland against the testing systems in Sweden, Norway, and the German state of Bavaria. After assessing the different approaches to testing in these other countries, some of which use error analysis method and others a criterion-based method, the authors decided to improve the Finnish examinations further by proposing a simplified scoring chart.

Though it is unclear which methods of assessment are the most accurate, this introductory article and the other articles in the volume were meant to shed light on some of the various ways that translation quality can be tested and the reason why it is so hard to define quality in language translation. Human language and mediation are complex, therefore quality assessment for translation, interpreting, and related activities remains a thorny problem.

About the author

Olivia Albrecht is a French and Spanish to English translator and copywriter specialized in marketing and tourism. She has a B.S. from Kent State University in translation studies and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in digital marketing. She splits her time between living in Canton, Ohio, US and Cali, Colombia. You can find out more about Olivia on her website at www.oneglobetranslation.com or on Twitter at @OneGlobeTR