Hone Your Craft Before You Sell—How I Would Have Practiced as a Newbie in Hindsight

 

I made almost every mistake in the book when I was starting out as a translator. However, I recently reflected on what I would have done differently if I knew then what I know now. This led me to come up with a specific self-practice process simulating real-world working conditions that I wish I had followed before selling my services. The system is also designed to provide valuable feedback and data. Now I would like to share this with readers in the hope it proves useful to others.

This post is inspired by one of my favorite Marta Stelmaszak posts, “A letter to my younger self as a translator,” and conversations I’ve had in my capacity as a mentor in the ATA Mentoring Program. So, here are the steps I would follow if I could go back in time.

Identify realistic source texts

Consider what types of businesses are a good fit for your skillset, meet your interest, and have a demand for your services. What industry or industries are you willing and able to specialize in? What types of texts need to be translated in those industries?

If you don’t know, find out. Ask colleagues with similar specializations what types of documents they usually translate. Or better yet, ask businesses in your field what types of documents they usually need translated into your language. Now go and find these texts online in your source language and save them as practice texts.

Identify good target-language texts in your field and compare

Next, find some high-quality, monolingual texts of the same type in your target language. Studying these will help you get a better feel for conventions and terminology in your field and avoid “translatorese.” Then compare these with source-language material to identify key differences and how some standard terms might be translated.

The source-language material should be as realistic as possible, which means it may not always be perfect or amazingly well written. For the target-language material, you should strive to find the best work possible. Look for well-written texts that you can aspire to and learn from. Good writers read a lot and take inspiration from what they readthe same can be said of translators.

Find someone who is willing and able to give constructive feedback

How will you know if you are making mistakes if nobody tells you? How will you know if your work is worth what you’re charging?

Working closely with revisers on direct-client projects has taught me a lot. The feedback from colleagues has been invaluable, and I regret not getting more of it earlier in my career.

It would be ideal to make an arrangement with someone before you start practicing so you can get feedback on your work as you practice. Here are a few suggestions on how to find someone (disclaimer: I haven’t tried these, but in hindsight, I would):

  • Ask an experienced colleague with the right language combination and specialization if they would be willing to mentor you by providing feedback, at least on a few short practice translations.
  • Find one or more other newbies with the same language combination and specialization to look over each other’s practice translations. It can be easier to spot room for improvement in others’ work, and this would be mutually beneficial.
  • Join or a start a revision club for your language combination.

Set up a time-tracking app and a statistics template

Like most newbies, I struggled to determine what to charge when starting out. It can also be hard to estimate how long a job will take. Tracking how much time it takes you to translate various text types is a great way to solve this problem. This will allow you to more confidently set, accept, or reject a deadline, and determine which types of texts are most lucrative for you.

First, you need to choose a time tracking app. There are many to choose from, and I use TimeCamp. You can even track manually in an Excel file or on a piece of paper if you prefer. The important thing is that you record the time when you start and stop working.

Then you will need a template or method of compiling and comparing your statistics. I use a custom Excel file where I enter parameters such as text type, end client, editor, word count, fee, hours, and an hourly rate calculated by dividing the total project fee by the number of hours worked. If you aren’t an Excel nerd, you can use another method or fewer parameters. Just be sure to set up a system that works for you, so you can make use of your data.

Tracking time this way helps you determine which types of texts go faster or slower, which you’re better at, and which ones you might be better off avoiding. For example, if you spend four hours on a 500-word company presentation in PowerPoint and two hours on a 500-word press release, then you know that charging the same fee based on the number of words for both isn’t a great deal for you.

Start practicing and evaluate

Crack open your realistic source texts, start your time tracker, and get to work! When you’re done, send your translation for feedback and editing, and enter your hours into your spreadsheet. Now carefully evaluate the feedback and data.

Imagine this were a billable project and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Would you and your client be satisfied?
  • If not, what needs to change, or where can you improve?
  • Do you need to brush up on your specialization, source-language comprehension, or target-language writing skills?
  • How long did it take you?
  • Would you be satisfied with your earning capacity translating at this speed?

Be sure to try a variety of different text types to get a feel for which ones you’re better at. Repeat similar text types to see whether the practice helps you improve and produce quality work faster.

When are you ready for the real thing?

I think a good way to measure when you’re ready to not only start on a basic level, but work effectively at a high level in the translation industry, would be when you’re confident in your ability to:

  • Produce accurate translations suited to the client’s needs
  • Be clear about your specialization(s) and the types of texts you’re proficient in (know your limits)
  • Quote a rate that reflects the time and effort you expect to spend on the project based on your experience and data from similar work
  • Quote a deadline that’s realistic based on your experience and that won’t jeopardize quality

Although this process may take time and effort, I believe that this type of rigorous practice regimen is better than attempting to learn on the job or winging it, not least because it can be stressful and time-consuming to accurately quote and sell your services as a newbie—you might end up either wasting precious time and energy trying to figure it out on the spot or accepting projects you live to regret.

One might argue that learning on the job means you get paid while you learn, but this could prove a risky gamble if you get in over your head. If you get stuck doing text types that have little to do with the type of work you actually want to be doing in the long term, you might not be learning the right things or might adopt practices and habits that take time to unlearn later, especially if you receive little or no feedback. Finding what direction you want your career to take early on and working hard to achieve your goals will surely give you a flying start.

Do you plan to try any of these methods or similar techniques or have you had positive experiences with a similar type of practice regimen? If you already have some experience under your belt, how would you have practiced in hindsight?

Image source: Pixabay

What Exactly Is a Technical Freelance Translator?

by Jost Zetzsche

I was asked some time back to write a book chapter about freelance translators and translation technology. Not surprisingly, I started by defining a “freelance translator” in this context. Here’s what I came up with:

“According to Wikipedia, a ‘freelancer’ is ‘a person who is self-employed and is not necessarily committed to a particular employer long-term. (…) The term freelancing is most common in culture and creative industries [such as] music, writing, acting, computer programming, web design, translating and illustrating, film and video production, and other forms of piece work which some cultural theorists consider as central to the cognitive-cultural economy.’

“With translators listed directly in the middle of groups identified as typical freelancers, we need to further narrow the distinction between literary and technical translators. ‘Technical translation’ is defined according to Sofer (The Global Translator’s Handbook. Lanham: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2012, 20) ‘by asking, does the subject being translated require a specialized vocabulary, or is the language non-specialized?’ A sampling of areas in which technical translators are active includes aerospace, automotive, business/finance, chemistry, civil engineering, computers, electrical/electronic engineering, environment, law, medicine, military, nautical, patents, social sciences, and telecommunications (ibid., 67f.).

“The diversity of fields for technical freelance translators is reflected in other areas of diversity as well.

“First, there is a wide array of commitment to the task of technical translation, ranging from voluntary, occasional (paid), and full-time translators. In the context of this contribution, we will consider only technical translators who make a substantial part or all of their livelihood by performing translation for one or — more typically — many clients. These clients could be translation agencies that subcontract to individual freelance translators or direct clients who hire freelance translators without a mediating actor. End clients may range from large international organizations to individuals who need to have personal documents translated.

“Second, the most natural area of diversity originates in the many different language combinations. Both source and target languages differ greatly in how they are supported by technologies. This includes

    • access to dictionaries and/or corpora
    • spell- and grammar-checking
    • input methods (including voice recognition)
    • morphology recognition
    • machine translation
    • the applicability of technologies that rely on parameters such as space-based word delimiters or fuzzy term recognition in languages with no traditional word boundaries or no inflection

“Third, there tends to be a correlation between the translated languages and the location of the translator. In turn, the location has an impact on the access to various kinds of technologies, from limitations to online resources applied by service providers or political control or simply prohibitive costs.

“And finally, the nature of each translator’s specialization also results in differing technology requirements, including potential limitations of using certain technologies that may not match security protocols or regulations or a particular high (or low) appreciation of very specific terminology with its corresponding technology requirements.

“Given all this, the following observations are by necessity generalizations about the members of this diverse community.”

Is that how you would define (professional, technical) freelance translator? I’d be eager to hear some feedback.

Reblogged (including the image) from The Tool Box Journal, Issue 18-4-286

Fidelity In Translation

Torture of Etienne Dolet

Reblogged from Dragon Translate blog, with permission from the author (incl. the images)

Faithfulness or fidelity has been a measure by which a translator’s work can be judged. However, fidelity has not remained constant throughout time and across space and at different stages of history the interpretation of fidelity has varied quite broadly. This essay aims to discuss this meandering in the term fidelity and will examine various theorists who can provide examples of fidelity in action.

Fidelity defines exactly how precisely a translated document conforms with its source. It can allude to how a document corresponds with its source in a variety of ways, from being ‘faithful to the message’, to being ‘faithful to the author’. Also one must factor in the register, the languages and grammar, the cultures and the form. Fidelity theory and its discussion has dominated the history of translation studies. In the early days, adherence to the source text in a verbatim way was seen as the best fidelity. However, as time has progressed, society has learned to define fidelity quite differently.

Origins of translators in history can be difficult to define. One of the key protagonists we have is Cicero, the early Roman orator. The Romans perceived themselves as a continuation of their Greek models. Translation was primarily a form of literary apprenticeship and literature was read in parallel Greek and Latin texts. Cicero outlines his approached to translation in his work De optimo genere oratorum (46 BCE), Cicero writes: ‘And I did not translate them as an interpreter, but as an orator, keeping the same ideas and forms, or as one might say, the ‘figures’ of thought, but in language which conforms to our usage. And in so doing, I did not hold it necessary to render word for word, but I preserved the general style and force of the language.’(Cicero 46 BCE). Thus Cicero was rebelling against the traditions of ‘word-for-word’ translation.

Another innovative translator from Cicero’s time was the poet, Horace (65 BC-8 BC), who again favored a ‘sense-for-sense’ view to translation. Horace was interested in promoting creative writing, and saw in his Ars Poetica how the free translation of Greek texts aided poetic composition:

‘It is difficult to treat a common matter in a way that is particular to you; and you would do better to turn a song of Troy into dramatic acts than to bring forth for the first time something unknown and unsung. Public material will be private property if you do not linger over the common and open way, and if you do not render word for word like a faithful translator [interpres] (Trans in Copeland 1991:29)

The ideas of Cicero and Horace have remained at the constant forefront of translator’s minds, even into the twentieth century:

‘During the 1920s, the philologist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff urged translators of classical literature to “spurn the letter and follow the spirit” so as “to let the ancient poet speak to us clearly and in a manner as immediately intelligible as he did in his own time”.(Venuti 2012:73)

The ideas of Cicero and indeed Horace, in using ‘sense-for-sense’ fidelity, were taken up by the patron saint of translator’s, St Jerome (347-420 CE). The Edict of Milan in 315 was where the Emperor Constantine embraced the Christian religion for the Roman Empire and St. Jerome was responsible for the first official translations of the Bible into Latin, although this translation was never officially recognized by the Catholic church until 1546. Jerome quoted Cicero in a prominent letter he wrote to his friend, senator Pammachius in 395 CE: ‘Now I not only admit but freely announce that in translating from the Greek – except of course in the case of the Holy Scripture, where even the syntax contains a mystery – I render not word-for-word, but sense-for-sense.’ (St Jerome 395 CE)

Fidelity is a subject for which some paid with their lives, in particular when the translator was dealing with religious matters. It is that serious an issue and here are examples of some of translation’s martyrs.

Etienne Dolet (1509-1546) was a controversial figure in translation that fell foul to his age’s definitions of fidelity in translation. Dolet was indeed burnt at the stake after being condemned by the Sorbonne for his translation work whereby he denied the existence of the afterlife. He had added the phrase ‘rien du tout’ in an explanation of the afterlife in his translation work on one of Plato’s dialogues. This denial of afterlife contravened Church doctrine and was seen as blasphemous and heretical and so Dolet became one of translation’s first martyrs.

William Tyndale (1494–1536) was another translator who paid the ultimate price of execution after failing to submit to his era’s definitions of Fidelity. Tyndale’s heresy was to translate the Bible into English into an age where the use of the vernacular was frowned upon. The Tyndale Bible, in a later age where the parameters of fidelity had changed and there had been a paradigm shift, became the basis of the most famous Bible translation, the King James version.

Perhaps to have paid the ultimate price was harsh but it these were extreme cases in an age where the work of translators was so critical. The European Renaissance was flowered by the work of translators and it was part of the period whereby the work of the church clashed with the needs of the growingly enlightened populations.

‘Language and translation became the sites of a huge power struggle.’ (Munday 2012:37)

Moving on from the early translators and the Middle Ages, it wasn’t until quite late that the official views on fidelity moved away from word-for-word translation.

‘So, the concept of fidelity (or at least the translator who was fidus interpres, i.e. the ‘faithful interpreter’) had initially been dismissed as literal, word-for-word translation by Horace. Indeed, it was not until the end of the seventeenth century that fidelity had come to be generally identified with faithfulness to the meaning rather than the words of the author.’ (Munday, 2012:40)

John Dryden (1631-1700), the Poet Laureate, developed translation theories rooted in the free translation that flourished in the 17thcentury. His ideas and triadic model of translation fuelled the thinking of many subsequent translators, deep into the future. He developed three ideas, that of MetaphraseParaphrase and Imitation as providing the core elements of a translator’s task.

Dryden defines his views on fidelity:

‘I thought fit to steer betwixt the two extremes of paraphrase and literal translation; to keep as near my author as I could, without losing all his graces, the most eminent of which are the beauty of his words.’ Dryden (1697/1992:174 in Munday 2012:42)

In the early nineteenth century, German philosopher and translator Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768 – 1834), brought together a change in the ideology of fidelity. His views on domesticating and foreignization of texts introduced the concept of reader and writer and how the translator has a role of moving either towards each other.

For Schleiermacher, “the genuine translator is a writer ‘who wants to bring those two completely separated persons, his author and his reader, truly together, and who would like to bring the latter to an understanding and enjoyment of the former as correct and complete as possible without inviting him to leave the sphere of his mother tongue.’ (Lefevere 1977:74 in Venuti 2008:84)

Schleiermacher identified two possibilities for a translator: either move the source author text towards the reader, or move the reader towards the text. These were the outlines of his foreignization and domesticating strategies. His aims were produced by a desire to embellish the rapidly industrializing German economy into line with other superpowers with an embellishment of their mother tongue, in line with Nationalization movements. He wanted the German language to be enriched with a new vigor of translated ideas and words, to strengthen the German spirit and to make Germany a strong nation. A domesticated translation will favor the target tongue and culture and a foreignized translation will enrich and embellish vocabulary as it introduces alien ideas into the target language. Schleiermacher favored foreignization for this reason as he wanted the German language to be stronger and more akin to the industrialized economy that was developing during the period in his homeland. Fidelity for Schleiermacher became geographical. It depended on place and we are removed from the ideas of word-for-word and sense-for-sense and look to fidelity being a matter of space or place.

Schleiermacher has gone on to influence many modern translators and his foreignization and domestication theories have provided the roots of modern luminary Lawrence Venuti, whose own work has its own ideas on fidelity. Venuti looks at the ‘Invisibilty of Translators’and believes that transparency for a translator when he rewrites a text is essential for fidelity:

‘A translated text, whether prose or poetry, fiction or nonfiction, is judged acceptable by most publishers, reviewers and readers when it reads fluently, when the absence of any linguistic or stylistic peculiarities makes it seem transparent, giving the appearance that it reflects the foreign writer’s personality or intention or the essential meaning of the foreign text – the appearance in other words, that the translation is not in fact a translation, but the “original”.’ (Venuti 2008:1)

Thus, for Venuti, a translator must take the background and disappear. It is a concept which builds on moving the writer and reader together and apart and is an extension of more classical ideas of sense-for-sense and word-for-word theories. Not all modern day thinkers on translation share Venuti’s ideas on fidelity. Others can be more dark and critical of the whole translation experience.

After Babel is the seminal work from the 1970s by George Steiner. Steiner’s views on ‘Hermeneutic Motion’ are that translators face an impossible task. He values translators to a point but argues that translation is a harmful activity.

‘Fidelity is not literalism or any technical device for rendering ‘spirit’. The whole formulation, as we have found it over and over again in discussions of translation, is hopelessly vague. The translator, the exegetist, the reader is faithful to his text, makes his response responsible, only when he endeavors to restore the balance of forces, of integral presence, which his appropriate comprehension has disrupted. Fidelity is ethical, but also, in the full sense, economic.’ (Steiner 1998:318)

Thus for Steiner, he rejects ideas put forth by Cicero et al regarding sense-for-sense and also moves against Schleiermacher and Venuti. He recognizes fidelity as a concept but feels that the translator has a disruptive presence. It is in stark contrast to Venuti’s ideas on the translator being invisible.

It has been noted through the course of this essay how fidelity has changed over time and how the ideas of translators have not remained constant. Have these ideas always progressed? Can we ever move directly away from fidelity relating to ‘word-for-word’ renderings? A translator has a duty to remain faithful although innovation within any semantic field can be productive. It is the soul of a creative industry such as translation to think sometimes outside of the box, and such valuable paradigm shifts that progress education and the arts, that develop our whole culture, can only be possible when someone rises to stand out above the crowd, to put their neck on the line, and question the status quo. Not everyone succeeds when they do this, perhaps, but our histories are full of such philosophical giraffes and we remember the likes of Cicero, Horace, Schleiermacher, Dryden, Dolet, Tyndale, Venuti and Steiner, because they have progressed their fields by developing new ideas and pointing the work of translators in different, new directions. Yes, fidelity is an essential criterion for any translator, but it would be interesting to directly compare how much other terms in translation such as Loyalty, Equivalence and Function can also affect the work of translators. Perhaps that is a subject for future work.

Bibliography:
Copeland, R. 1991 Rhetoric, Hermeneutics, and Translation in the Middle Ages: Academic Traditions and Vernacular Texts, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Hubbell, H. 1969 M., trans. “De Optimo Genere Oratorum.” Cicero: De Inventione, De Optimo Genere Oratorum, Topica. London: William Heinemann Ltd.
Lefevere, A. 1977 Translating Lierature: The German Tradition from Luther to Rosenzweig, Assen, Van Gorcum
Munday, Jeremy. 2012 Introducing Translation Studies. Oxon: Routledge.
Steiner, G 1998 After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation Oxford: OUP
Venuti, Lawrence. 2008 The Translator’s Invisibility Oxon:Routledge
Venuti, Lawrence 2012 The Translation Studies Reader Oxon:Routledge

Book review: Deconstructing Traditional Notions in Translation Studies

Reblogged from the ATA’s Spanish Language Division blog with permission by the author, incl. the image

In order to set the context of what translation is, I will quote the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) description of translation performance:

Translation is the process of transferring text from one language into another. It is a complex skill requiring several abilities.

The term “translation” is normally reserved for written renditions of written materials. Translation is thereby distinct from interpretation, which produces a spoken equivalent in another language. While translation and interpretation skills overlap to some degree, the following applies only to document-to-document renderings.

A successful translation is one that conveys the explicit and implicit meaning of the source language into the target language as fully and accurately as possible. From the standpoint of the user, the translation must also meet the prescribed specifications and deadlines.

Competence in two languages is necessary but not sufficient for any translation task. Though the translator must be able to (1) read and comprehend the source language and (2) write comprehensibly in the target language, the translator must also be able to (3) choose the equivalent expression in the target language that both fully conveys and best matches the meaning intended in the source language (referred to as congruity judgment).

A weakness in any of these three abilities will influence performance adversely and have a negative impact on the utility of the product. Therefore, all three abilities must be considered when assessing translation skills.

Various non‑linguistic factors have an impact on performance, such as the time allotted to deliver the product, and familiarity with both the subject matter and the socio‑cultural aspects of the source and target languages. Given previous knowledge of these factors or appropriate training, an individual with limited skills may in certain instances be able to produce renditions of various texts that might be useful for specific purposes. On the other hand, an otherwise skilled translator who lacks subject matter knowledge or who is unfamiliar with certain socio-cultural aspects will often provide an erroneous translation.

“ILR Skill Level Descriptions for Translation Performance,” Preface, Interagency Language Roundtable, http://www.govtilr.org/Skills/AdoptedILRTranslationGuidelines.htm.

On page 2, Moros says “all theory affects practice, and all practices produce theory” and indicates that it is almost impossible for historians to work in an unbiased manner. I will call this implicit bias.

As translators, we are constantly developing theories whether we realize it or not. The decisions we make today are often the same as the ones we made yesterday and the ones we will make tomorrow. Whether or not we go to the trouble to write them down so we can share them with others in a theoretical framework is another matter, but as we discuss our edits we often find we did in fact have reasons for translating the way we did! That is called theory. I have seen this in listserv discussions many times… Translators are practitioners who in fact produce theory.

Implicit bias: When I studied to be a teacher in Argentina, the Social Studies professor required that we study history from two books with opposite perspectives to make sure we were exposed to two opposite biases! As translators, we are expected to shed our implicit bias when we approach a translation and read the material we translate with the implicit bias of the author. That takes special skill. Then we must consider the implicit biases of our readers and the words that will speak to them, so that we can communicate our message to them in the proper way. Can a machine do that?

In order to translate without implicit bias, we must become visible. We must be able to ask questions. We make choices and generate thoughts on how to handle problems. We cannot develop theories about how to translate a text or develop a style sheet for an organization without consulting with our clients. This is how humans are different from machines.

Today, according to Moros, translators are trained in a mechanistic way, reminiscent of Taylorism. Taylor coined the phrase “task management.” This is assembly-line work theory, which has been applied to factory work. Taylor proposed that workers get paid by the piece (does this remind you of being paid by the word?). The unions were able to convince Congress that this “efficiency” was not effective and should not apply in government-run factories (page 24).

What are some of the problems with this piece-rate system? According to Moros, the piece-rate system is hurting translation rates. In a large translation project, for example, a company would ask a translator to provide a discount, yet charge the end client the same rate for every word. However, the translator is the one paying for the translation tool!  Translation quality suffers and so does the pay. (page 26) In my opinion, this generally also assumes the work will be done faster. The ILR description of translation quoted above says, “Various non‑linguistic factors have an impact on performance, such as the time allotted to deliver the product.”

Another problem with the Taylorist perspective on translation is viewing translators as interchangeable. For example, at times translators are required to interact with a translation memory program that a large organization has created; such organization put a document together ignoring sections that may or may not match the document in question. This trains translators to simply not be concerned with the quality of their work, since it is not a priority for the people who they interact with directly. In any event, this model is simply not one that can be applied many times.

Moros proposes some alternatives to Taylorist translation training, starting on page 61. He recommends that translators become visible, understanding that they are creating truth and knowledge, and that they understand the concepts of meaning, transfer of meaning, text, author, authorship responsibility, ideology, and colonialism.

Moros reminds us that reading is contextual, and understanding varies depending on the context. Therefore, translators must take responsibility for their text as authors of the translated text. In this process of becoming authors of the translated text, every decision must be justified. In an ideal world, translators must be able to communicate with the requester of the translation and, whenever possible, with the author. It is essential to know the purpose of the translation and who the readers will be in order to translate the document properly.

However, as Moros reminds us, the Toledo Translation School, in its second period, did things right. King Alfonso X of Castile, called the Wise, directed that translation would be done in groups. This is reminiscent of the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM International) and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) translation standards, which include the role of a bilingual editor (another equally qualified translator), not doing a back translation, but as part of the quality improvement process.

These are just some highlights of what Moros shares in Deconstructing Traditional Notions in Translation Studies: Two exemplary cases that challenge thinking regarding translation history and teaching translation, LAP Lambert Academic Publishing (2011-05-17). The full book is worth the read! The International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is 978-3-8443-9565-5. Happy reading!

To ask or not to ask – that is the question…

Reblogged from the blog ClaireCoxTranslations ~ Lines from a linguist, incl. the image, with permission from the author

It’s a familiar story: you’ve come to the end of a lengthy translation and there are a couple of points you’re not quite sure about. It might be in-house jargon, or indecipherable acronyms. Or then again the source text might not be very well written, or there may be ambiguities you need to resolve in order to convey the meaning accurately in your target language. So do you get back to the client and ask for clarification? Or just hope for the best and go with your instincts….?

I’m firmly in the “ask” camp myself. I don’t believe any agency or direct client worth their salt would think you any less professional for seeking clarification. Indeed, not asking is much more likely to leave you open to accusations of unprofessionalism! There may be any number of reasons why a source text might not be entirely clear: the author may have left a word or phrase out; there may be a typing or dictation error, the text may have been left deliberately ambiguous, but conveying that ambiguity in the target text might not be quite as straightforward…. You might just not have a enough context to go on to make an informed decision. Add these to the list of considerations I mentioned above and you’ll see that if you’re in any doubt about the true meaning of your source text, it really is best to ask.

I clearly recall Chris Durban, in her mystery shopper presentation at the ITI Conference in Birmingham in 2011, describing her experiences with outsourcing work to translators. She too was amazed how few translators bothered to ask questions, but she was actually far more concerned if translators DIDN’T ask! I only outsource a limited amount of work these days, but I feel the same way. I always try and make it quite clear that I’m happy to answer any queries, no matter how trivial. It shows me that the translator is thinking about what they’re translating and keen to get it spot on.

I tend to leave it until the end of my first draft before sending in my queries, but with a very long document, it might be a good idea to split the text into sections and send batches of queries after each section. I’m currently working on a very lengthy translation and sent my first list of questions when I reached the quarter mark, over a week ago. Unfortunately, I’m still waiting, despite gently nudging the agency a couple of times in the interim! This is frustrating as not only am I perpetuating any misunderstandings I might be making, but the longer it takes, the more potential adjustments I’ll have to make at the end, rather than after a shorter section, as I’d hoped. Many of my queries relate to acronyms, not to their meaning as such, but how the client would like them conveyed in the target file. In the particular field I’m working in, some of my clients like to use the equivalent English acronym, some prefer the French left as it is and others prefer the French followed by the English equivalent in square brackets afterwards – as you can see, it’s a potential minefield! This particular end client made it very clear at the outset of this project that they were happy to field questions and that the priority was for accuracy, yet I suspect project managers at the client’s end have changed in the meantime and I have on occasions been asked to highlight any queries when I return my final translation – never a satisfactory outcome for the translator!

I often find that working for direct clients leads to more successful question-answer sessions, as you are able to go straight to the horse’s mouth. I love it when you query a term and the client ‘phones or e-mails you back saying they’ve just spoken to the engineers and giving you a detailed description of what the widget in question actually does – brilliant! Then again, direct clients may not speak the source language at all, but merely discussing the issue with them shows them that you’re aware there’s a problem and if nothing else you can add a translator’s note with possible options. I translate an ongoing series of minutes and actions for one particular client and it’s gratifying to find, further down the line, that a particular piece of text that I’ve queried has been amended in the source text as not being sufficiently clear there either….

I have worked for clients in the past who have clearly been unwilling to “bother” the end client and have just said “Oh, put what you think….” – which I hate! Providing you’ve done the necessary research, using standard dictionaries in your subject field and a decent amount of online searching, it is most certainly not a sign of weakness or ignorance to check your understanding of a specific term or phrase. Patents in particular, with their very long and convoluted sentences, are often riddled with typing errors and omissions and I frequently send them back with a list of queries based on my assumptions. With patents, you are often asked not to correct errors in the text, but to note them separately for consideration by the patent attorney. Another agency client sends me two-column Word documents extracted from Déjà Vu with an extra Comments column, and I use this to note any niggles I might have about the text as I work, for easy reference by my agency contact at the end. Translator’s notes (footnotes or endnotes) are another option, but I’d rather avoid these unless specifically asked to use them as I feel it breaks the flow of the text.

Of course, there are lots of things you can do before resorting to sending that list of queries to the client: checking dictionaries, on and off-line and carrying out web searches. I find Linguee extremely useful these days, as it shows you words used in context – you have to be able to sort the wheat from the chaff, obviously, but it can give you a nod in the right direction. Translation forums are also very valuable resources: professional associations such as the ITI have language and subject networks, often with associated e-groups, where you can post term queries for discussion by qualified translator colleagues. I find these particularly helpful for getting a native speaker’s take on a particular phrasing, less so for highly technical terms, but it’s always worth a try if you’re really stuck. Finally, I have a number of colleagues I can refer to in extremis, either by Skype messaging, e-mail or ‘phone: it’s amazing how often the act of writing down your concerns helps crystallise the problem in your mind! And if it doesn’t, two minds are better than one and, between you, you can arrive at a solution. It may be that you’re still not sure, even after all that, so that’s when you need to consult the client.

Often, if you’re unsure about something, but persuade yourself that you’ve instinctively worked it out, that will be the one term that will come back and bite you – in the form of a proofreader’s red pen, or at worst an angry reaction from the client. It just isn’t worth taking the risk – even if you have to badger the client to respond in the first place! At least that way, you’ve raised awareness, asked the question and tried to reach a solution. If you still don’t get an answer, you may have to reiterate your concerns when you send in your final text, but the ball is in the client’s court, unsatisfactory as that may be for you as a perfectionist translator…

So, yes: ask, ask, ask every time is the answer to my question – not to the extent that you make a nuisance of yourself, but so that you show yourself to be the diligent, professional translator we all aspire to be.

TM-76_The absence of context is to be lamentedWith grateful thanks to www.tina-and-mouse.com for the very apt cartoon!