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Do you say NO to a translation?

It is every freelance translator’s wish to maximize his/her incomes, which means that the situations in which a translator refuses to work on a project are quite exceptional. The most common reason for rejecting a translation project is the lack of expertise in the field of the project. This is, in fact, the very first lesson of translation ethics ”when you’re not sure you can handle a certain text, don’t agree to work on it”. There are, however, other situations in which someone should reject working on a project.

For instance, I would definitely think twice before translating propaganda texts written by political or economic organizations (I exclude marketing texts from this category). I would never translate texts written by extremist organizations or parties and I would definitely reject translating a text promoting hate, racism or antisemitism. Some might argue that the translator is anonymous and no-one will find out who performed the translation. This is true, however, working on such a project actually means promoting the message and being involved in the process. Not only are you working on a text that is against your moral principles, but also helping conveying a ”polluting” message.

I would also refuse to work on a project if the source text was incomprehensible. Sometimes, the text is so badly written that it would be impossible to understand it, let alone translate it. Don’t forget that Murphy’s law ”Garbage in, garbage out” applies to translations as well.

These are only a couple examples of situations which would make me reject a translation. I am very curious to find out what other translators have to say about this topic, this is why I would like to have your input in the comment section :).

  Thomas   Jul 11, 2014   Intercultural consultancy   0 Comment Read More

Source text oriented vs. target recipient oriented translations

Source text oriented or target oriented? That is the question. In fact, this has been the question for a long time. Both approaches have their advocates. While some assert that a translation is mainly a ”copy” of the original and it should clearly reflect the structure, tone and  linguistic microstructures of the source text, others maintain that the main function of a translation is to convey the information contained by the source text to a target readership so that is fully comprehensible to the latter. I have to admit that I have always been a strong supporter of the target oriented approach. But this was not without consequences for me. Ten years ago, during the high-school graduation exam (Bacalaureat) we were supposed to translate a text from Romanian (my mother tongue) into English (although the role of this translation was to assess grammar knowledge, I still consider this task inappropriate for a high-school examination). My approach to this translation was ”unorthodox” for the Romanian education system of those days, because I re-wrote the text in order to make it sound as good as possible in Romanian. Since my text had nothing in common with the reference translation (yes, assessors had a reference ”standard” translation) provided by the Ministry of Education, I was quite heavily penalized. Luckily, afterwards I attended one of the best translation schools in Romania where we were taught the principles of functionalism (which, among others, highlights the importance of target oriented translation).

But why is the target oriented approach more suitable for translation? Well, in order to find the answer to this question, we should start by acknowledging the very purpose of a translation: to make a text written in a foreign language accessible to an intended target audience. This target audience should not be aware of the fact that they’re reading a translation. The text should read as smoothly as possible and be completely adapted to their culture. And if this requires altering the original structure, merging two sentences into a single one or even changing the style of the text, then so be it! The only thing that cannot and must not be changed is the message. You might think that translating in these circumstances is very easy. On the contrary, having so many options entails a high degree of responsibility. Clearly, the translator is responsible for every choice he makes. And for this reason, not only does s/he need to have a clear insight of the target culture, but also s/he needs to know what the cultural guidelines of writing a certain text genre are. A translated contract should look exactly like a contract written directly in the target language. An instructions manual should use adequate language, the kind of language the readers are familiar with in such a context. Translators who use the source text as an excuse for their inadequate translations are not professional translators. And will never be!

  Thomas   Jul 11, 2014   Intercultural consultancy   0 Comment Read More

Standard Romanian Characters vs. MS Legacy Romanian Characters

I decided to post this after I noticed that the issue of the Romanian standard characters generates misunderstandings. I hope this will be especially useful to clients and project managers who don’t understand Romanian, but who require translation services into Romanian. There are two characters which seem to be problematic: Șș and Țț (and for a good reason).

Up until Windows Vista, Microsoft had used the wrong diacritical signs for the Romanian characters ‘ș’ and ‘ț’. More precisely, instead of complying with the Romanian standard SR 13411:1999 and the international standard ISO/IEC 8859‑16:2001 (Latin10) which provide that a comma should be added underneath the letters ‘s’ and ‘t’ (Unicode codes: U0218 – S with comma, U0219 – s with comma, U021A – T with comma and U021B – t with comma), they complied with the international standard SO/IEC 8859‑2:1998 (Latin2) according to which a cedilla is added underneath the characters ‘s’ and ‘t’ (Unicode codes: U015E – S with cedilla, U015F – s with cedilla, U0162 – T with cedilla and U0163 – t with cedilla).

If the software or OS you are using is not compatible with the standard coding, you will see little empty boxes for each occurrence of these characters. This problem has prompted many of the PMs I am working with to assume that the characters are corrupted and asked me to revert them to the ”Legacy characters”. Even though the difference between the characters may seem insignificant, I think that standard characters should be used whenever possible (this entails updating to Windows Vista or Windows 7 or to install the Romanian Interface Pack for Windows XP Professional).

For Romanian readers I recommend the following article (which also served as a source for this post – Thank you!):

  Thomas   Jul 11, 2014   Intercultural consultancy   0 Comment Read More

Attempting to Define Culture

The word culture has become too common a word these days, and more often than not we tend to take its meaning for granted. We use it for professional purposes and for personal purposes, we invoke it whenever we feel threatened by others, but also when we’re searching for reasons to initiate conflicts. But how much time do we really spend trying to understand it, to define it? This is my attempt to define culture based on my personal research. Here is my answer to the question ”What is culture?”

Culture [is] Language

Nothing defines better culture than language. Because language IS culture in the strictest sense. It synthesizes every aspect of a culture. All words with no exception have a cultural load because they are the product of culture. Language is the most accurate mirror for culture. Besides, no-one can pretend to be part of a certain culture unless that person actually speaks the language of that particular culture.

Culture [is] history

All humans are historical beings, in the sense that they internalize the tradition/history of a culture through their language, way of thinking and their world view. Their cultural identity has been shaped by the many previous generations and their actions. This does not mean, of course, that one needs to have all his/her ancestors of a certain origin. As said earlier, culture can be acquired through language or, to be more precise, through proper communication using a language with people belonging to the same culture.

Culture [is] History

History with capital H. This time History refers to all the past events, personalities, works of art etc. of a culture. They make up the heritage of a culture.

Culture [is] Communication

In her book English Meaning and Culture (2006) (a book that I recommend to everyone), Anna Wierzbicka tells the story of Abraham Rihbany, a Syrian linguist who moved to the United States and who studied the different patterns of communication according to culture. The main thing he noticed when he compared American (Western) culture to Arab (Eastern) culture was that while the Western world cherishes a straightforward, direct communication – never meaning more or less than they say -, the Arab world uses a different approach. In their acts of communication they always say more than they mean. Thus, for instance, they have the tendency to exaggerate whenever they wish to compliment someone (which might seem quite embarrassing for a European or an American).

What I am trying to say is that all cultures have a different approach to communicating efficiently. What for some might seem highly inappropriate, for others it represents normality.

Culture [is] Geography

The territory inhabited by a culture has without any doubt a strong influence on the latter. It influences greatly the activities and the way of life of a culture. A good example is the way in which certain concepts are reflected in language. For instance, since the activities of Romanians were highly linked to nature due to the relatively mountainous landscape of the country, Romanian language perceives the elements of nature in a very complex manner. Thus, while the majority of languages have only one word for the concept [tree], Romanian has three words for the same concept: [arbore], [copac] and [pom]. The word [arbore] refers to the general category of tree, [copac] refers to all the trees which do not bear fruit, while [pom] refers to the trees which bear fruit. This is only one of the many examples.

This is only a small list of the elements that I consider essential for defining culture. The list is, of course, open for other suggestions…

  Thomas   Jul 11, 2014   Intercultural consultancy   0 Comment Read More

My View on the Reliability of MT

I feel that I owe some explanations after my first article about machine translation (MT). In my previous post, I stated that machine translation can be a very useful tool, but it cannot and should not replace the human translator. I will very briefly try to explain why, after which I promise to drop the topic for good :).

The first argument against machine translation (and I would include all engines here, not only Google and Bing) is creativity (or the lack thereof). Everyone agrees that humans are creative creatures, they can create stories, objects, works of arts, to name only a few. And believe it or not, language is probably the greatest creative achievement of the human mind. But not in the sense of a finite object, because language is not something ”made”, it’s something ”in the making” (an activity). This fact lies at the heart of Humboldt’s theory of language and is acknowledged by all modern paradigms of Linguistics. According to this principle every speech act is new even though it is indeed based on our historic linguistic experience. But the way in which we use our linguistic knowledge to create new meaning is completely different from the way a machine uses the corpora of text to ”create” new translations. Humans create new speech acts (in essence, a translation is a speech act) based on meaning and sense, they dress them up with words, which means that the same idea can be expressed in very many ways, using completely different words. A  computer, on the other hand, will always use the same sentence to express a certain idea. And this brings us to the second part of my post.

The second argument against MT is meaning. Every translation course is based on the assumption that the students/trainees attending the course are fluent in at least two languages – their mother tongue and a source language. Clearly, in order for anyone to translate, they have to speak and understand the two languages. In other words, when they read and attempt to translate a text, they will be required to understand it. Not only do they have to make out the meaning of individual words, but also grasp the sense of the whole text. Mind you, it has been proven that the best approach to translation is a text-linguistic approach. So I am going to ask you the following question: Is a computer capable of grasping meaning? Can it understand a text? I’m afraid the answer to this question is no. A translation engine only recognizes words and sentences and uses a statistical model to compare them with parallel structures in the target language corpus in order to come up with the best solution. Wait a minute… Did I say it recognizes words? WRONG! It recognizes signifiers (signifiants) which are only graphic representations. It doesn’t even bother to go beyond signifiers and discover the actual meaning of these representations simply because it can’t! A computer does not speak any language. A computer does not understand meaning. A computer does not read texts, let alone understand them.

It’s true, MT has evolved a lot in the last couple of years and the statistic approach it uses is to a certain extent functional. But the question is, is this really enough? I mean if MT is so great, why does it need post editing? Why does it need human intervention? Yes, I know, some will argue that MT helps increase productivity. But is this all that matters? Does everything come down to money and quantity?…

Maybe a day will come when a computer will be able to fully understand us and yes, to translate flawlessly, but that day, my friends, will be the day computers will fully replace humans in all their activities…


  Thomas   Jul 11, 2014   Intercultural consultancy   0 Comment Read More

It’s Us Against the Machine?!

One of the hot topics at the FIT Europe Seminar in Bucharest this weekend was the so-called threat of automated translation to translation professionals and to the translation industry in general.

The conclusion of the FIT Europe Seminar panel discussion was that  machine translation, although a fast-growing technology, does not pose a real threat to the translation profession in terms of quality, in the sense that it will not make the translation profession extinct. And this is because it will never be able to replace human professionals and translations made by machines will never be as good as human translations. This does not mean to say that automated translation has no place in today’s society. On the contrary, it is (and should be) used for different purposes than human translations. Its main role is to translate very large amounts of text within very short periods of time making content ”accessible” to various target readers. Translations produced by the machine are not supposed to be 100% correct and are not meant for publication. They are useful whenever someone wants to grasp the general idea of a certain text (or corpus of texts). So yes, machine translation is very useful and necessary sometimes.

So far, there is nothing wrong with the machine. Human translators and translation engines can co-exist. Nonetheless, if attempts are made to shift today’s translation business model by including machine translation in the process, as a recent TAUS analysis suggested (see here), things can get nastier. First of all, according to the same analysis, translations will still require post-editing from humans since their quality is far from perfect, so there will be no such thing as ”automatic translations” – they will be at best ”semi-automatic”. You can see the threat, right? In such a scenario, Internet giants (such as Google, Microsoft) and organizations promoting machine translations (such as TAUS) will become the leaders of the industry. Mind you, they will still require translators (which they will elegantly label as post-editors) because, let’s face it, no-one will risk publishing a faulty translation produced by a machine. But these ”new” professionals will have a much reduced significance from the perspective of the automated translation provider and will be paid less…

Yes, you might think that the inclusion of machine translation in the process will make translation much speedier. But if you look at it objectively, machine translation will not fully replace human translators, they will still be required to intervene and it is not clear how much it will take ”post-editors” to correct the errors made by the machine. I’m guessing it will take pretty long, because on the one hand, reading (carefully!) such large texts takes a lot of time, and on the other hand, certain sentences or paragraphs will require retranslation. So not much is gained in terms of time. The only real gain here is money. If this business model is applied, the costs will be considerably lower, and this is because, as mentioned before, translation professionals will be paid a lot less for their editing and proofreading efforts (that is of course if the true translation professionals do agree to adopt this model…).

So what should translation professionals and translation organizations do? It was agreed during the panel discussion that it is important to explain to the business environment the differences between human translators and translation engines (when it is good to rely on human translators and when on machine translations).  The key word to this entire debate is transparency. We should always be transparent about various translation technologies. And, more importantly, we should ask machine translation providers to be transparent about their practices and beliefs.

I will not list the reasons why I think machine translation will not be able to translate properly because it would make my post way too long and there are a lot of articles on the Internet about that :).

  Thomas   Jul 11, 2014   Intercultural consultancy   0 Comment Read More

And the translation goes to…

In today’s business world, companies do their best to sell their products or services to clients. To keep them satisfied, suppliers need to tailor the product/service according to their clients’ needs. In other words, in order for a business to be successful, clients must be happy. And while for the great majority of businesses measuring customer satisfaction is pretty easy and intuitive, for the translation business the same process can lead to a serious headache. Why? Because more often than not the end client does not speak the target language and has no knowledge of the target culture. Which means that they cannot directly assess the quality of their ”purchase”. Well, yes, but there is always a third party (a QA specialist or a reviewer) who can assess the quality of a translation, right? Not quite… All s/he can do is evaluate the correctness of the translation (provided, of course, that s/he is truly objective). Quality can only be assessed based on the reception of the target text by the intended readers. They are the addressees of translations.

So the translator is faced with an apparent dilemma: who should s/he obey, his/her readers or the client? There is only one possible answer to this question. Objectively speaking, the client will be happy if the readers are happy, therefore, translators should always keep in mind the needs of their readers and act accordingly. This fact has multiple implications on the translation process and on the translator-client relationship. The translator is clearly an intercultural expert, with relevant knowledge of both the source and target cultures, which means that s/he is always able to spot problems and issues that come up during the translation process. And clearly, s/he must by all means keep the client informed. The following is a list of advice that I would give to translators (feel free to disagree and to add other suggestions in the comments section):

  • Always ask questions when in doubt of something. Even if you feel that your question might be stupid, chances are it isn’t. I mean you wouldn’t have any questions if everything was clear to you.
  • Keep your client informed about translation problems (see here). You should let your client know about your opinions on certain cultural/pragmatic aspects and on the changes you would operate. However, before operating a major change, you should wait for the client’s consent.
  • Never take the easy way out. By ignoring problems and by refusing to point them out to the client, you risk denting your reputation and losing the client on the long run.
  • If the client refuses to cooperate, remind him/her of the importance of communicating properly with target readers. Also remind him/her (in an elegant manner) that you have the role of an intercultural consultant and that you have relevant experience in dealing with such issues.

The decision? The final decision on every aspect of the translation belongs to the client. If you do not agree with the decision, you always have the option to refuse the project. This is, of course, an extreme measure. Many times, the issues that need clarification are rather complex and allow multiple solutions, which means that the client’s solution might not be the best, but nevertheless correct. In such a case you are foolproof, because if the client eventually realizes that s/he was wrong, s/he will know that you provided a better solution and may reconsider his position.

  Thomas   Jul 11, 2014   Intercultural consultancy   0 Comment Read More

Dealing with Translation Problems

During the translation process, the translator will come across various situations that might be problematic. It should be mentioned that there is a difference between a translation difficulty, which relates to a difficulty encountered by an individual translator, due to a certain inability, and a translation problem, which is a universal prolem (i.e. it is a challenge for all the professionals translating in a certain language).

A bit of theory

Translation theory mentions four types of translation problems: linguistic, cultural, pragmatic and text specific problems. Linguistic problems arise from the differences between the source and the target language. It is well known that no two languages are alike. They have different grammatical structures, use different idiomatic expressions, employ different terms etc. The second category, i.e. cultural problems are mainly due to the contrast in expressing various ideas and approaching specific text genres. For instance, the English template for an instructions manual differs from the French one, or a culture may employ a specific typology for a species of animals (see example below) whereas another may not. Pragmatic problems refer to any issues relating to time, place and context. The best way to illustrate pragmatic problems is through national institutions whose names and organization vary from one culture to another (e.g. American State Departments vs. British Ministries). Finally, text specific problems are strictly related to a particular text. These could be various innovations made by the text author.

How can translation problems be solved?

Each translation problem can be solved. You just have to know where to find the solution. Linguistic problems can be solved by consulting dictionaries, terminology databases and other linguistic resources. Cultural problems can be solved by consulting parallel texts (e.g. if you have to translate a leasing contract, you should first seek a leasing contract model in your target language). To this end, it is advisable to build up a corpus of parallel texts for each project. Pragmatic problems can be solved by referring to the translation brief or by directly asking the client. And, finally, text specific problems can be solved by employing one’s creativity.

3 Examples of translation problems

1. ”Who is the President of the United States?”

2. How to translate ”tongs” into Romanian?

3. ”Starfish are not exactly fish”

1. The first example is a question in a questionnaire addressed to mental patients. Its aim is to test patients’ memory. Clearly, this question should be addressed to patients living in the United States. But what happens if the questionnaire needs to be translated in another language? I might disappoint you by offering this equivocal answer, but it depends on the context. Normally, such a questionnaire should be adapted to the target audience (i.e. non-American mental patients), so the translated version of the question should replace the US with the appropriate country. But what happens if the question should be translated in the subtitles of an interview videotaped for training purposes? Is the aforementioned solution still valid? Should US be again replaced with the patient’s country of residence? No, in this case the question should be translated as it is. And this is due to the fact that the target audience and the purpose of the question are different, but also to the medium used. In this case, the target audience is no longer made up of patients, but of health professionals who need to be trained in view of using this assessment tool. If, however, instead of subtitling, the client would choose to dub the video, it would be possible to replace again US with the audience’s country of residence, but this would entail further changes and the translator should be instructed to do so by the client.

This is a typical example of a pragmatic problem. You can see that here the solution depends on the purpose, target audience and medium of the target text. The client should provide all the necessary information to the translator in order for him/her to know which solution to adopt.

2. The second example, tongs (kitchen tool), was contained in the same questionnaire. It was used in a section which tested the patient’s ability to recognize various objects. The problem that the Romanian translator has in this case is both cultural and pragmatic. It is cultural because the object is not at all common in Romanian culture (even healthy individuals would have a problem naming it). It is pragmatic because the translation task requires a solution suited for this particular context (in a different context, for instance in an instructions manual, the name of the object should be equated). My suggestion here was to replace this object with another one which has a similar degree of iconicity and usage in the target culture. This solution would entail not only a change operated in the text, but also the replacing of the actual object shown to the patient.

3. I came across the third example in a text with facts about various species of animals. This sentence represents a problem for the Romanian translator because the Romanian equivalent for starfish does not contain the word fish, which means a Romanian native will know that the starfish is not exactly a species of fish and s/he doesn’t expect such a text to tell him/her that. Just like in the previous example, the problem cannot be placed into a single category. Here, we are dealing with both a linguistic problem (the incongruent equivalence) and a cultural problem (the inappropriate sentence in this context due to the Romanian equivalent). The solution, again, would require replacing this piece of information with another fact about starfish.


  Thomas   Jul 11, 2014   Intercultural consultancy   0 Comment Read More
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