Sunday, June 27, 2010


Only a fool would deny that the translation profession is in a profound state of change as is the world in general. Values and attitudes are changing and, by and large, people seem willing to believe that they have no control over their destinies. Translators accept the notion that "consistency" is good and that they will only be paid full price, which is substantially less than what it was a few short years ago, for "new" words. They are willing to accept a fraction of that for "fuzzy" or "near" matches and nothing or almost nothing for repetitions. The idea is that they can produce more in the same amount of time and thus come out ahead, while assuring greater consistency.

At the outset, I think that it is important to emphasize that consistency can be very important; in fact, it is essential when you are translating shop manuals, users' manuals, etc. It is in the translation of documents such as these that translation memory software can be a very effective tool. But, beyond that, we can wonder if "consistency" does not lead to boredom. We all know that many concepts can be expressed in a variety of ways and that good writers throughout time have avoided repetitions by using different words, sometimes to reinforce the idea by expressing it in a different way and at others simply to make the text more interesting. You can imagine how boring it would be to read over and over again the words "he said" when the writer could have used "he affirmed", "he stated", "he announced", "he remarked", and on and on. As translators, we are first and foremost writers, and it is our job to communicate a message in an interesting and informative way.

So, yes, consistency does have its place but, in reality, it is a small one and by making it something desirable in translation, we are denying the nuances and subtleties of language. What is even worse for translation is that if a certain sentence is translated in a certain way and becomes part of a translation memory, that sentence is perpetuated and its accuracy may never, ever be questioned. Indeed, the sentence may have been a wonderful translation in its original context, but may be woefully inadequate in other contexts.

More and more, I am seeing the concept of "new words" being used to exploit translators whether they use translation memory software or not. Translators are told that they will be paid only for the "new words" in a text, and it's a matter of take it or leave it. I recently received a job offer from an agency that involved translating an employee survey. It was supposed to be a "literal" translation where grammatical errors were not cleaned up. As we all know, this is something that only human beings can even hope to do. There was a translation memory of sorts with only two repetitions and the job was to be delivered as a bilingual .rtf file. I replied that I would be happy to do the translation but that I do not use Trados.

The PM accepted my offer to submit a single English .rtf file and we agreed that I would only be paid for the "new words" in the file. There were two repetitions which, as it turned out, were "Merci". As I translated the .rtf file, it was difficult to tell where one response ended and another began. I followed the formatting of the French .rtf file as far as spacing, etc.

I delivered the file with the usual covering note and heard nothing for a day. Then I received an email asking me if I could paste my translation into an Excel file and match the French with my translation. This took several hours because of the way the French .rtf file had been set up. It was only possible to tell where one response ended and another began by looking at the Excel file. To make matters worse, the PM had no budget to cover this extra work and asked me to do it "as a favor".

First of all, this job was not a job that should have been done with Trados. The idea that you can get repetitions and "fuzzy matches" from an employee survey is nothing short of ludicrous, especially if you are attempting to duplicate grammatical errors. The translator should have been given the Excel file and been asked to work with that.

This is just one example of what seems to me to be a misuse of translation memory software. I received another job offer which would have involved working with a "Trados-enabled" file from which I would only translate the "new words". It would jump from new segment to new segment. I turned it down. I am a firm believer that meaning only exists within a context, so the very idea of translating only "new words" seems to be missing the point of what we are supposed to be doing. Meaning is dependent upon a context which the translator must analyze and interpret. It is not a matter of producing words.

When I hear people cry out against the "commoditization" of translation in one breath and then propose translation memory as a boon to translators, I can only wonder what they are thinking. When we accept a text as being made up of a certain number of "new words" and a certain number of sort of new words, and a certain number of old, used, repeated words, we are certainly reducing translation to a commodity that consists of words and is not all that different from quantities of corn, wheat, or pork bellies.

So, that is the current state of affairs. What tomorrow will bring depends upon what we do today and, unfortunately, I see no signs of life in our community. There may be a little "gentle" outrage from older translators, but it stops there. It is typical of what I see happening in the nation and in the world as we are increasingly willing to admit defeat and slip into decline.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Reply to February 17, 2010 Blog

By George Witherington
16 June 2010

In her blog post "PROFESSIONALISM" REVISITED" of February 17, 2010, Rosene links the "present sad state" of our profession with ill-advised efforts to "formalize" translation. "Would-be protectors of our noble profession" (me included) are taken to task for trying to force the "art" of translation into a scientific straightjacket.

From the client's standpoint, Rosene's objections against rationalization may seem out of place in an industry being transformed by computer-assisted translation (CAT). Its two main elements, machine translation (MT) and translation memory (TM), have been a veritable boon to translation service users. Capacity, efficiency and rapidity gains have at last become possible. Large-scale projects, which were previously considered impractical or too costly, have become feasible today thanks to CAT tools.

Yet continuing translator unease over this "invasion of the machines" is also understandable. MT violates fundamental rules of the art. In particular, it delivers approximation in place of strict accuracy. Worse still, MT creates the illusion that there is no further need for human translators. To believe that automation can replace humans is to ignore that CAT depends on recycled human translations. It needs further up-to-date human translations if matches are to be current. To advocate wholesale automation is, furthermore, to imply that language and translation training, whether academic or professional, is pointless.

Translators' coolness towards MT and TM is also financially driven. MT shrinks the pool of work available to translators. TM is blamed for rate modulation according to TM match; e.g., 75%-95%, 100%. Both have contributed to stagnating or lowering remuneration rates. On the other hand, the increased productivity enabled by MT and TM means that translators who do use these software tools can earn more than they otherwise would.

It was inevitable that translators would be caught unawares by the arrival of CAT tools. The profession's narrow "craft" focus meant that it paid little attention to downstream processes (typesetting, post-editing, proofreading, paper and electronic publishing). Translation seemed oblivious to the fact that its outdated practices were preventing users from efficiently exploiting translated material.

The new technology was introduced by software specialists from outside the industry with an eye to rationalizing the entire translated document production chain and not just translation. A profession with a stronger voice and clearer idea of its role within the chain might have engaged in a more constructive dialogue with the innovators. That could have led to fewer unintended consequences for all the parties concerned...and Rosene would have been happier.

George Witherington

16 June 2010