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Machine translation

As a translator, I am often asked if my job will soon be taken over by machine translation. After all, the argument goes, surely a computer could do your job? Perhaps it could in some instances and indeed computers can translate relatively complex sentences. But how can they possibly have the innate feeling for language that a human has?

There has been a bit of a buzz on this subject in Germany this week. It was reported on the radio that when inputting "one one one" (surely one of the simplest words in the English language?) into Google Translate the answer delivered was "Ostzonensuppenwürfel Ostzonensuppenwürfel Ostzonensuppenwürfel".  English speakers are always fascinated by the extraordinary length of some German words yet 99% per cent of them would probably smell a rat when confronted with this answer.

If it does not mean "one" what does it mean? Answer: East German soup cubes.

And when you've finished laughing, consider this: how easy would it be to spot much more subtle mistakes when running your marketing documents through a machine translation system? If you do not speak the target language, how will you know that it is littered with mistakes? One thing's for sure: your foreign clients will notice immediately. They might be kind about the blunders but they're not going to be impressed.  A human translator may cost more initially but the savings to your reputation and the positive feedback in terms of an increase in sales will be worth their weight in gold!

Happy Christmas everyone from TrànslationWörks!

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TrànslationWörks is taking a break for the festive season and will be back in business on Tuesday 4 January 2011. Happy New Year!

The free use of this image granted by the fine folks at Image: Idea go / is hereby gratefully acknowledged.

August 1: Switzerland's National Day

Last week, I mentioned that Diccon Bewes had been interviewed on Radio 4's Excess Baggage. Bewes is a Brit living in Switzerland so he is well placed to report on the idiosyncracies of the Swiss from a foreign point of view. By means of his blog, Swiss Watching, Mr Bewes can also be considered a translator and interpreter - and thus be included here. For although he does not earn his living by translating the written or spoken word, he interprets Swiss life and culture for those of us who do not live there and cannot get under the skin of the country. His full immersion experience allows him to report on aspects of life that are not always apparent to the average tourist. It will not come as any surprise that Switzerland is not all skiing, watches, holey cheese and Heidi; Bewes reports on politics, football, avoiding social gaffes and perhaps the most important difference between the British and Swiss cultures: how not to queue.

Bewes has written about Switzerland's National Day (which falls today) giving a good flavour of how the day is celebrated. For the British, a national day is something of a foreign concept. I have often found myself explaining to incredulous foreigners that we, unlike the Germans, Americans, French, etc., do not celebrate our nation in this way. There has been some discussion in Parliament about instituting such a day but, so far, little progress has been made.

I have fond memories of visiting friends in Basel on August 1st one year so here's wishing my Swiss clients, colleagues and friends a happy national day!

Credit where credit is due

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When drafting my previous post, I was quite shocked to discover that there was no mention of the name of the translator of Penguin Popular Classics' 1997 edition of Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

This is an illustration of the curious way that translators are perceived.  When I meet people for the first time, they seem to be rather impressed that I speak a couple of foreign languages and that I earn my living from translation. Their reaction usually includes a regretful recitation of why they abandoned their language studies at an early age.

In the English-speaking world, particularly, we have become used to "everything" being in English and when we read a text in translation, it is usually done so perfectly that it is not possible to discern the language in which it was originally written.

Translators, in contrast to interpreters, are usually unseen by the general public and, as their profile is not public, their contribution can often be overlooked - as is the case of the translator of 430 pages of Dostoyevsky's Russian classic.  Without his or her hard work, I, as a non-Russian speaker, would not have been able to read this novel.

I hope in the future all publishers will acknowledge their translators!

As a New Year's Resolution, I challenged myself to read one World Classic in translation every month.  Something I did not appreciate at the outset was how huge a task this actually is. World Classics tend to be mighty tomes and so far I have found that I am behind on my quota!

However, my quest has not been entirely in vain, for, when reading Fyodor Doestoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, I came across this passage which is a perfect illustration of one reason to use a professionally trained and qualified translator and not to believe that by using a student you will obtain a product of equal quality.

In this short scene Razoumikhin meets his friend Raskolnikoff in the street.  "Stop a minute, Mr Chimney Sweep! You are positively out of your mind! I am giving no lessons myself, either. I am at present doing translations for a publisher. I had counted on you as being useful to me. My orthography is rather bad and I am very weak in German - indeed, I only undertook the work with the hope of its leading to something better. Look here, he will pay three roubles for translating these German pages, and you may do them if you like. Here!"

Raskolnikoff is not tempted by the handsome sum on offer and refuses the translations and payment. He has weightier matters on his mind - namely the premeditated murders he has just committed for little material gain. His mental anguish is such that he is unable to function properly and has made himself ill.

Now, I am not suggesting that students are known for committing murder but it is clear here that Razoumikhin realises that he has bitten off more than he can chew. He admits that he cannot spell and that his German is not up to the standard required. His inexperience and eagerness have caught up with him.

Professional translators will know their limitations; for example, I know that I do not know anything about nuclear physics and so will not attempt such a text. Conversely, translators do know which texts they can tackle to make a difference and make the language sparkle. Recently, I was asked three times by a project manager to work on texts concerning railway engineering. Each time I reiterated that he would be better advised to ask someone qualified to undertake the work. I did not omit to mention that would be happy to help him if he required translations of texts in my specialist areas of marketing and advertising, travel and tourism, education, human resources and cookery!

[Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dosteyevsky. Penguin Popular Classics 1997]

Season's Greetings

Season's greetings from TrànslationWörks, Bath, to all my readers, clients and colleagues!

Joy and peace to you all, now and in 2010.

St Jerome - Patron saint of translators

Today, 30 September, is International Translation Day which was established by the Fédération Internationale des Traducteurs (FIT) in 1991. The reason this date was chosen is because it is the day on which St Jerome died in Bethlehem, in 420 AD.

St Jerome, who was born c. 347 AD, was a linguist and translator. He was fluent in Greek and translated the Old Testament from Hebrew into Latin. (If you'd like to see Albrecht Dürer's impression of the holy man hard at work have a look at my home page.) Not only is his feast day celebrated within the Church today but translators around the world remember him by staging conferences and events to raise the profile of their profession.

The vital role of translators in the world is often forgotten or invisible. Without their specialist skills how many of us would be able to read the Bible in our own language, enjoy literature from Russia or Chile, buy goods from Japan and Germany or travel seamlessly to foreign lands?

The secret of the swimming pool

It is common knowledge that we derive great benefits from exercise.  We maintain a healthy body weight, exercise our muscles and heart, oxygenate our blood and generally acquire a glow of wellbeing.

This summer I have had the opportunity to swim my 50 lengths a day in an outdoor pool. What could be more pleasant than gaining the above benefits under a pleasantly warm sun (or warm rainfall some days!), with the beautiful green hills gently rising and birds and butterflies flying and fluttering above me?

And the benefits are not all mine!  There have been occasions when I have had great inspiration for translations. The rhythm of my strokes and breathing have allowed my mind to move onto other planes. Phrases that have eluded me at my desk have fallen neatly into place when "getting away from it all" for an hour.

It is not always easy to come up with 'le mot juste' when time is of the essence and deadlines are tight. I always try to persuade clients to build in a little extra time - even when the pressure is on. Some people like to have time to "sleep" on the final version of a project and with a bit of planning and good judgment, sometimes even just an extra hour or two can make all the difference between a good translation and a sparkling one. This summer for me the secret has been in the swimming pool!

Wonderful clients

Over the ten years that I have been translating, I have had the privilege of working with some wonderful people.  I shall jealously guard the names of my favourite clients but I can tell you why I like them so much.

  • They include me in the project planning process
  • They check my availability
  • They book me well in advance
  • We discuss the purpose of the project together
  • We establish the target audience
  • We consider the appropriate language register
  • We build in slippage time for unforeseen problems
  • There is time to discuss knotty problems - such as obscure terminology
  • There is ample time for thorough proofreading
  • Result: an excellent product
When translators meet together, half their conversation is spent reciting the horror stories where only some (or none!) of the above points are taken into account leaving the poor translators feeling completely stressed out simply because their vital role has been included at the very last minute. Perhaps a subject for another post!