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What do people think about translators?

A (very good) agency for whom I work has sent me a job from a client I shall, of course, not name. It consists of 60 or 70 picture captions for a magazine. The end-client does not seem to think it worth giving the translators access to the actual pictures. After all, all we do in this business is retype what is there, but we just do it in a different language, don’t we?

Machine translation and human clangers

The New York Times has recently run a comparison of Web translation tools.  Over the last few weeks I have had reason to look at some Italian sites, and the existence of these tools has made me realise that there cannot be much money left in the business of “gist” translations. What has reassured me, however, as someone who makes a living from translation, is that even now these tools often fail even to give a “gist”.  Of course, we can expect the results to improve, and possibly to do so quite fast, but in many cases, especially if the source is at all complex, the result is near gibberish.  Consider, for instance, the word “provanti”, which does indeed seem to be some kind of Italian word.  But what does it mean?  Attempts to use the Google translator on phrases containing this word yield gibberish: “Casa Provanti”, for instance, is yielded as “home hard to deal with”, and other trials show that at the moment the translation engine believes that “provanti” means “hard to deal with”. No, no, no, no, no.  It is a participle associated with a verb for attempting or trying, as in “I am trying to please my guests”.  The engine seems to have fallen for what I recall as a schoolboy joke:

“Can’t you do that with a bit more effort?”
“Sorry, I’m trying.”
“Yes you are, very!”
(Boom, boom!)

But humans make mistakes too. Consider, for instance, a site to which I was recently referred, in the “languagering”, offering ” Training in writting”, and telling us that “writing can be a tedious tasks”.  It would appear that for that writer, checking spelling and proofreading were just too tedious by far!

And here is another, although the author of this one can be perhaps forgiven, as the text was submitted for proofreading and correction.  I will not name the source, as it is a client who pays me. It illustrates the mistake that can be made by some Germans (and no doubt those with other native tongues) who plan to save money by doing the “translation” themselves, then paying a native of the target for the proofreading only.  The problem is, of course, that the difficulties created by this process mean that the “proofreading and correction” may demand more time and money than simply translating in the first place.  The source text was “Bei Werkstattmontage gebohrt”. For those who don’t know German, “bei” is related to the English “by”, and carries meanings like “in association with” or “at the same time as”, as well as “next to” and so on.  It is not used, however, to convey agency in the same way as in “I was knocked down by a car”. “Werkstattmontage” is a simple example of a German compound noun, and can uncontroversially be translated as “workshop assembly”. “Bohren” is to make a hole, as into “bore into a piece of leather”; in engineering contexts it is most often translatable as to “drill”, and a “Bohrung” is a drilled hole.  So our phrase is a comment on a hole, and tells us that it is “Drilled during workshop assembly“. Our German “translator”, however, had rendered it as (wait for it…): “Bored by workshop assembly“.  They probably were!

Disclaimer: having criticised the spelling and command of language of others it is a cosmic law (WIP – Wilding’s Inevitability Principle) that I have made at least one silly mistake in this article.  Don’t blame me!

Rates and the GFC (again)

My earlier comments about rates were prompted by the fact that for some months my own order book has been slacker than it used to be. I must, on the other hand, say that for the last two or three weeks things have been more like what was familiar for years: I’m repeatedly having to turn work down for the simple reason that I just have no more time available.

I had come to the conclusion that rates really have been falling for one, simple reason – one agency for whom I have done a lot of work over a number of years simply stopped contacting me. After around four months I wrote to them, asking if everything was ok. After all, bankruptcies happen, company principals die or get taken ill – there are all sorts of reasons why a source of work might suddenly dry up. Their answer was very simple and very clear: although (they were kind enough to say that) I am “certainly one of their best translators”, my rates were simply too high. When they ask their own customers for the same money that they use to charge, they simply no longer get orders. They would only be able to make use of me, they said, if I could restructure my charges in such a way that I would be getting only something like 75% of my former rate. My relationship with this trusted customer is a good one, and the circumstances make it quite clear that this was not a “try on”. I should point out that I had been charging this client the same as I charge everybody else. On the other hand, I don’t know what their own margin is, and I therefore don’t know how their charges to end-customers compare with those made by other agencies.

The implication was clear enough to prompt me to write to all the clients for whom I have done jobs in the last two years, bluntly asking them whether my current price is a problem. Every single one was kind enough to reply, and every single one said that no, my prices are perfectly normal and perfectly acceptable. All of them but one said that they were simply finding that there is, at present, much less work about, and that companies who need translations done are trying to reduce the amount, postpone the work, or in some other way put less translation out onto the market. The only one who claimed to be as busy as ever is quite a small concern, and focused primarily on French rather than German, so perhaps not typical of my other clients.

There does seem to be still plenty of support for the old wisdom that if people will not pay a decent price, they may indeed get translations, but that he quality will be very poor. If a bargain-basement approach were to become a trend that characterised the whole market, good translators would eventually become altogether hard to find.

Conclusion? I don’t know, but it’s food for thought.