Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Venturefest Bristol 2011

Translation is sometimes perceived as an ivory tower activity, far removed from the realities of technological innovation and social interaction. But quite the contrary is true: translation is very much grounded in reality and constantly reaches out to the worlds of modern technology, science and business.

This blog article is about a business event which took place right on my doorstep. On 3 November the new Bristol & Bath science park opened its doors to Venturefest Bristol 2011. Organised by Science City Bristol, it brought together local businesses, investors, academics and the business support community, and was promoted as a catalyst for accelerating the growth of new ventures. I instantly knew this was a must-go event: the science park is within walking (or for me cycling) distance from where I live in Emersons Green. Attendance was free, and I made sure I wasn’t overly busy work-wise that week.

It was a flying, but worthwhile visit: I had a good look around, picked up some leaflets and brochures, made a few new contacts, took and gave away business cards – I even had the honour of being shown around the premises by Richard Pitkin, director of the science park Innovation Centre. The Innovation Centre with its hot-desking spaces, high-tech labs and bespoke buildings is a stylish, modern place with a very pleasant feel to it indeed. With economic prospects generally looking gloomy, it was refreshing to mingle with locals and feel that overall sense of business optimism!

The event focussed on demonstrating new business ideas, for example a new piece of software called Poetiks. It was explained to me by its developer Greg Garrad. Poetiks is designed as an e-learning tool for the classroom. It’s a web application that accelerates poem analyses via an easy-to-use interface, taking the tedious, repetitive work out of the analysis process. More information can be found at Funnily enough, poetry, like translation, is sometimes pidgeonholed as an unprofitable art, but this isn’t why I’ve picked out Poetiks for this blog article. (Translation, by the way, is not an unprofitable art.)

I’ve picked out Poetiks for this blog article because of its striking similarities to translation software. Translation software too takes some of the dull, mechanical work off translators’ shoulders. This frees up room for the intricate component of the translation process which requires human intellectual – and often inspirational − input. In general terms, translation software speeds up the translation process by storing previously translated words, phrases and sentences packaged as so-called ‘translation units’.

As I mentioned, translation constantly reaches out to the worlds of modern technology, science and business. Translation and technology are inextricably linked. I’m convinced that translation quality nowadays is better across the board than it was in the pre-internet era. It seems odd to think that such a wealth of research possibilities didn’t exist not that long ago. Translators today work in a very computerised, internet-integrated, highly networked environment. Here’s something that may be worth checking out: one of the latest, intriguing developments is that memoQ 5.0, as the first translation tool to do so, now features an integrated GoogleMT machine translation plugin.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Here’s my story: Why I became a translator

By the time I turned twenty I had already been to almost 150 funerals. As a teenager I supplemented my pocket money by working as a church organist, mainly for funerals because they fitted in perfectly with school days. However I never considered music for a minute as something that I would want to pursue as a career.

The chapel in the Bad Windsheim cemetery where I worked as a funeral organist

This is because I enjoy quiet activities. I therefore ruled out both music and teaching as career options, which obviously are not quiet activities. Translation, by contrast, is carried out unobserved, in the background. It gives me ample room to think a thought through to the end, and the time for tweaking and polishing the text. Only at the end of it all do I present the final product. This is what appeals to me about translation.

Can you remember your reply to the question of what you wanted to be as an adult? Susan Cain, formerly a Wall Street lawyer, now a negotiations consultant and author of “QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”, makes the excellent observation that as children we could probably judge much better what type of career would suit us than later in life as adults. Susan’s blog article, which includes more illuminating insights, can be found here. I remember that at primary school I aspired to become an author of children’s books. It is clear that that type of work is close to what has become my bread-earning career. Translation is after all a writing activity.

I also remember an incident later at grammar schooI which with hindsight shows that the course for my becoming a translator was set. I didn’t mind Maths too much, but I never was overly excited about it − except on one occasion: I asked my Italian pen-friend to send me her calculus exercises so that I could compare the Italian in them side by side with the German in my own calculus homework. It may seem weird to become excited about such a thing, but it is exactly what fascinates linguists.

The idea of working with languages in some way or another had always appealed to me. A huge number of jobs nowadays involves an exposure to foreign languages to a greater or lesser degree. If, however, you are striving for full immersion in a foreign language, there are, strictly speaking, only 3 career options to choose from: teaching, interpreting, and translation.

You might think it’s obvious that because I have two translation degrees I always knew I wanted to be a translator, but it wasn’t as straightforward as that. My two translation degree courses had not taught me much about the practical aspects of working as a translator. After completing my studies, I was not sure whether translation really was for me. I also found it hard to break through the catch-22 situation of “no experience no work”, which naturally affects many newcomers to the profession. What in the end − almost miraculously − helped my business get off the ground was the PSG, the business skills course for translators run by the ITI. I could suddenly see very clearly where I was heading! May I take the opportunity to say another big thank you to my mentors on the PSG 2007 for their advice and tremendous support.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Top 10 misconceptions about translation and the translation profession

Many misconceptions exist regarding translation and the translation profession. Given that they are so widespread, I wonder if they are ineradicable? Below are 10 of the most common misunderstandings and misconceptions about translators and translation.

Translation is NOT word-for-word substitution!

1) "Translation is just word-for-word substitution." Nothing could be further from the truth; translation is all about taking the meaning behind the words and expressing this clearly in the target language.

2) "All you need is a computer and some software to become a translator." Quite the contrary; to be a good translator you must possess actual linguistic skills. The computer does not (and cannot) do the job for you.

3) "A dictionary is all that is needed for someone to begin working as a translator." Far from it! With their snippets of information, dictionaries are helpful for getting you on the right track to figuring out the meaning, but nothing more than that.

4) "A translation, when it is finished, is something that is set in stone." Please note: A translation, in theory, is never complete. It may seem perfect after checking it 10 times, but you will still change at least one thing when you check it the 11th time. Also, no translation is exactly like another: Give a text to 20 different translators, and you will get back exactly 20 different translations.

5) "To be a translator you must have a degree in translation." Not necessarily; a translation degree is not a sine qua non for becoming a translator. There is no set career path in translation.

6) "As a medical translator you must have a degree in medicine." No one doubts that having such a degree is useful. In practice, however, many medical translators have not necessarily studied medicine. If a medical translator had studied medicine (law, engineering, etc.), she would probably be working as a doctor (lawyer, engineer, etc.), not as a translator.

7) "Translators are willing to work for peanuts." While some translators are indeed willing to work for peanuts, others prefer to earn a decent income. Ultimately, it is a matter of where you position yourself on the market, what type of work you accept, and who your clients are.

8) "Translation is an intellectual and lonely pursuit." Intellectual – yes, lonely – no. Translators never work in complete isolation because they are in ongoing contact with clients and fellow translators – often to a much greater degree than most people may think! These communications can take place via e-mail or phone, on online forums, and in person.

9) "As a translator you can speak and translate between many different languages." Contrary to popular belief, having just one language combination is absolutely sufficient and will generate enough work for a full-time occupation. Translating from a foreign language into your mother tongue (or language of habitual use) is the norm.

That translators don’t necessarily have to be able to chatter away in the language from which they translate is another matter and leads me right to my next, and probably the most classic, misconception about translation:

10) "Being a translator means you either get dumped into an interpreting booth or you showcase your language skills in face-to-face interaction, out in the business world, all day long." Let me set the record straight and repeat what must have been said umpteen times before: A translator works with the written word; an interpreter handles the spoken word.

Ineradicable? – We shall see!

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Your online presence as a shop window

Imagine a potential customer, maybe a customer that you have always wanted to work for, strolling about in the sprawling, over-populated internet megalopolis and then by chance turning into your street − about to walk past your shop window! Yours will be just one among innumerable other shop windows of translators offering their products to the world. What does it look like? Are you pleased with it? In what ways have you exploited the available on-line communication channels to build your web presence and identity?

Anne Besnier’s presentation on 4 June 2011 offered attendees a structured approach to on-line marketing and communication for translators and interpreters. It was based on the dissertation of her Masters in Translation, which she has recently completed at the University of Bristol. Anne brought up a number of facts to keep in mind: Nowadays with the internet, and especially social media, you can easily get lost in no time at all. Social media are often regarded as sources of gossip, a waste of time, and sometimes even throw up confidentiality issues. Anne noted that for this reason two-thirds of UK businesses have banned employees from using these platforms. On the other hand − and this is where self-employed linguists can gain immensely − they offer ways of low-cost marketing and of staying connected with other language industry members. To avoid social media overwhelming you, effective planning is key. You might, for example, include a social media plan within your marketing plan.

A professional website can be compared to a shop window which embodies a translator's professional brand. Anne recommended a simple and easy-to-navigate design. Overloaded websites, i.e. cluttered with too much content, should be avoided. To come back to my question in the scenario above ("Are you pleased with your shop window?"), it is interesting that the majority of respondents in Anne's survey said they did not like their own websites. An on-line shop window does not necessarily have to be a website, but can also take other forms, e.g. having a profile on LinkedIn, Facebook, ProZ, Translator’s Cafe, or blogging.

Anne’s presentation gave me the impetus to explore new ways of presenting the human face of my own business. Joining Twitter (though not addressed by Anne specifically) has actually been on top of my to-do list for a while.

I actually had a personal interest in learning about Anne's research results as I had participated in the survey and interview for her dissertation. I featured as the respondent who said that she did not publish blog posts regularly due to lack of time, but used her blog merely for offering an insight into her life as a translator. I think a blog is also a great tool for clearing up a few of the widespread misconceptions about the translation profession. Anne mentioned that a typical blogger publishes around 100 blog entries per year. She defined blogs generally as personal on-line journals, which offer an excellent way of creating connections with other like-minded people.

Despite the sheer number of zealous bloggers already out on the web, there is still most definitely a niche market for new blogs, for example if you work in a very specialised area and want to offer some insight into it.

Anne’s presentation was run as a professional event of the ITI's Western Regional Group (WRG) in the YHA conference room on Bristol’s harbourside, just by Pero's Bridge. It was followed by a ProZ powwow at the Watershed, the ever-popular, perfect place for eating, drinking and socialising in the centre of Bristol.

Monday, 23 May 2011

ITI Conference 2011 (continued): Insularity, an incomprehensible dialect, T-shirts, and lots more stimulation

Before I expand on the aspects in the title of my second conference blog post, a few words on the venue would be in order. The original, chosen venue in Birmingham due to be provided by Conference Aston was, as it turned out, too close to two student accommodation tower blocks that were to be blown up on the conference Sunday! In response to the demolition plans, ITI had managed to secure exclusive use of the Gallery conference suite on the first floor of the National Exhibition Centre (NEC) instead. Exclusive use meant it allowed for staging multiple parallel sessions. (By the way, the conference also included a number of sessions relevant to interpreters only. Because I exclusively translate and never interpret, I did not attend any of them, and they are therefore not covered in my blog posts.) The Gallery offered excellent facilities and was overall, as everyone agreed, a first-class venue. The NEC as a whole, on the other hand, to me seemed a slightly weird place. I was having a little wander around to get my bearings on the pre-conference evening, only to find out that the NEC was a huge, sprawling, and seemingly deserted complex. In fact, the only places where I could find a bit of bustle in the area surrounding the venue was Birmingham Airport nearby and the various hotels. One of the nice sides of having a little wander around: I bumped into, made friends with and walked back to the hotel with another translator who had had the same idea of having a dry run!

This leads me to another popular part of the weekend: the conference fringe with plenty of opportunities for socialising and networking. Like a lot of other conference attendees, I was staying at the Ramada NEC. The Ramada also was the setting for a relaxed and friendly dinner as part of an informal pre-conference get-together on the Friday evening.

I am now going to provide a round-up of two particularly stimulating conference sessions:

Betti Moser and Isabel Hurtado de Mendoza’s practical workshop aimed at the bottom line that working alone does not mean that we can develop an insular mentality. No freelance translator is an island. Human interaction plays an important part in our lives as well, especially in our relationships with our TC or direct clients, project managers, colleagues, revisers, accountants, family members, childminders or others. The following metaphor had been chosen for the conference programme: We cannot just raise the drawbridge and lower the portcullis when the odd bit of interaction looms! The workshop also addressed a number of awkward or difficult-to-handle situations that can come up in a freelance translator’s work life, including: ways of approaching group translation projects; criticism management; handling dubious job offers; midway cancellations of projects; being asked to carry out free test translations; etc. Betti and Isabel had put a lot of thought and preparation into the workshop. Being practising translators themselves, they were well placed to offer knowledgeable input.

Jonathan Downie’s presentation was about the extraordinary story of his recruitment as the world’s first interpreter of Glaswegian to assist business clients baffled by the local dialect. It sparked an avalanche of media attention and put him high up Google rankings. The title "Maw, Ah’m Oan the Telly!" in Glaswegian, incomprehensible to me and probably a few others as well, was without doubt an excellent hook for the presentation. Have I whetted your appetite? To read the full story see the relevant BBC article at or simply google "Glaswegian interpreter". (By the way, it would not surprise me at all if one day a similar story hit the headlines in the region in Germany where I come from. Readers of this article who are familiar with the Central Franconian dialect will know what I am talking about.) Jonathan went on to share his lessons learnt from the experience: Opportunities can come from anywhere. This means you can make yourself known without having to spend thousands. Jonathan also probably posed the biggest challenge of the whole conference for anyone to take away and have a good think about: What is it that makes YOU special so that it would fit on a T-shirt? What is your USP? Jonathan recommended presenting this USP in the best possible way.

To conclude, I totally agree with Mike Hanson, a French to English translator, who says: “I found it a very sociable and stimulating conference. I really enjoy going to ITI conferences and other events − it gets you out of the office and reminds you that you are a professional doing a real job, and there are plenty of colleagues out there doing exactly the same. You also catch up with colleagues who you may not have seen for years, as well as meeting new ones!”

Saturday, 14 May 2011

"Expanding Horizons": ITI Conference 2011

The ITI’s 25th Anniversary Conference, which was held over the weekend of 8th and 9th May at the NEC Gallery in Birmingham, promised a wide range of topics and speakers and a fabulous opportunity to hear about the latest trends, ideas and techniques across the translation and interpreting professions. But did it live up to this promise? I very much believe it did. "Expanding Horizons" was a very apt conference title indeed as the conference set out to broaden participants' horizons in terms of, for example, what makes a truly professional, committed and sought-after translator. In many respects it also addressed the question: how do we as translators build and maintain the image that we want to convey?

As for new trends, there were, unsurprisingly, several references to machine translation (MT). Machine translation, as is clear to anyone inside and outside the sphere of translation, is gaining more and more ground; at the same time, it is also clear that human translators will never be outdone by MT. Terry Oliver, in his talk on the upsides and downsides of translators being human, highlighted a number of qualities that human translators typically bring to the job: they possess language skills; they are able to consider the wider context; they can make associations; they are capable of lateral thinking; they read between the lines; they spot errors; etc. They are, to add my two cents, the most prominent reasons why machines will never replace humans. I think that these qualities should be part of our response to the widespread "I-can’t-believe-you-have-just-told-me-you-earn-a-living-being-a-translator-when-there-can’t-be-a-demand-for-this-I-mean-with-everything-that-computers-can-do-nowadays" attitude. Several more hints on how to benefit and ultimately prosper in light of the rising importance of MT were also available over the course of the weekend.

Nicholas Ostler, in the conference keynote speech on the topic "English: The Last Lingua Franca?", even floated the question of whether MT is capable of disrupting our whole world language system. In future, interlingual contacts will presumably no longer be through traditional intermediaries. Nicholas touched on the likely decline of the phenomenon of "native-speakerism", and he envisages World English possibly turning into a sort of "Wimbledonized English", to draw on a metaphor popular in the financial world. To use a sentence from the conference programme, which featured in the keynote speech conclusion: Will the fall of English as a shared language of communication be followed, not by the dominance of another, stronger tongue, but by a return to Babel in which technology rather than human language facilitates communication?

Other noteworthy trends addressed at the conference were those subject areas most in demand at the moment, as outlined by Sarah Griffin-Mason. According to recent figures, technology, medicine, and marketing, in that order, are the areas where most translation work is currently placed. Tourism also is on the rise as tourism industry members have become aware of the importance of how they present themselves to potential customers.

I also gleaned from the speaker/audience comments that the traditional role of the translator is undergoing change. It seems that in the future, translators, much more than ever before, will be regarded as writing experts, style professionals, or language consultants. Jonathan Downie emphasised that translators have to be excellent communicators. (More on his presentation to follow.) I feel that target language competence will more and more be viewed as the essential skill that a translator will have to bring to the job. And while certainly not a new trend, an indispensable part of the changing translation environment that was nicely put in the conference programme: Gone are the days of working alone at home or at the back of the garden, hunched over a typewriter or a word processor. The Internet is here to stay and be part of our lives. We now work and live on the web.

My disappointment about Richard Delaney not being able to lead the session on "Translating Legislation" was quickly outweighed by the announcement that Chris Durban would step in. She seized this opportunity to present her eye-opening study for which, taking on the role of a mystery shopper, she commissioned a number of translations from various translation companies and also looked at the result produced by Google Translate. Chris advocates, as she puts it, acknowledging maternity or paternity for your work; in other words, ideally you should sign your work. As LSPs we’re in for the long haul; there simply are no quick fixes. For an interesting read of her experiment, see Betti Moser’s blog post at

This inevitably leads to the issue of quality in translation. Ensuring such quality is, first and foremost, about constantly fine-tuning and improving the style of your target language. Sarah Griffin-Mason's advice on how to achieve this was valid and simple: Read, read, read, read, read, read, read and write. Or, as an alternative, use search engines in a sophisticated manner. This, by the way, linked in with Andy Walker’s practical presentation on "Better Web Searching for Translators". He explained how to find and check (sometimes obscure) terminology and locate background information on the internet by illustrating the huge variety of Google search operators. I, for one, took away a lot of new knowledge from his presentation. Quality in translation work can also shine through in other ways. According to Chris Durban, putting meaningful questions, if necessary, to the client is a sign of quality and commitment. I agree this should be a habit for whenever ambiguities or obscurities arise in the source text.

When I started out, my experienced fellow colleagues who acted as mentors explained that the language product that translators sell to clients, rather than anything else, is this: a language solution. This solution should be seen as something tailored to the client's needs. I admit I initially found it hard to reconcile myself with thinking along those lines. But, over the years, that idea has helped me tremendously in creating my language products. The fact that clients wish to be provided with a source of language solutions was also put forward by Terry Oliver. This goes hand in hand with the notion of "seeing things through the client’s eyes", as he put it. Terry remarked that the Germans refer to this as "Mitdenken"; he noted there is no proper English equivalent for this term. It is what clients appreciate and what they are willing to pay for. Relationships with clients ultimately stand or fall based on communication, respect and trust.

More on the ITI Conference to follow…