Volume 4, No. 3 
July 2000

Fire Ant
Fire Ant

Worker Bee
Worker Bee




Faster, Better, Easier
by Gabe Bokor
Index 1997-2000
  Translator Profiles
A Hard Way to Make Money
by Robin Bonthrone
  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee
In Pursuit of the Cheapest Translation Cost
by Johannes Tan
  Translators and Computers
Reflections of a Human Translator on Machine Translation
by Steve Vlasta Vitek
  Literary Translation
A 30 Year-After Near-Posthumous Note on Peter Handke's "Public Insult"
by Michael Roloff
What is the Word for "you" in Portuguese?
by Danilo Nogueira
  Translator Education
Teaching Translation—Problems and Solutions
by Prof. Constanza Gerding-Salas
  Science & Technology
A Translator’s Guide to Organic Chemical Nomenclature XX
by Chester E. Claff, Jr., Ph.D.
  Banking and Finance
German Financial Accounting and Reporting —FAQs and Fallacies
by Robin Bonthrone
  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor
  Translators’ Tools
Translators’ Emporium
Translators’ Events
Call for Papers and Editorial Policies
Translation Journal
The Profession

The Bottom Line

by Fire Ant & Worker Bee

A column with practical tips for practicing translators.


Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I've come to believe that commercial translation defies any rational explanation. What can one say about a market in which prices range from 5 cents to 100 cents a word?



Dear Baffled,

That's easy. If you are a supplier, aim high. If you are a buyer, keep the peanuts & monkeys adage in mind as you shop around. If the translations you buy are cheap and good, they probably won't remain cheap forever; even translators who are clueless on pricing when they enter the market eventually wake up. Not that expensive work is necessarily good, of course. Commission independent reviews at regular intervals to keep your suppliers on their toes. If a translation is poorly done, it is too expensive at any price; if well done, it is usually worth every single cent.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

My partner and I run a small agency in Western Europe. Last month we subcontracted a technical translation to a prominent linguist who is also a tenured professor at a high-profile translation school.

The results were disappointing.

This person also holds himself out as a financial specialist, which is why we turned to him in the first place. Yet the text he delivered showed gaping holes in subject-matter knowledge. A number of standard technical terms were clearly (mis)culled from a dictionary, while some basic accounting terms were rendered as word-for-word equivalents.

In my seven years in the business, I have seen any number of translator spats escalate into public brawls that do no good to our industry's image, and I don't want to get into a big argument.

But I don't think anybody—especially someone this prominent—should be allowed to get away with such a non-professional approach when it comes to actual translation. The experience also has me wondering what is going on behind the doors of translation schools.

My partner says we shouldn't waste time. He says we should pay the man's bill, chalk it up to experience and steer clear of academics in the future.

But there's a side of me that is itching to lay it on the line. What do you think?

Ivory Tower Blues


Dear Blues,

First things first. Forget tenure, forget academic publications. The only "guarantee" of translation skills we know is asking to see something that the person has actually produced. Even then, s/he may have a bad day when tackling your job. Scary, isn't it?

This risk is why top-notch translators known for producing smooth, stylish text to deadline can often set their own prices. It is also why agencies get a well-deserved cut of the action when, through revision and editing, they make good any shortfalls.

To return to your academic, are you sure he produced the work himself? We have seen a number of cases recently in which busy academics subcontracted freelance work to promising students without telling anyone. While their confidence in the next generation is, er, touching, such behavior is also totally unethical and only underscores how out of touch they are with quality demands at the discriminating end of the market—closed doors indeed!

The man's age might also a factor. FA&WB know several older translators who are inclined to dabble across far too wide a range of fields. Ten or twenty years ago, they might have got away with it; today, good clients are far more demanding.

In any case, you are right to avoid a public dispute, not least because most of the academics we know can run circles around businesspeople when it comes to politicking, building and exploiting power bases, and the like. They also tend to have a lot more time for this sort of stuff.

The issue here is feedback, which all good translators welcome (even as many tremble inwardly at what it might reveal). As commissioners of the work, your company should definitely return a corrected copy of the academic's submission to him. Select a bright color for revision mode and print out the results so that the many changes are extremely visible. Enclose a brief cover letter explaining that returning finalized text to translators for information is your agency policy (and make it your policy, for all of the work you broker; good translators appreciate feedback). Emphasize, too, the premium you place on research, specialization and writing skills. We assume you already have a clause in your job order form that forbids further subcontracting.

If you have the time and energy, you might also consider writing an article on the importance of specialization and/or feedback for an academic or professional journal that Big Name is likely to read. Be sure to use some of his mistakes as (anonymous) illustrations.

And the next time you peruse one of his articles or books, enjoy the warm glow inside that comes from knowing you helped him back onto the straight and narrow.


Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I have recently begun to take up some translator-interpreter jobs here in Brazil, and am very new at the job. I am interested in taking a short-term course (preferably in England) on the subject and would be very grateful if you could give me any tips.

Jumping In


Dear Jumping,

You're in luck! ITI (the Institute of Translation and Interpreting), the UK's leading trade association for professional translators and interpreters, keeps an up-to-date listing of translator and interpreter training courses run by universities and other institutes. You can reach them at iti@compuserve.com (tel. +44 171 713 7600).



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I have French-English & German-English dictionaries for archaeologists on my web site. They are works in progress in that I'm still editing heavily, but they provide full context as well as definitions, and I think it's relatively clear where I'm headed. Eventually I'll use an automatic translation program that searches and replaces whole sentences rather than individual words.

But before I pour more money into this endeavor and begin heavy marketing in my fields (Egyptology & archaeology), I'm having a difficult time getting any kind of feedback—even from those who constantly bemoan the fact that many important books aren't being translated into English..

I would appreciate it if you could give me a ballpark estimate of the time it takes to translate a book (let's say 300 pgs) and how much a translator is paid to translate a whole book in Egyptology, for example. I think with my automatic translator I'll be able to cut down the translating time by several hundred percent.

I also thought my existing dictionaries might be helpful to translators in general, since archaeology covers vocabulary from art & architecture to philosophy & religion. I would appreciate it if you would take a look at my site and give me any suggestions or criticism www.archaeologicalresource.com.

A Crazy Dreamer?


Dear Dreamer,

Fire Ant & Worker Bee think crazy dreamers have a lot going for them, and feel your focus on specialization is right on target. We are also reassured to hear that you specialize in archaeology and not math, since a reduction of several hundred percent would get you into negative figures.

A quick review: for a project to be viable, there must be existing or potential demand. You are banking on the latter, assuming demand will materialize (presumably from the moaners) once the price comes down. You are also confident that some form of automated translation, integrating terminology from your glossaries, will allow you to produce smooth translations of specialized books in record time.

We see at least three flies in the ointment here.

First, there is no way machine translation or translation memory (your speed factor) will, on their own, produce a stylish, seamless translation of a book or academic paper. Automatic word/phrase substitution can be helpful in some cases if writers agree to use controlled language when writing. Authors of books and academic papers don't and won't, as far as we can see. Second, whatever time you save by slotting in expressions is nothing compared to the hundreds (yes, hundreds) of hours you will need for actually translating, revising and editing. Third, book translation already pays lamentably little. Academic work is not particularly lucrative either. If your plan calls for driving prices even lower, you are asking for trouble (see revision time above).

But what to do with all those glossaries of yours?

Well, first tighten them up a little. We skimmed through the letter A only, but did notice a number of terms that don't really belong in a specialized dictionary (e.g., agašant, which some might find... irritating).

You can then use them as a marketing tool—a means of establishing and/or consolidating your reputation with buyers of premium translation in your fields. Observers tell us many buyers in specialized areas have withdrawn from the translation market altogether, burned once too often by generalist suppliers. If they discover that expert talent is available, they might re-emerge.

Concretely, consider making the glossaries available free on your site and soliciting feedback, or using them as a hook for contacting high-profile experts in your specialisms—the very people who might be in need of your skills. In short, make yourself the translator discriminating buyers in your fields automatically contact when they want a top-quality job. And adjust your prices accordingly. Good luck!



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I work as an in-house Houyhnhnm-Yahoo translator for a large Houyhnhnm company and have repeatedly observed a phenomenon which, to my knowledge, no one has openly discussed before: the more literal, i.e. the more "Houyhnhnmized" our translations, the happier the Houyhnhnm authors are with our work. If we put their texts in real Yahoo, the translation sounds too free to them and they often complain. Many of my colleagues have caved in completely and give them what they want. This way everybody is happy: the Houyhnhnms think they're getting a wonderful translation and the translators don't have to deal with constant questions. A lot of these texts are for internal use, so my colleagues feel that no harm has been done. Yet even when our work is sent to clients, they usually just respond without complaining about the quality of the Yahoo in the material they received, thus leaving the Houyhnhnms convinced that it was perfect.

How should I handle the situation? My colleagues tell me to get off my high horse and give our authors what they want and deserve: translations that look like Yahoo and read like Houyhnhnm. Although I can't get myself to do it, I must admit I do get tired of ramming my head against the wall day in day out. Any advice would be appreciated.

Wearing Down Fast


Dear Wearing,

A treacherous sea to negotiate: too far starboard, and you crash head-on into the reef that awaits the reckless; too far port, and you get sucked under by the whirlpool of resignation. There is, though, a way to steer clear of both dangers.

The key is to step into the shoes of your Houyhnhnm authors for a moment. After all, it is only natural that they instinctively shy away from what they understand but imperfectly. ("You there! What means 'but imperfectly'?" demands the Houyhnhnm peering over our shoulders as we write.)

However, there is no need to sacrifice your professionalism by giving them bastardized Yahoo. What they really want is clear and correct Yahoo but with vocabulary and grammar that does not overtax their limited command of what is for them a second language. Also, the presentation you translate may be one they have to give themselves, and so they feel extra cautious about not being made to use words they understand but im- ouch! You get the point.

You can do it! Pretty soon Houyhnhnms will be trampling a path to your cubicle as your craven colleagues look on in envy. And with a little bit of luck, you can look forward to fame and fortune in a new career—as a political speechwriter.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I had to smile at your advice in the
October 1999 issue of the Translation Journal to Heading for the Hills, whose work had been reviewed and improved on by an expert at the client end. Am I the only reader convinced that most client "adjustments" are anything but improvements?

I translate corporate documents from Italian to English. While I welcome exchanges with real experts, I have recently seen one of my texts massacred by none other than the Managing Director's wife, a native Dutch speaker who studied Italian in college years ago and has literary pretensions. The job was a 16-page catalog for an exhibit featuring works from the corporate art collection. This woman fancies herself an artiste so helpfully "corrected" my painstakingly researched and crafted text. If only!

Have you got some useful ripostes for situations like this?

Rewritten Seeks Revenge


Dear Re,

Heading for the Hills' input came from a genuine subject-matter expert. What you've got here sounds like a dilettante with family connections, and there are several strategies for dealing with them.

For offenders under age 25, an appropriate response is a friendly chuckle and approving nod at Junior's effort, perhaps inquiring if s/he has plans to attend translation school after a few years abroad to get that basic fluency up to speed—this as you cheerfully uncap your red pen and get down to work. You can usually discard their input entirely after a half-page or so. Keep that regretful smile in place, of course.

A marital link is a little trickier, but can work to your advantage if you view it as an opportunity to raise her (and her husband's) awareness/appreciation of your skills.

You can be diplomatic or blunt. Diplomacy, a useful skill for any self-employed person, would involve customizing the tactics set out in points 1 to 4 below. If you don't think you can handle this, go straight to point 5.

In any case, act quickly. When the problem surfaces, establish contact immediately—in writing. If you limit your response to bitching to colleagues and friends or writing to FA&WB, you will miss the opportunity to recover control of the project.

  1. Say something nice. We'll take your word for it that you can't realistically thank her for the quality of her input. But if she reworked 16 pages, hey, the lady did log some time, so acknowledge that, e.g., Not many people outside the profession realize how time-consuming it is to produce high-quality translation, and I want to thank you for the many hours you spent revising the catalog for the Arte Azzura retrospective.
  2. Translation basics. Remind her that most professional translators work into their native tongue only; while her input was enlightening in some critical areas, you won't be able to use all of it. Make brief notes on her grammar, syntax, terminology and style problems, and tell her you would be delighted to discuss these points further at her convenience. It is always good to meet people face to face, especially well-connected ones.
  3. Let the red ink flow. Three or four pages should be enough to bring your point home. While it sounds like you can safely axe 90% of her input outright, suggesting a third solution 5-10% of the time is tactful.
  4. Insert a few subject-matter footnotes. Big fat ones. These show that you master your subject, and bring home the message that this is work, babes. In our experience, dilettantes have little stamina. If it looks like there's a sustained effort involved, they often back out of their own accord. This is one reason why they tend to fiddle with art catalogs and not 320-page user manuals for clearing and settlement systems.

    OK, what with the axing and revising and footnotes, you are now operating at a loss on this job. But don't despair—this person is in daily contact with the company's top dog. You have raised her consciousness, wowed her with your expertise, embarrassed her gently but thoroughly, and given her a graceful excuse to withdraw and stay withdrawn. (Or sign up for a translation course; why not?) This is long-term PR.
  5. If she's a hardcore meddler, take a tougher line, up to and including informing the company courteously but firmly—in writing—that you will not allow your name to appear in the credits. Regardless of this client and this job, you have your professional reputation to protect.
See why it's a good idea to sign your work?



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I am really interested in Translation. Could you please offer me some information about it? Thank you very much.

Big Question


Dear Big,

At last a succinct question!

The usual answer is that translation involves taking reams of paper with lettering on them and turning them into reams of paper with lettering in a different language. While true, this explanation misses the point.

What professional translation is really about is turning white rectangles of paper with lettering on them into smaller, usually colored rectangles with figures on them—the more colored rectangles and the larger the figures the better. That is the point of the entire exercise—to enrich you, the translator.

If you were not as crassly materialistic as Fire Ant and Worker Bee, you could also say that translation is the grandest, most foolhardy enterprise that humans can engage in on this planet.

Picture the body of human knowledge, encompassed in language, as the earth. Then translation collectively becomes the most insanely ambitious activity ever conceived, namely to draw a 1:1 scale map of the earth. Failure is certain, yet you will score many small successes. A mere ant toiling in an ant hill, you are part of a glorious project that connects you with an unbroken line of workers from time immemorial.

Welcome to the hill!