A column with practical tips for practicing translators.
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I recently had a translation flatly refused (the text was about property investment in a marketing context) on the grounds that it didn't flow in the same way as the English original.
When I looked at the 'corrections' the German customer had made, they were (apart from one or two technical terms, which, in any case, I had raised in a question) things like:
- focus: he preferred Focus instead of my choice of Marktschwerpunkt
- real estate investments: Immobilieninvestments instead of my choice: Immobilienanlagen
I pointed out that my translation flowed perfectly well, but was nevertheless keeping to a standard of the written word as reflected in such fundamental reference documents as the Duden, national daily papers, etc. However, if the client wished to represent a style as it is now often heard on television etc., he would have to do some copyediting of the text.
I have since discussed this with a few colleagues, here in the UK and in Germany, and am somewhat verunsichert: it seems that English words including 'peer group', 'case manager', 'hardliner', 'decisive moment', (not to mention many terms in the world of finance and banking) are in regular use now in German, even in some written documents.
My question is: what standard can we apply? I would have thought that the Internet with its many half-baked translations is hardly authoritative. Dare I mention the Duden? Even in its latest version it probably would be nicknamed 'dino from the last millennium'. So where are we to turn? Recent developments seem to be so rapid that there no longer is a clear guideline as to what is German and what is hype for marketing or some other purpose.
Stymied on Style
We are the first to recommend exchanges between authors and translators to fine-tune nuance and style. Indeed, for most texts that is part of the deal. So if you've made yourself available, tell the customer you expect your bill to be paid, and resend it to drive the point home. "Refusing" a translation for reasons of taste and individual preference is simply unacceptable.
Now for the next question: might you be growing out of touch with how the language is evolving back home?
The answer, of course, is yes.
How can you stay in touch with the latest buzzwords? Sure, you could jet back and forth between the UK and Germany every month. But this would likely be a waste of time and money, depending on how highly you value the opportunity to ask Lufthansa stewardesses for their telephone number.
The answer is twofold.
(1) Read. But not "half-baked translations on the Internet". Instead, make a point of regularly perusing the real-estate industry's trade news. This used to require expensive subscriptions, but we denizens of the 21st century are lucky since we can get content freeon the Internet!
No matter how cringe-inducing the indiscriminate adoption of English words is to you, suppress your reaction. The customer is paying the bill, and has a rightwithin reasonto impose vocabulary.
(2) Before you know it, another customer will throw your translation back into your face, citing your egregious lack of respect for the sanctity of German. To avoid this, make a point of noting in your correspondence and general conditions of business that clients MUST specify any special style preferences, as well as providing pertinent materials, such as press releases and web site URLs.
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I'm a freelance French-English financial translator, and I'm worried about the future. I do a lot of work for brokerage firms, and have been feeling the pinch recently. I know volumes are bound to fall during this kind of bear market, given that analysts don't feel quite as clever as they did in the boom times. But what happens if most of the analysts get fired? Also, what happens if French banks merge, focus cost-cutting efforts on their brokerage units, and turf out even more analysts, along with significant numbers of in-house translators who then join the hunt for freelance work?
I like to think that good translators will always find work, and that I'm one of them, but we all know what a slump in demand and a surge in supply means for prices. Maybe it's time to bale out altogetherI hear that there's a serious shortage of plumbers in the UK. Am I being over-pessimistic?
Over-pessimistic? No, you are far too optimistic, sir! For if past patterns hold, many of those unemployed securities analysts will set up as translators themselves while waiting for markets to recover. And don't kid yourself: as experienced power lunchers, these guys will find it far easier to sign up new clients than your average people-shy translator. Unlike many money-shy linguists, they will also have used the last bull market to negotiate higher pay for their services and thus have a nest-egg to fall back on. If you do nothing else, keep this in mind next time the Dow Jones heads up and raise your rates.
But not to worry, most of these out-of-work analysts lack the language skills, commitment and stamina needed to make a dent in the market beyond the very short term.
Ah, but your query concerns the short term, doesn't it?
Well, we assume you already track developments on financial markets in the daily business press. Now is the time to cash in on your hard work: even if investment reports have made up your bread and butter to date, step back and look at the big picture.
Draw up a list of issues set to pose particular challenges to the banks and brokerages in your client portfolio. Note publications that will soon be required of corporations discussed in the reports you now translate, paying special attention to international regulatory issues and reporting obligations, since these require client action regardless of the state of the market (e.g., IAS, executive compensation, social responsibility reporting and corporate governance).
Identify the most promising, perhaps an area where you have good contactssay, a particularly knowledgeable analyst whose work you've already translated (and who is unlikely to get laid off herself). Read the background materials and directives. Attend industry events to ask questions of the experts,
subtly positioning yourself as that articulate well-dressed British
translator who spoke so knowledgably about hedge funds over drinks at the
Europlace luncheon. You get the picture.
Boom or bust, demand for financial translation is always there. The trick is to identify clients' needs before they do, invest the time to become a genuine expert, and let buyers know you are available. At a price.
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I am a Syrian and am studying translation from English to Arabic and vice versa. I have a big problem: I do not know how to use the tenses in my translating. Would you please help me?
Thanks at any way.
Would If I Could
Your question raises another one: how well do you have to know languages in order to translate?
The answer, as always, is "it depends". Not just on the complexity of the text, but on the purpose of your translationare you helping a friend out, studying resources on the internet, drafting a brochure, or preparing evidence for a court case?
With that in mind, let's return to your query. We may be wrong, but the translating you refer to seems designed to demonstrate to your teacher that you have mastered certain structures in a foreign language. Fair enoughthis translation-as-testing-device is certainly common in the foreign-language classroom. But genuine translation (for clients, bless their hearts) comes only after you have learned each language thoroughly. And that includes the verb systems. (Tell your teacher we said so).
We are not familiar with works in Arabicperhaps some of our readers might have suggestions?but in English an extremely useful book for students in your situation is Michael Swan's classic "Practical English Usage" (Oxford University Press). It's well-written and insightful, with entries that explain a lot about English verbs and many of the other pitfalls teachers love to test.
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I have noticed that little attention seems to be paid (including in professional publications) to the effects of the weakening US economy on the translation industry, and specifically on free-lance translators since 9/11. I have found a marked decline in free-lance work into US English, especially in the past several months. How should this be gauged, and what should a veteran freelancer be doing under such circumstances aside from the proverbial distribution of resumes, reminders, etc.??
I would assume that notification of lowering of prices would be a rather delicate issue, especially if agencies have not proposed this in the past and are happy with the translator's work, since it would suggest that the translator is not very busy.
I should add that some agencies have told me that they too have noticed that things have been "quieter" lately, though this is little consolation to a freelancer who depends on them for ongoing work.
P.S. My languages are Spanish, French, Italian, Russian and Hebrew. I translate contracts, academic texts, business correspondence, journalism, insurance and the like, not to mention the usual certificates, certificates and certificates (plus transcripts).
Let's take it from the bottom up, since in our opinion your PS holds one key to the slump in your business.
In translation, less is often more. Not quality, of course, but language combinations and fields of expertise. September 11 notwithstanding, with five source languages and a half-dozen very broad subjects you seem to be stretching yourself pretty thin. How can anybody track issues and usage in all of these? Impossible, at least not to the depth that premium clients demand.
We suggest you trim your language list, boost your reading in the one or two languages you decide to focus on, identify subjects where demand is rising or set to rise, and start developing the in-depth knowledge you need to stake out your share of the market. See, too, our recommendations to the pergola man.
As for spontaneously offering to lower your prices to agency contactsno, this is not a good idea. In fact, it's a terrible idea. Like premium direct clients, serious agencies base translator selection on candidates' expertise and writing skills. Assuming fire-sale rates will win business sends out the wrong message altogether.
As for cutting prices to appeal to bottom-feederswell, it's an unusual business strategy, but we can't get our heads around it as this column goes to press. Perhaps someone could explain?