Volume 13, No. 2 
April 2009

Fire Ant
Fire Ant

Worker Bee
Worker Bee


Front Page

Select one of the previous 47 issues.



Index 1997-2009

TJ Interactive: Translation Journal Blog

  From the Editor
The Invisible Articles
by Gabe Bokor

  Translator Profiles
Uniquely Typical or Typically Unique?
by Holly Mikkelson

  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee
Ethics 101 for Translators
by Danilo Nogueira and Kelli Semolini

  Translators Around the World
Bringing the Best Western Classical Literature to Turkish Masses
by Arnold Reisman, Ph.D.

  Translation History
Japanese Technical Translation a Quarter of a Century Ago
by Steve Vlasta Vitek

  Science & Technology
Detección de problemas en traducción cientifica
Olga Torres-Hostench

  Medical Translation
The Sounds of Clinical Medicine
by Rafael A. Rivera, M.D., FACP

  Cultural Aspects of Translation
The Cultural Transfer in Anime Translation
by Mariko Hanada

  Arts & Entertainment
Translating Humor in Dubbing and Subtitling
by Anna Jankowska

  Advertising Translation
Motocicletas, Internet y estrategias de traducción publicitaria
by Junming Yao

  Literary Translation
Translating Rape
by Irene Chen

  Translator Education
The Effect of the Translator's Gender on Translation Evaluation
by Ebrahim Golavar
Professionalizing Literary Translation Education
by Rebecca Hyde Parker

  Translation Theory
Is Translation a Rewriting of an Original Text?
by Tomoko Inaba

  Translators' Tools
From Mechanics to Managers
by Jost Zetzsche
Uncontrolled Terminology and MT: The Importance of Making Good Comparisons
by Rafael Guzmán
TranslateCAD—a software tool that enables CAT translation with CAD drawings
by Vicente Victorica
Translators’ Emporium

  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor
Translators’ Best Websites
by Gabe Bokor

Call for Papers and Editorial Policies
Translation Journal
The Profession

The Bottom Line

by Fire Ant & Worker Bee

Practical tips for practicing translators.


Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

One of our best external translators cannot take criticism—something my colleagues in the in-house translation department used to laugh about, but which is getting to be a serious problem.

We always provide guidelines and background documentation up front, and make an effort to frame our feedback in a positive way, so I feel we are doing our part. We also pay well and promptly.

But he insists on arguing every (and I mean every) point, which means an author's request to change a single sentence or term takes on ridiculous proportions. What is the best way to deal with such an obviously skilled yet persistently contentious supplier?

Translation Department


Dear Department,

Funny, isn't it, how in some cases the translator's laudable attention to detail can morph into the conviction that his solution is the only one that flies.

Part of this may stem from the good translator's appropriation of the source text: he lives it, breathes it, gives it a voice in the target language. It's his baby, an extension of himself. So a simple query becomes What, you don't like my offspring?! You don't like me?! Who do you think you are?! And before you know it, the guy blows a radiator.

In this particular case, we have two suggestions:

- If you envisage a long-term future for him with your company, you must somehow get him to view your comments as feedback, not criticism. Why not invite him in and introduce him around, so he can see for himself that the authors are neither monsters nor idiots? Take advantage of his visit to reiterate that it is your company policy to keep authors in the loop. You might pull out some metrics: show him, using statistics, how your workflow operates, how you allocate time to this or that activity. Remind him that he is a valued partner—and confirm that he will be more valued still if he can help you respect your deadlines.

- If this doesn't work, cut your losses: find new talent and stop sending him work. No need to explain or discuss, especially if you find his current contentiousness time-consuming. To quote an industry observer, he's been voted off the island.

Your letter is a reminder to all translators that being a provider of choice doesn't stop with the ability to craft an outstanding text. It entails a willingness and ability to interact with clients in a professional and service-oriented way. An author who questions a translation is an ally-in-waiting; the translator's job is to explain an initial choice and work towards an alternative, if necessary.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I'm in the process of getting back into the market after a parental leave. To build up a portfolio and get my name out and about, I followed your past advice by contacting a British charity for a pro bono project.

They seemed very organized and told me they were used to working with volunteer translators, whom they "pay" with an acknowledgement in credits: "Many thanks to our translation volunteers (list of names)."

That is exactly what I wanted, so I translated a number of short texts for their website.

Imagine my surprise when I read the rest of their site in my language: a catastrophe! It is full of embarrassing errors that only a non-native speaker could make. And now my name is up there, but in the general acknowledgements, not on my own work.

I'm scared this might scare potential clients away. I realize it is my fault, as I should have checked the charity's existing text first. But what should I do now?

Do Gooder Done Wrong


Dear Gooder,

Good for you for getting the ball rolling so proactively, but—ah, hindsight!

Start by making screen captures of the pages you've translated, including the charity's logo and URL if possible. Keep these in an easy-to-send format for potential clients (with a header or written indication that you produced these translations "which are selected parts of XXX's website"). That way you've still got an addition to your portfolio—a sample demonstrating your translating and writing style—even as you distance yourself from the rest.

Next, explain to the charity why your name cannot be used as they propose. You can point out that it's not their fault (say this, even if it obviously is): note that one or more of their well-meaning multilingual fans tried his/her hardest, but the result is unprofessional and is not something that you can afford to have your name associated with. Depending on how they react, you might mention that the current texts reflect poorly on them, too.

Indicate that there are two options: either the charity moves your name up to the pages you've translated or they remove it entirely (no hard feelings).

Assuming the poorly-translated text does not run into thousands and thousands of words, you might offer to fix the rest, in which case your name would appear alone in the credits for your language version. In this case, they should delete your name from the credits for the time it takes to do this, of course. If you (and they) are feeling magnanimous, the new credits might name the poor translators, too, but in parentheses "(with contributions from A, B and C)".



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

The university I work at has been getting an increasing number of requests from local businesses for translations of their manuals, websites and the like. They want these documents to be translated by our students. 

Our students are hard-working and dedicated, and we think they are destined for great things. But we also know how demanding professional translation is, and we think these businesses are very ill-informed if they imagine that professional work can be produced by students.

Can you suggest a response that informs the businesses of this, and if possible keeps the door open for internships (which our students have a hard time finding in this backwater)?



Dear Academic,

Three cheers for you! Backwater or not, you've identified a slippery slope that many of the most prestigious translation schools have yet to acknowledge. A number even slither gleefully down the incline and off the precipice by passing such queries on to their local student association or adopting them as class projects.

This genuinely touching but utterly unrealistic faith in their students' abilities has nothing to do with their teaching (well, maybe yes, if the point is to impart information on how the translation market works out there in the real world).

As you so aptly note, the real point is that student work is not professional work.

To quote a colleague: "How many businesspeople would ask a law student to handle a major litigation? How many patients would go to a medical student for open-heart surgery, and how many medical school instructors would enthusiastically endorse the practice so that the student could 'get some professional experience'? It's fine to go to the local dental school if all you want is a cleaning, but if you need a root canal, the risks far outweigh the benefits."

In our view, a website or a safety manual is a root canal job.

And aside from the risk to clients, suggesting (or confirming) that the first port of call for a translation buyer should be students ends up working against translation schools' own graduates once they get out in the world: translation is something students do (at student prices), right?

Forgive the rant, you asked for advice. Here's what we recommend:

Thank the companies for their enquiries and give them a copy of "Translation, getting it right", a brochure available in a number of languages and downloadable for free from the FIT-Europe site at http://www.fit-europe.org (look for "brochures"). It is also distributed in paper format by many professional associations. If yours is a paper copy, you might fold it open to the page entitled "Teachers & academics: at your peril"; this discusses student work, too.

Recommend that these businesses contact your country's national translators' association to find a qualified translator (most associations have online directories).

But suggest that your establishment would very much like to assign a student to track the project, write up a report, and perhaps develop a glossary for the company as part of the assignment.

There is no better way for learners to dip a toe in the professional world, and this is far less risky for clients.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I gather from the archives of this column that top-notch writing skills are a must for translators who want to be successful at the upper end of the market, and I'm concerned that my writing style is not quite as fluid and elegant as I would like it to be. I've also identified a mild but lingering case of translationese in my work, which undoubtedly comes a fear of breaking away from the original structure in French and daring to produce a smooth, seamless piece of writing in English. I know I'm capable of it, I'm just not sure how to overcome the mental obstacle that is stopping me from doing it.

Do you have any good tips on honing writing skills and thereby eliminating the ugly bout of translationitis my current work is suffering from?

Budding writer


Dear Writer,

We're glad you asked. Here are our top ten:

  1. Read a lot. A word person should have at least one book on the go at all times.
  2. Periodicals? Yes, them too. Stretch yourself with titles that are known for stylish writing (in English, try the Economist, for example).
  3. If you run across interesting words in your reading, try to find a way to place them in your current translations. A fun source of these is www.savethewords.org (but don't overdo the placement business).
  4. Take a course in creative writing. Or read a book on same. One we particularly like is William Zinsser's "On Writing Well."
  5. Take a course in journalism.
  6. Brush up on your grammar, punctuation and all that jazz. There are some amazing websites out there, and you can always start with Strunk & White's classic "The Elements of Style", which has the advantage of being only 95 pages long.
  7. Urge your local translators' association to organize training focusing on this specific problem: there are more people interested than you'd think.
  8. Find some texts in your specialty area that have been translated well. Put the existing translation aside, and try your hand. Compare your output to the official translation, and note where you slip and slide. Note how the other translator solved tricky passages.
  9. Arrange with a fellow translator to cross-revise the texts you produce; there is no better way of improving your style than through feedback of this type.
  10. Write a lot. Start a blog, or pen articles for your local newspaper or professional association journal.

For a bonus point, have your articles translated into your source language (by a professional, of course). This is one of the best ways we know to become aware of what authors want from a translator, while heightening your own awareness of the importance of flow.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I work for a translators' association in a small country, but from exchanges with my counterparts in larger associations, I think my problem is a general one.

Here in [country deleted] we have a few utterly dysfunctional members who pipe up at every occasion to complain and fuss. The general consensus is that they waste everyone's time.

How can we best deal with this? (Hiring a hit man is not an option.)



Dear Undercover,

Drowning them in love might work—and as such folks tend to be needy, this may be exactly what they are looking for. It can also be an entertaining way to destabilize blustering timewasters. But it is time-consuming. After all, you are a professional association, not a psychotherapy unit (although you might consider adding such a service to your member benefits).

Points to keep in mind:

1. For anyone in a job that deals with the public, handling complaints with a smile goes with the territory. (Could you imagine working at an airline ticket counter?) Chin up!

2. You don't mention whether these fussbudgets are actually volunteering time on a committee or other association body, or simply calling headquarters out of the blue to kvetch. If they are volunteers, it becomes a personnel management problem and a peer should be asked to step in (perhaps the association president could ask them to put the lid on).

3. Slow down your response time. Some of these people seem to be looking for pen pals. If you don't respond, they may move on to the next target.

4. But face it, at some point you will have to cut your losses. You cannot please all of the people all of the time, and you should accept that you will have to write off a certain percentage of complainers. It's just not worth it to you and your staff, or fair to the other members. So past a certain point "Thank you for your comments" is a more than adequate reply, whatever their complaint.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

Only a week ago, I attended a business workshop on getting through the economic downturn. One of the things that they stressed above all was that businesses should AVOID RUSHING TO CUT PRICES, especially if there was no reduction in value. The woman who presented the workshop has a business making beautifully embroidered handbags that usually sell in the $90-$150 range: when she saw the downturn coming, she developed a new product. It's a much smaller handbag for about $35. The craftsmanship is exactly the same—there's simply less of it.

The question I've been mulling over since then is this: where's the $35 handbag for the translation industry? How do we apply the same principle to our product?



Dear Strategist,

Fire Ant asks:

Are those $35 bags selling?

Worker Bee muses and enthuses:

An intriguing idea. Let's do a little lateral thinking.

Text-wise, you'd want a short document that displays your outstanding translation/writing skills.

A text with enormous personal appeal for a discerning clientele would be nice, especially if recognition and appreciation of your outstanding job might lead to future assignments.

Here's one: bioblurbs for famous speakers at international conferences. A lot of the examples we see are clunky, even laughable, no doubt produced at the last minute by a gofer or stressed-out coordinator. Or perhaps a student intern.

To be sure, these little blocks of text are labor-intensive to translate (think exquisite embroidery). But they are also the type of text that VIPs, who may speak several languages, would rather not be embarrassed about once the issue has been brought to their attention. "Sure this is short, but it's important to get it right" is an argument that will resonate with them. And every prominent political or business leader on the world stage needs one or more, depending on the language environments they speak in.

It might be a good idea to drop the $35 price tag entirely for your first round of candidates: make your "free trial offer" elegantly crafted revisions of flabby or clunky or inarticulate bioblurbs. Send these directly to the CEO or billionaire philanthropist or Prime Minister or Head of Worldwide Sales: existing (bad), new (good) + cover letter (it will have to be a very good cover letter). Word of mouth should do the rest, and you can slap on a $35 (or $350 charge) when a new contact mentions that George Soros, Michel Rocard, Sergio Chiamparino or Pierre Dartout sent him.

What a hook for subsequent top-level work! Talk about getting in on the top floor!