Sunday, March 30, 2014


FORMING A GUILD was an idea I brought to the floor when the founding members of the International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI) first started talking about  forming the group (which now has chapters in about 60 countries) before it was founded. I mean, I was perfectly aware that "the one percent" had in recent years sought (and has had great success in that task) to propagandize against unions, guilds and co-ops. In fact, US big business has been doing that ever since Ronald Reagan dealt unions a crushing blow during his administration, which is probably why corporate types revere him as a sort of god of conservatism.

But having myself been a card-carrying member of the American Federation of Musicians already when I was  only 15 and coming from the same hometown as screenwriter Dudley Nichols, who became the first person in history to turn down an Oscar, because the American Screen Writers Guild  (of which he served as president) happened to be striking for better conditions when he won it, I was more than a little surprised to find how many fellow freelancers looked at me as if I'd just cast aspersions on their mothers by saying that word: Guild.

I still believe that while, for the past several years now, IAPTI has been doing an excellent job of sparking awareness about how to safeguard translation and interpreting quality and the professional status of the T&I community, there is a major front that remains uncovered and vulnerable to attack by bottom-feeding wholesalers, corporate MT hawkers and many of our own peers who simply give up the fight because they think fighting B2B on an individual basis is hopeless, no matter how bad the quality-level of service wholesalers are offering might be. And I also believe that guilds and co-ops could provide an absolutely viable solution. In fact, call it what you will, any organization that could provide individual freelancers with a rallying point around which to form a proactive business front would do the trick.

 The basic idea would be a "fraternal" professional organization in which competitive consortia could be formed to compete for major jobs that the wholesalers win by raking all of the cream and two-thirds of the milk off the top while paying miserable compensation to desperate and/or inferior T&I workers and charging the same rates as, or higher rates than competent professionals for the inferior products that they deliver. The difference with the services that a guild or coop could offer would be that, by not unfairly profiteering, such an organization could offer the same speed and deadlines as "commodity-translation" wholesalers, but with work carried out by competent, well-paid professionals whose guild or co-op (for a combination of reasonable annual fees and per-job commissions) would organize all team projects and stand behind the quality of all work carried out.
 As a 35-year observer of this activity, I think that this is something to which the up and coming generation of T&I professionals should be giving some very serious consideration.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


There is more and more talk about MT (machine translation) these days among translators. I’ve heard a lot of arguments on the pros and cons of MT, but typical of the even-handedness with which translators—who, after all, are mediators by nature—tend to discuss issues, these arguments are usually very objective.

Me, I get a singularly subjective rash and feel my blood pressure climb every time anybody talks about letting a machine translate for them, especially when the text involved is anything even vaguely ‘literary’. Call me old fashioned, but I consider translating a form of writing and I consider writing, at its most mundane, a craft and, at its most sublime, an art. Hence, any suggestion that I, as a translator, could use an MT program to translate a poem or a short story, is tantamount to saying that Neruda or Hemingway could have used a machine writing program to create the originals. And that is simply ludicrous.

Am I saying that there will never be a machine that can write a book? No. In fact, machine writing already exists. Perhaps the best example is the brainstorm of a fellow about whom Naom Cohen wrote an article in The New York Times a couple of years ago: namely, Philip M. Parker.

Parker is a professor of “management sciences” (whatever the hell that means), who conjured up some computer programs with which to compile data into book form. He then proceeded to “write” 200,000 books (yes, 200,000!), later having the audacity to dub himself “the most published author on the planet”.

In his NYT article, Cohen explains that what Parker has done is to develop computer algorithms that collect “publicly available information” on a subject (any subject, apparently, from medical conditions and treatments to tufted washable scatter rugs and bathmats…I kid you not), and, “aided by his 60 to 70 computers and six or seven programmers,” turns the results into books in a range of genres. They average 150 pages and are only printed when a customer buys one. In other words, other than how to program a computer to extraordinary effect, Parker would appear to be an “author” who doesn’t have to know squat about anything, nor, presumably, does he have the slightest idea whether what gets published under his name is worthwhile or even accurate—since, surely, not all of what is “publicly available” on any topic is worthy of repeating or useful as a reference. And if the computer—which, let’s face it, is mindless—is the one calling the shots and the “author” knows next to nothing about many of the subjects covered, then one can plan on having to wade through a lot of subjective claptrap and unmitigated bullcrap before actually discovering anything worthwhile reading, let alone recalling, about books “written” in this way. This, then, is an attempt at turning “culture” in general and “writing” in particular into a commodity.

Most translators would probably get this if you were to explain it to them from the standpoint of writing rather than translation. The thought that any worthwhile literature can be created by a machine would probably seem like a travesty to even the most tech-minded of translators. But when it comes to machine translation, translators are starting to fall prey to the hype. And the marketing is being so cleverly developed by the companies and wholesale translation agencies that are behind not only the software sales but also the use of such programs in creating translation memory banks designed to pay for less and less original translation, that anyone refusing to incorporate such “tools” is treated, increasingly, like a troglodyte and a social pariah in the progressively technified mainstream translation community. Translators are slowly but surely being brainwashed into believing that MT is a tool that is being created for their convenience, to alleviate their workload and to permit them to take on bigger and bigger assignments all the time and thus, presumably, make more money. The truth is, however, that the more translation becomes ‘commoditized’ the lower the rate per word will fall. It’s a simply matter of supply and demand.

But it is also a matter of quality, since this is like trying to convince yourself that the quality and effectiveness of a twenty-dollar mass-produced wristwatch are any match for the craftsmanship, complications, calibers and excellent materials of a limited edition Swiss watch. The two simply cannot be compared. Nor can machine translation or machine book-writing be compared with the highest quality standards for the professional writing and translating craft. As with the comparison of a massed-produced watch to a fine timepiece, they are two entirely different things.

For some types of technical and legal translation I can understand why professional translators with heavy workloads would be tempted to make use of certain electronic tools to help them quickly get through highly repetitive texts, to create permanent glossaries or to improve term consistency. But, bottom line, I think, any sort of translation tool (including the myriad dictionaries we use) is only as good as the professional who is employing it.

In literary and journalistic translation, which is the majority of the work I do, I have found no substitute for straight brain to page translation. To my mind it is laughable, if not insulting, for anyone to suggest that this can be done any other way. As insulting, in fact, as saying that a machine can write “just as good a book” as a seasoned writer. So depending on and trusting software to do a job equal to or better than the translator’s own brain seems to me at least fanciful if not dangerous.

All good translation requires writing skills—the possible exception being highly technical documents that mostly consist of lists or diagrams. On the other hand, however, I once worked for three years for a nuclear technology firm, translating its training and instruction manuals for a turnkey plant project. It was there that I learned how important clear, concise, understandable writing is on the job site. That was, in fact, why they hired me, a non-techy writer, to do the job. The point being that I was capable of learning the technology, or enough so as to be able to thoroughly understand what was being said, and to translate the message into clear, concise, understandable prose. That was something they hadn’t been getting from their former technical translators and it was the reason why they kept me on until the project was finished.

When it comes to literary work, there is simply no substitute for proper research and writing skills. Last year I translated a book that, because of the complex nature of the subject matter (which covered theology, philosophy, world history, international organizations, major treaties and politics) required two to three hours of research for every hour of actual translation. Fortunately, the author was an intellectual of substance, who understood this and understood the nature of the translator’s craft. He wasn’t interested, then, in getting the translation fast, but in getting it right. What this meant was that I, as the translator, had to know almost as much about his subject as he did.

The project ended up taking me nine months. The thought that I could have done less research by using MT software to "help me out" strikes me as hilarious. And in such cases, I doubt there will ever be a substitute for applying the seat of your pants to a chair for hours on end until the job is done, and done right.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


In the past three years I have been fortunate enough to have worked with that same number of ideal clients on major projects.

What do I mean by ‘ideal’?

· The jobs were within my main area of expertise (literary and journalistic translation).

· The clients were people who understood the fundamental importance of a proper translation and had a working knowledge of the target language.

· They understood that translations were not the product of ‘spontaneous generation’, but of hard, highly skilled and detailed work that could end up taking a period of time equivalent to a major proportion of that necessary to write the original work.

· They were clear and understanding of the fact that, even if I were to dedicate a large portion of my work schedule to their project, a highly recommended professional translator could not be expected to devote himself absolutely full-time to a single, on-going, medium-term project—that he would obviously have other more permanent regular weekly and monthly commitments to cope with as well.

· They were perfectionists who were much more interested in final results than in unrealistic deadlines. For example, there were no proposals like: “I’m going to the beach on vacation next week for two weeks and want to have this done before that so that I can relax and enjoy myself.” But they were professionals themselves and were as strict about logical deadline agreements, time dedication and billing and payment schedules as I was.

· They knew enough about translated works to know that the resulting document had to be a clear interpretation of the spirit and content of the original work without being a literal translation and, therefore, they didn’t question every change of wording, sentence structure, expression, etc., that I made.

· They were available—or made someone else available—for discussion of the work as it was being processed and showed a willingness to approve any modification capable of improving the work as a whole or comprehension of it.

· They were not under the impression (dare I say “delusion”?) that translation was a monastic craft, a religious vocation, a selfless calling that was carried out at the service of the dissemination of the author’s thoughts and, thus, for the charitable advancement of Mankind, meaning that it needn’t be paid for or, at least, that if the translator were to charge for it, the fee should be humble and symbolic in nature. (In other words, these were people who could read an estimate without going into convulsions, frothing at the mouth or fainting dead away).

· They understood the importance of recognizing the translator’s effort, not merely in the form of the author’s personal appreciation and handshake beyond remuneration, but also as manifested in the inclusion of the translator’s by-line on the title page (and, in one case, on the cover) of the work itself, and in voluntary public acknowledgment of the translator’s contribution (as noted in the introduction to the target-language version of the work or in recommendations placed in professional networks).

· The relationship was one of utmost mutual respect and professional courtesy.

That’s what I mean by ideal.

I’ve been reflecting on this in recent weeks and reminding myself that it is something to be grateful for and not to take for granted, since, even though I’ve been able to become more selective as my translating career has advanced over the course of more than three decades, there have clearly been times in which I have ended up working with the kind of clients whom one hopes to be done with forever.

Nor can I forget that the vast majority of translators—especially young translators, no matter how skilled they might be—often end up working with tyrannical corporate supervisors, limited-liability outsourcing agencies and totally unscrupulous translation wholesalers, who render non-existent most of the above-listed attributes of a proper client/translator relationship.

On further thought, I have also come to the conclusion that while gratitude is certainly in order—at both ends of the client-translator relationship—there is something clearly wrong with our profession when this kind of working environment is the exception to the rule. In fact, I would go as far as to say that my point-by-point description of the relationship that I’ve enjoyed with these three outstanding clients could well serve as a kind of manifesto to so many of the self-serving, do-nothing organizations worldwide that claim to be protectors of translators’ professional rights and position, but which have stood by and watched with apparent apathy as the standards of international translating have plummeted in terms of quality, pay, working conditions and professionalism, and as wholesale outsourcing agencies have sought to turn this complex communications craft into a generic, gang-sourced commodity.

Thursday, May 6, 2010


One of the chief problems facing translators when they must bid on projects today is the monumental ignorance at large in the globalized world about precisely what goes into the translating process. Let me just restate that: The problem is monumental ignorance about what goes into the translating process when it is done properly and with excellence.

The advent of electronic translators, such as they are, has done a great deal to add to that ignorance, giving the lesser informed among potential customers the illusion that translation can be executed “at the touch of a button”. And this false sense of instantaneity is further underscored by ruthless, cut-throat, business-to-business wholesalers, who will go to any lengths to land a major project, even promising deadlines for jobs of hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of words for within a matter of days more than weeks or months, at the same or lower rates than those that a team of proper professionals would charge for carrying out the same job over a much longer period of time.

Everything from Soup to Nuts

The truth is that outstanding translators simply can't compete, price-wise or time-wise, with bulk wholesalers, who sell "words translated" as if they were a commodity. These were once fly-by-night individuals or companies that would bid on the translation of anything from a car radio manual to the complete works of Tolstoy applying the same criterion to all. Today they are still doing the same thing, but by exploiting the unskilled, the inexperienced, the mediocre or the desperate, some of them have become increasingly wealthy and have thus been able to buy themselves a corporate veneer in the world of B2B suppliers.

Their modus operandi is to bid equal to or just under what an excellent translator will charge and then to pay mediocre or poor translators miniscule rates to do the job. Why, you may ask, would a client go for this? Ignorance and convenience are the only answers.

Typically, the clients who accept working with translation wholesalers instead of an individual professional or a team of independent professionals who create semi-formal consortia in order to take on major projects:

a) Have no expertise in the target language so have no idea regarding the quality-level of the product they receive.

b) Believe that "business to business" is the safest bet when outsourcing work (since it ostensibly “solves all of the headaches” a client firm would otherwise have to deal with itself) and would thus rather work with a wholesaler that has a corporate profile than with an individual or group of professionals, no matter how highly recommended they might come.

c) Take translation as a “necessary evil” and “an unavoidable cost” for a certain area of business and thus consider only price and time factors in contracting this service.

d) See as “relative advantages” aspects of wholesale translations that, in terms of actual end-quality, are definite drawbacks (namely, the possibility of having an entire "stable of translators" at their disposal through the wholesaler and the assurance of “a quick turnaround”).

What this B2B approach really means is that the translators working on such jobs are usually inexpert, are being paid a pittance, have no time for research or revision and are probably each only doing a few thousand words of a much larger translation job, which signifies that the translation comes out as a sloppy, amorphous, patchwork quilt of varying quality levels and styles. If clients ask the wholesaler about this last aspect, they will usually be told not to worry, that copy and style editors will revise and rewrite the entire translation before it is delivered, but, in effect this seldom happens or is cursory at best: usually a quick once over and a spell-check, if that, are made to suffice.

Wholesalers typically take a huge chunk of the pie. Where a professional forming a team to take on a major assignment will, if honest, do part of the work him/herself and take a small finder’s fee (no more than 15% depending on the rate negotiated) for the task of bringing the client to the table, exploitative wholesalers will keep a major portion (anywhere from 60% to 85%) of the end-fee for themselves and, thus, will only take on translators who are willing to scramble for what’s left, as if the people doing the actual work were getting the finder’s fee and the wholesaler were getting the translator’s rate.

Corporate Blinders

This is the part of the mix that corporate clients simply fail to understand. Reared in a corporate culture, they tend to believe that corporate to corporate is the way to supply themselves and to outsource if they want to avoid trouble and inconvenience. But they forget that buying a translation is not like buying spare parts, raw materials or office supplies. It is more akin to buying craftsmanship, entrepreneurship or creative intellect. It’s about individual and team talents, not bulk commodities or supply and demand. What they don’t know and what corporate translation wholesalers take pains to conceal from them – pulling the wool over their eyes with videos and brochures showing their “corporate offices” full of “staff professionals” busy cranking out end-quality translations – is that wholesalers will generally only have a small, poorly paid in-house staff and, for major jobs, will have to outsource. Outsourcing is precisely what independent professionals will do as well…with one major and crucial difference: Real professionals will outsource to colleagues at a proper rate and will thus be able to attract sound professionals with the knowledge and experience to do an excellent job. At the miserable rates that they offer, wholesalers, meanwhile, must scrape the dregs at the bottom of the translation barrel for their outsourcing needs.

What this means, then, is that while the lone translator can’t compete in price, B2B profile or deadline considerations, the wholesaler can, in no way, begin to approach the quality level of a truly professional translator’s work. And furthermore, if corporate clients could only learn to see past their B2B prejudices, they would see that dealing with teams of independent professionals or true professional agencies (meaning ones that select translators according to their skills and pay them properly for the use of those skills), they would gain in quality whatever they might forfeit in ridiculous deadline demands. (If a wholesaler claims it can put out a high-quality 150,000-word translation over the weekend, it’s lying…period).

Translation Connoisseurs

Quality clients know that translating is a craft and an art that can't be mass-produced. That's why so many great writers, who are bi- or multi-lingual have always insisted on choosing their own translators (rather than leaving it up to publishers who are usually better informed than the usual corporate clients, but are, nevertheless, wont to opt for price and speed over quality and thoroughness). Examples I can think of include Günter Grass, who once called his translators "the author's best readers", Isaac B. Singer, who worked shoulder to shoulder with those who translated his works from Yiddish to English, Mario Vargas Llosa, one of whose translators I have met personally and know from whence I speak, and, of course, Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar, who were, themselves, meticulous translators and polyglots.

Last year I had the pleasure of working with an author who understood quality. We had originally set a six-month deadline for the translation of his 560-page work, but the complicated nature of the subject – the history of the world's major religions, their message of peace and their nefarious influence on war – ended up signifying that, in order to translate it properly, I had to do several hours of research for every hour that I actually translated. It also meant that, in the course of that research, questions arose that prompted me to debate certain points with the author, points that, in some cases, led to minor revisions of the Spanish original, as well as of the translation. In other words, in order to translate the book properly, I had to learn almost as much about the subject as the author did. Because of this, although I am sure it complicated his life to reschedule the production and promotion goals he had set, the author ended up extending the deadline to a year, rather than six months, in order to ensure that we got the translation right.

This, then, is the true nature of excellent translation. The rest is all about greed, exploitation, sleight of hand, and smoke and mirrors.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

A New Dawn

A Translation Handbook returns today after a year-and-a-half-long hiatus. Where have I been? Everywhere and nowhere, all around myself and my life and back again. But here I am, back with new and better ideas for making this blog into a useful tool for language professionals.
This was the first blog I started (I now have three) and it suffered the slings and arrows of inexperience and of the inhibitions and lack of spontaneity of one unaccustomed to electronic media and the dynamics of social networking. I've learned a lot during the time that I let this pioneer blog lie fallow, having used the time to advantage in the creation of a political and social commentary blog called A Yankee At Large and a literary blog entitled The Southern Yankee - A Writer's Log I have also spent a good deal of time participating in social networks, like Facebook, where I have been promoting my other two blogs and taking part in lively discussions with other writers and translators.
Last year I also invested a considerable amount of time in helping with the start-up of what I expect will eventually become a major international organization oriented toward the defense of the translating profession. I use the word profession, rather than industry, since the industrialization of what is more an art and a craft than an industry is at the core of what this new organization is seeking to prevent by creating an awareness of the theories, methods, knowledge and skill that form part of the true translator's craft and by exposing the fallacy of translation as a globalized commodity. The group I refer to is the International Association of Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI, a.k.a. AIPTI - Asociación Internacional de la Traducción y la Interpretación). I am proud to have been one of the 33 original founding members who joined chief founder and President Aurora Matilde Humarán in signing IAPTI's Charter and Code of Ethics at a ceremony held at the Claridge Hotel in Buenos Aires last September and to have seen the Association's impressive growth (we now have representatives in 30 countries) and development in its first half-year of existence. I was honored to serve as IAPTI's first Ethics Committee Chairman and I am currently the head of its Patagonia Bureau. I will surely be talking more about IAPTI and its activities here in the future.
If you remember A Translation Handbook from before, you will note that I have changed the template. It's called the Harbor design and what attracted me to it was its watch tower header since the idea of this blog is to be, among other things, a guardian of our craft as professional translators. Another change is that, as of today, this blog will be "flexibly bilingual". What I mean by this is that, since my own language pair is English/Spanish-Spanish/English it will generally be an English-language blog (since this is not only my native language but also the lingua franca most consistently used as a communications tool among translators of varying native tongues), but it will also occasionally carry articles in Spanish, English-Spanish translations and articles that discuss problems and solutions that specifically pertain to Spanish/English-English/Spanish translation.
Also in this new, more confident stage of A Translation Handbook, I will seek to stimulate debate and so ask (implore) as of now that readers please feel free to comment on the entries contained in this blog.
In short, my humble thanks to readers who frequented this blog at the outset. I hope to win you back and to serve your contacts through your recommendations as well.

I look forward to serving the professional translation community and its clients on a regular basis through this communications vehicle, A Translation Handbook.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

‘My Brother’s Friend’s Sister’s Husband’s Cousin’

A Quiz for Potential Translation Clients

Scenario 1. You take your 60,000-dollar SUV to the mechanic’s. It has some miles on it but you still take it to the specialized garage where you have always had maintenance done on it because, well, the shop is specialized and you want to make sure that your SUV always runs as smoothly as the day you got it. You like it and don’t want to trade it off for a new one, because they just aren’t making them like you used to, so that means whatever needs doing on it, you have it done.

This time the mechanic says if you’re not going to trade it off, you would do well to have a minor overhaul done on it. It’s complicated because it involves regulating the valves, cleaning the injectors and, by the way, your clutch has 70,000 miles on it and is starting to slip a little, so it would be a good idea to change it before it goes out. That means pulling the transmission, regulating the seat, etc. The clutch alone is going to cost a small fortune but you figure it’s all worth it, because these people are specialized and when they’re done with your truck, it is going to run like new and will be good to go for another 60,000 miles or so.

You agree to the estimate, hand your key over to the chief mechanic and are leaving, but remember suddenly that you have forgotten to ask when the SUV will be finished. You walk back into the shop just in time to see the boss handing your truck key over to an 18-year-old apprentice who, up to this time, has been sweeping the floor and you hear the boss say: “Okay, Kid, ya gotta get your feet wet sometime. I want you to drop the gearbox on that SUV and change the clutch. If you need any other help, just tell the kid that’s sweepin’ the other end of the shop. He’s seen me do this before.”

Do you:

a) Pretend you never overheard anything, ask when you can pick the SUV up and leave quietly?

b) Tell the chief mechanic you want him to work on your vehicle personally, or failing this, for him to assign his best mechanic to the job?

c) Snatch your keys out of the boy’s hand, start up your SUV and go smoking off in search of a mechanic’s shop that takes you seriously?

The answer is c), of course, because once you’ve witnessed that kind of behavior you can no longer trust that shop with your vehicle.

Scenario 2. Your left knee has been bothering you. Actually, it has hurt you off and on for a decade, but it has always been tolerable up to now and it never interfered with your jogging or tennis or golf. But now, all of the sudden, it has gotten so bad that you can no longer walk to lunch at the place up the block from you office, let alone play tennis and golf or go jogging. And getting into and out of the car is excruciating. You go to the doctor. There are X-rays, specialists, second opinions. Bottom line: you need to have it operated on. It’s an expensive operation, but the surgeon tells you to rest assured that your knee will be as good as new after the operation and recovery.

The big day comes. They prep you and wheel you into the operating room. They give you a shot that leaves you numb from the waist down. Finally the surgeon shows up, says, “So how are we doing?” He is accompanied by a bashful-looking youth, dressed up in O.R. garb but who, above his mask, looks to be all of about 14 years old.

“Okay, listen,” says the surgeon jovially, “this is Billy Jones. He’s going to be handling your surgery today while I look on.”

Now, the thought of this absolutely terrifies you. I mean, this is your left freakin’ knee we’re talking about. “Are you sure?” you ask.

“About what?”


“Oh, about Billy? Oh heavens yes! Don’t you worry about a thing! He’s my sister’s boy!”

When the doctor steps over to talk to the nurse for a second you take hold of the kid’s sleeve and, trying to sound casual,though your voice is quaking, you say, “Uh, hi Billy. So, er, when did you get out of med school?”

“Oh I haven’t, not yet, Sir. I just started interning yesterday, but my uncle thinks it’s important for me to start getting a feel for the scalpel early on if I plan to be a surgeon, so he’s breaking me in on some little jobs.”

“Er…gulp…how many ‘little jobs’ have you done so far…operations I mean?”

“You mean on live people?”

Your throat is really dry now, so you just nod.

“None. You’re my first!”

Do you:

a) Allow the poor kid to operate on you so he gets some practice in?

b) Tell the surgeon you refuse to have anyone but him operate on you.

c) Tell the surgeon that if his nephew so much as looks at your knee, you’ll sue them both and the hospital for malpractice.

d) Start screaming bloody-murder until someone sane comes running in to save you?

The answer is c), of course, because you have a right to expect proper health care and must protect your own interests if you want to avoid becoming a malpractice statistic.

Scenario 3. You are an American partner in a small company that markets electronic widgets. You started it up 5 years ago with two friends and colleagues from the office where you used to work. Your widgets have some singular qualities that are making them popular with certain cottage industries. Each year your firm is doing better. It is truly a small success. But the accent is still on small. However, you have recently reestablished contact with an old friend from college, a guy from Argentina that roomed with you when you were both at the Harvard Business School getting your MBAs. You two were tight back in school and you trust him. He has convinced you that the market in the Southern Cone is ripe for the widgets you’re dealing in and wants to partner with your firm. Cottage industry reigns in South America, he tells you. And if things go the way he thinks they will, he’ll get you exclusive distribution all over Mercosur, the common market that includes Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay and in which Chile is also a strategic partner. From there, he tells you, it will be an easy leap to the rest of Latin America, a market of hundreds of millions of people and thousands of cottage industries at your fingertips. This is the chance to go global and leave the “small business” title behind.

Your partners trust you but they don’t know your old roommate from Adam. They want somebody that knows what their doing mediating in the negotiations. You start checking around with colleagues, old friends from your Harvard Business School days, clients, and others who might be able to help you find somebody to represent you and your partners in setting up this big international deal.

An exporter friend says, “Hey, my wife’s sister’s kid is a lawyer. Yeah, passed the bar two months ago. He was thinking about interning this summer, but listen, if he had his own gig he wouldn’t have to. Sharp as a whip, this guy, a hard worker, and you can bet he’ll be cheap. And, you can trust him because, as I say, he’s family! Here, I’ll write his number down on my card for you.”

A client’s wife asks you to give a chance to her cousin’s daughter, “who was an exchange student down there in one of those countries a couple of years ago”. Is the young woman a lawyer? “No, she has a degree in international studies, though. And she speaks the language.” Does she have any experience in business? “She did an internship for six months at Coca-Cola in Buenos Aires, I think, or something.”

Your old international business professor from Harvard has another suggestion. There’s a consultant that he knows who has been the brain behind numerous small companies that have gone global by launching their products on the South American market. The guy was an executive at a multinational investment firm in Buenos Aires for ten years. Later he was a technical expert for the American Chamber of Commerce in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Finally, he worked back in Argentina again with the Association of Export Managers setting up import-export trade between that country and the United States. Now he has a consulting firm of his own that has the setting up of more than a hundred international franchises to its credit. His fee runs better than 300 dollars an hour, but he is fast, effective and has no-fail strategies for closing deals and taking successful small businesses global. And he has so much confidence in his own success that he might go for taking part of his fee in a percentage of future business. Your former professor is adamant: This is the guy you want.

Do you:

a) Give the benefit of the doubt to your exporter friend’s wife’s sister’s kid because a lawyer’s a lawyer, he’s got to start somewhere and using him will mean real savings for you and your partners?

b) Hire your client’s wife’s cousin’s daughter because, hey, she’s been down there and speaks the language, and she might even do it for free if you pay for her travel and expenses?

c) Take your professor’s advice, hire a professional and get the service you pay for?

The answer is c), of course, the only serious response to a serious business challenge and the only one that promises success.

Scenario 4. You’ve set up that international business of yours. You have the legal details worked out. Your paperwork is all finished. Your distribution channels are open and ready to go. You've got your sales crew out taking orders and you are about to start producing widgets hand over fist and getting them packaged and crated for international shipment. But there’s something you’re forgetting. Hmmmm. What could it be? Of course! Everything has to be translated into Spanish and Portuguese: manuals, billings, correspondence, promotional material, everything. You panic! You don't know anything about translators or translating. So you ask your old roommate from Harvard and he says, “Not to worry. That’s the least of out problems. I always just ask my secretary.”

So he asks his and you ask yours and the secretaries do what efficient effective secretaries always do: They research and ask around and investigate until they find the top translators they can find in the field of international trade for their respective countries. They send the translators copies of the most urgent materials for translation and ask for an estimate.

But when the estimates come back, both you and Harvard friend in Argentina slap your foreheads in disbelief and shout: “For translating!” I mean, all they’ve got to do is take what is says there in English and put it into Spanish and Portuguese. How hard can that be? Indeed, how much can that cost?

So what do you do?

Do you:

a) Tell your secretary to call up the local high school and ask if the Spanish teacher there would like to have her class translate some stuff as a distributive education project?

b) Call up your client’s wife’s cousin’s daughter because, hey, she’s been down there and speaks the language?

c) Ask your Argentine friend from Harvard to find somebody in his office that “would like to make a few extra bucks” doing the translations in their spare time?

d) Do any or all of the above?

The answer is…ummmmm…d)? Because when it comes to your car, your health and your main business operations, you are meticulous, intelligent and more interested in quality than price. But when it comes to translation, you might very well suddenly become careless, ignorant, penny-wise and pound-foolish. Right?

Come on, tell the truth. You didn’t have any trouble picking the other right anwers. In fact you maybe even had a chuckle at the others. But here, if you're like a lot of other business people out there, you're thinking, "It's only translating, after all. How hard can it be?"

And that’s precisely why there are some really atrocious translations floating around out there.

The real answer should be the missing e) Find a reputable professional translator with experience in commercial translating. And, I might add, if you hire an agency, make sure it's a real and reputable agency and not a translation wholesaler that will indeed hire “my brother’s friend’s sister’s husband’s cousin” and any other amateur or student available at the cheapest possible rates, while charging you top dollar for supposedly professional work.

This is a widespread phenomenon, and with globalization it is becoming more widespread all the time. But translation is communication and it affects your business at all levels, from the degree of understanding between international partners to your company’s image on the market and in the media, to how your company's defense is perceived at the arbitration table or in a court of law. Why the translator’s craft has been so maligned and why business often tends to apply a double standard to this profession in comparison with others is hard to say.

The problem is one of selective blindness. It is cultural, and that's why it usually follows that the better-read and better-educated the client is, the more he/she understands the need for a proper and professional translation. If you think that because you don't understand another language, what the words on the page say doesn't matter, then you simply don't get it. If you don't believe me, try assembling a new appliance by following the set of “easy instructions” badly translated into your language by whomever the manufacturer in some other part of the world got to do it.

Just as any person who decides to act as his/her own attorney has a fool for a client, anybody who looks for “homemade solutions” to professional translating needs is begging for trouble and fooling no one but him/herself.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Just Shut Up! Learning from My Mistakes

This past weekend I worked. If you are a professional translator, you're probably saying, "So what else is new!?"

People, especially attorneys, tend to remember translations on Friday at closing time, just before they trundle off to their favorite watering hole. So if they’re going to court on Monday in an international case, they frequently hand a ream of documentation to their assistant just as he/she is putting on his/her coat to go home with the following exhortation: "I need this translated and on my desk no later than 8 a.m. Monday."

Now, since this would be an impossible task for any single translator, somebody has to come up with a translating team right at end-of-business Friday and get them to work all weekend, and that’s the job of the agency.

My friend, Aurora Humarán, who owns and operates Aleph Translations and is the founder of the Nota de Traductor website (, managed to put together an astonishingly able team of talent in a couple of hours at the end of the day last Friday. Truth be told, I was looking forward to a weekend of walking in the forest, cutting firewood and puttering around in my carpentry shop, and was kind of glad I didn’t have an assignment for the weekend. But hey, in this business, you work when there’s work. And besides, Au is a very convincing agent.

My part of the translation was the first 13 pages and the deadline was Sunday evening. Since I had to go out for a while on Saturday, I got up bright and early that morning and knocked out the cover page, table of contents and the first few paragraphs of the 68-page legal document. I then cranked up my e-mail, introduced myself to the rest of the group (the ones who didn't already know me) and sent them this information that I knew they would have to use in their portions of the translation – section titles, initial terms, etc., so that they could either accept or reject what I had done and jointly decide on other alternatives, or to incorporate the ones that I had come up with.

Let me just say that this is definitely not the best way to work. In a perfect world, you would have a day just to sit and read the entire document, look up the terms you didn’t know, talk over ambiguous terminology with the rest of the team, decide with the other members what to call items that can have more than one name or meaning, and generally, get to know the nature of the beast that you are about to take on. But it has been my experience that things very seldom work out that way. It is much more usual that time and economic constraints impose a way of working that can best be described as a ‘shirttail operation’ in which things must be done top to bottom with little more than a cursory glance at the overall material before you start to translate. This doesn’t mean that things are not done with professionalism, care and discipline. On the contrary, in rush jobs these three elements must be more present than at any other time, because, if not, a translation can turn into nothing less than a god-awful mess, in which inconsistency and confusion are the hallmarks.

Anyway, in my rush to make sure I wasn’t making the rest of the team wait for me to get back from my appointment, I sent off the table of contents bright and early, realizing I would probably have to make some minor adjustments later. Sure enough, when I got back there were several polite e-mails thanking me for the heads-up and suggesting a change here and there, according to the contexts of the parts that the other team members were doing.

Then began the exchange proper. It was a lively intelligent group and whenever we had mutual terms to work out, the process was easy: The first one to get to it would put it out in an e-mail with the translation he or she had applied, the others would quickly respond agreeing or making a suggestion for a possible change and everybody would then vote yea or nay for one or the other. All very civilized and professional. Very quickly we were able to set the bases for a consistently translated document in which everyone called everything by the same name.

And a fine professional, who is always thinking of the team and with whom it is always a pleasure to work (Nora Escoms) right away set up an Excel sheet with the terms, the options weighed and the majority choice all laid out in black and white so nobody would have any doubts.

It is worthwhile mentioning that I was very tired. Darn near jaded, in fact. Two weeks earlier we here in the Andean region of Patagonia had received the visit of the Santa Rosa (the last - usually - major storm of winter) right on schedule but even stronger than normal, with 60-70 cm (23-27 inches) of snow – wet heavy snow that brought down trees and power lines and crushed everything under its weight. As a result, living as I do in a rural area, I was without electricity for the better part of the week and for the first few days couldn’t make it to the highway, 2 km (one and a quarter miles) away, even in my 4-wheel drive truck. So I had spent the following 10 days – after the lights had come back on and we had finished digging out - playing catch-up with all of the work that had piled up in the meantime. So perhaps I wasn’t having my most shining moment.

The long and the short of it is this: In the midst of the translation, I suddenly realized that one of the terms I had inadvertently “defined” in the Table of Contents was completely wrong. Rushing to correct the mistake so that others wouldn't have to go back and change that term a hundred times in their texts, I quickly scanned the corresponding section of the original Spanish text and taking my cue from a date included there (this was an international credit deal in which the beneficiary had until a certain date to make funding requests up to a maximum amount, after which time the financing period would be over and no more requests could be made even if funding used had been less than the maximum), which was the cutoff date, and jumped to the conclusion that the “disposiciones” that it was talking about, after that date had to do with repayment. Still worrying about how my work would affect the others, I immediately (too soon as it turns out) went back on line and said I had been confused and that this was about reimbursement, not disbursement. Then I went back to reread it and realized that in my haste I had allowed myself to be confused again and that, in point of fact, it was all about the fund requests that the beneficiary could make up to that point. I went back on line, apologized again and starting working with others to find a term, which, by then, another savvy member of the team (Mariano Vitetta) had already come up with. He gently and politely explained to me/us that in this type of credit, these were called “drawdowns” (the amount “drawn down” against the maximum allowed in a credit line) and that was the term that stuck. In the end, despite the rush, what we delivered was an accurate, consistent, well-translated document turned out in record time, thanks to an excellent level of teamwork.

The point is this, even with all of my experience, it’s not the same to work alone as to work with a team. And although I have worked many times with teams and have even headed them for major international projects, when you're tired and rushed, you can forget this primary rule of teamwork. If you are alone, you go through the same process of self-questioning and doubt as you do when working with a team. The difference is that, if you are a good translator and the end result is correct and accurate, nobody hears what you went through to get there.

The danger when you work with others is "thinking out loud", which merely causes "confusing noise" among your teammates. My advice, based on intimate experience as late as this past weekend, is that if you're 100% sure of what you're talking about, share it with the others on your team because whatever you all share will add to the quality of the final product. But even if your purposes are noble and your intentions collaborative, providing others with your thoughts while they are still just that, thoughts, and not concrete decisions is counterproductive and breeds confusion. Until you have a term clearly and precisely defined in your own mind, just shut the heck up! Your fellow team members will thank you for it.