Driving quality up in the translation industry

14 12 2012

I have just read the comments to an interesting post about translation buyers’ expectations in terms of quality. The issue is approached by many of the translators commenting on the topic as if the quality of translations depended solely on clients and on what they were are willing to pay for it. They make a valid point that if clients are looking for the cheapest job in the quickest time frame possible, a serious translator cannot help but “swim or sink” and that means compromising on quality.

Our industry is full of clutter. Translation is a service that can often be provided remotely from anywhere in the world to clients anywhere in the world. The initial investment is a household connection to the Internet and a computer. Hence, there are thousands (if not millions) of translation agencies and freelancers, who provide translation services independently worldwide, without qualifications, experience or even adequate knowledge of the language pairs they provided services for. Competition may sometimes look fierce, because translators in developed countries compete against providers in developing countries that can offer much cheaper services. Also, there aren’t regulations applicable to all countries that can help translators put a cap on their prices.

I can understand why many dedicated translators are frustrated with their position and the unfair sort of competition they find themselves in, but I would like to approach the topic from a different perspective.

Naturally, a demand on the buyer side for quality will drive the overall quality of the industry up. This is a very straightforward concept, but can the seller side of the industry drive quality up too without compromising its revenue? I think so.

I have read it somewhere (it may not be true, but still a valid point) that Apple does not invest on market research. Their philosophy is to “create amazing” and they firmly believe that if they can do that, customers will find it amazing too and pay a fair price for their products. In fact, we are so much in awe of what they create that some people are willing to pay for products before they are even launched, because they know they’ll be the first owners of something amazing.

In every industry there is room for quality and innovation. We don’t create technology or innovation in its strict sense as translators, but we too can create amazing. If instead of thinking what our clients’ expectations in terms of quality are, we think long and hard about what our expectations are, we have a chance of creating something better than they ever expected.  We are the experts in translation and in our language pair, hence who better than us to set the bar high for the job that we’ll deliver?

Right, easy to say, but what to do about the competition? There are several markets within a market. There is the market for cheap translations, and let’s face it, sometimes speed is more important than price, it doesn’t matter if the document produced doesn’t say exactly what the original text said (in which case I would argue against the need for a translation in the first place,  but that is an entirely different topic), or although the client would love to pay more they just can’t afford it. There is a market and there are providers who cater for it. There will always be.

However, there is also a high-end market; this is not as price sensitive and will put quality over price and speed. This is the market we should aim for if we want to drive quality up. I am not suggesting that we become inflexible, but as service providers we must decide where we are prepared to compromise and where we aren’t. For example,  I am prepared to compromise a few nights sleep to complete a job within a tight deadline for a client with whom I have a good relationship, i.e. who is willing to pay a rate we both find fair and is loyal to my services. I am not compromising my sleep over a low paying overnight job from an agency that is charging their client an urgency rate, but is unwilling to pay me for the urgency.

Naturally, I can do this now because I have been building a client base for many years. My clients have selected me as their provider over the years and I have selected them too. However, when I started I wasn’t known in my field and couldn’t be as choosy about the jobs I  took. My approach then was compromising on everything, but quality. Even if an agency would ask me to do a ridiculous amount of words overnight for a much better rate (fully aware that there was no way anyone could deliver a good job in that sort of time frame), if I didn’t think I could deliver a quality job I would say no. Many people said I was crazy: “It will take you weeks now to make what you could have made in a day!” and it did feel crazy and a bit masochistic many times, but to me it was about the long term and it has payed off! If all serious translators did that, we would force agencies and even clients to challenge the quality of translations more often and become more aware of the importance of quality- i.e. we could drive quality up. The only reason not to do that is if we believe that we cannot rise to the challenge. I certainly can.

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Mind Your Language

10 09 2012

I have just come across this really funny British sitcom from the 70s. It is about teaching English as a foreign language and the cultural clashes between the students from different nationalities and the very British teacher. Brilliant!

The first part of the first episode, which you can watch on YouTube here, is hilarious. I am sure anyone who has learned a second language, particularly English will relate in some way to it. Enjoy!

 

 





Random thoughts on business

7 09 2012

I would like to start this post today with a quote from the book “The Work We Were Born to Do” by Nick Williams. I am currently reading it and have been thinking about this a lot recently:

“Another popular belief is that we have to do lousy work to get filthy lucre. When we are more focused on negative thoughts around money, we tend to believe that we have to do unpleasant things to acquire money…”

I could not count how many times I have been told that I worry too much about the work I deliver, particularly when I started my business. Initially I was tempted to believe that I had to work faster, outsource as much as people and deliver medium quality translations if I was to have a profitable business. Believe me, I have seen that over and over with large translation agencies, mostly because they get too big for their own good. The truth is that most clients who need a translation don’t necessarily speak the target language and probably do not have any means of checking whether the work done for them is of good quality or not. So it is very easy, and many translators do in this business, to get way with less than medium quality in at least 70% of the jobs.

Fortunately, I can’t do it! I actually love translating, I love the idea that I can convey a message written in one language, by someone with a different background and cultural values, in another language. I actually take pride in delivering the best translation I can do, regardless of whether my client will be able to tell the difference or not. If I don’t get any fulfillment out of my work, I am working just for money and that does not fulfill me.

Early in my business I decided to surround myself with like-minded people, both translators and clients. When I choose a translator to outsource work to, the first thing I want to know is how much pride they take in their job. From terminology research, spell checking and formating to their comments about how difficult they found a particular job, why they decided to choose a term over another and etc. I want to know that even if a translator does not deliver the most perfect of jobs, they actually did the best they could. I am willing to help this translator develop and take his/her ability to new levels, but I am not willing to work with people who don’t like what they do. Unhappy people are like rotten apples, they bring everybody else and your business down.

I seek a similar commitment in my clients, of course I don’t turn anyone down outright, but  I have a few principles I abide by. Firstly, I refuse to have more clients than I can handle –  that also factors in outsourcing, when I know I’ll need to revise the work before delivering and etc. I refuse to work for someone who thinks that what I do is worth less than peanuts. I believe in competition and fair pricing, but when I get requests to cut my rates to like 25% of what I would normally charge, I find it a little disrespectful, because it is like the client is telling me that the quality of my work is only worth 25% of what I charge. My vision for my business is to create a portfolio of customers who are happy with the services they got and are happy to come back whenever they need more translations. I have a key role in ensuring that, but so do my clients.

It may sound a little big-headed in this economy and climate to be saying that I want to choose my clients. But what I have learned from trial and error and some difficult experiences is that I don’t need to have a portfolio of 20,000 clients who pay me 25% of what I my services are worth and expect me to be a machine and translate at the speed of light. There is a market for it and there are service providers to supply it. I am not competing in that market.

I like knowing my clients by name, taking time to have a chat with them about what they want, what they need the translation for and going over their questions about the job delivered. I actually like it when they ask me about my choices for terminology and etc., because I know that they have taken an interest. Usually clients like that will pay what you are worth and will also be really demanding, but the final outcome of the job is satisfactory for you both and that is what I want my business to be about.

Ever since I set myself and my business in that path, funnily enough my revenue has gone up and my hours have gone down. I still work hard, sometimes on weekends and late hours, but I actually enjoy it. I sometimes need a holiday to rest and take my mind off things, but the holidays are not a break between periods of slaving at work and feeling miserable. My holidays now are breaks to allow me some distance to have more ideas and engage with more interesting people to come back and continue to develop my business.

What I have really come to realize is that when you are not chasing money, it finds its way to you and you get to do what you like; it just takes a bit of courage to believe in it to begin with and to keep believing it and working for it until it happens to you.





Trados Studio 2009

3 09 2012

I acquired Trados Studio as a requirement of one of the agencies I work with. In fact, they awarded me a license in exchange for the quality services provided to them.

I had already been using Trados 2007 before, and one of the things that really annoyed me was the fact that there was no spell check for tag editor. So I had to do the spell check in the clean file at the end and implement the changes in the tag editor, to make sure that the memory wasn’t full of spelling mistakes.

Trados Studio has that tool and that is great. However, if you are a novice with it, make sure you run the spell check in the clean file anyway, because unfortunately the trados spell check is not brilliant. Not even for English.

I still love tag editor. I think it is the most effective in terms of tag use and many of the agencies I work with prefer it if I used tag editor to studio. Studio can be a bit annoying with tag insertion and etc.

One advantage of Studio 2009 is that it opens PDF files into editable bilingual formats. This is great when the pdf file is selectable and has certainly made many assignments easier, but beware that sometimes, due to features of pdf files, it jams and doesn’t save your work. So what I usually do to minimize that is save the bilingual and target files after every 10% complete. At least I know that if it jams and doesn’t save at some point, I won’t have lost all my work (Believe me, it has happened a few times!).

One thing I love about it is that at the bottom of the interface (see image below) it shows the percentage of not translated segments, translated but not confirmed and confirmed segments. This really helps me organize my time. I usually do the first 10% of the text and time it, so then I know how long it will take me to do the lot. I try to organize my time based on that and plan how much I need to do a day to meet my deadline. This is more accurate than having to estimate the word count all the time and has somehow really sped up my translations.

Overall, I use a combination of studio 2009 and tag editor 2007 and other CAT tools. I recommend always using a CAT tool with a pinch of salt. Unfortunately there are still no single effective CAT solutions for translators (at least not amongst the many I have tried).

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Working with Glossaries

29 08 2012

Well, I have been fortunate enough to manage terminology and consistency in group translations into Portuguese and English and I find working with glossaries very handy, both for harmonization and revision.

I usually provide my translators with a bilingual glossary created in Excel format, very simple…In addition to implementing all the terms in the glossary, I ask them to add the terms they research to it as well. However, they don’t just add terms; the latter must be approved by myself or whoever is revising the translation. So, they highlight the new terms with a specific color, usually yellow, and deliver it with every partial delivery of the translation.

The reviser goes over the terms, and approves or changes the translation, highlighting all of the new terms (amended or not) in a new colour, usually blue.

The reviser does that for all translators and consolidates all of the new terms highlighted in blue in a single version of the glossary.

Also, if any changes have been made to the translation of terms since the last version of the glossary, the reviser highlights those in a different color as well, usually red.

This version is then resent to all translators and they are asked to read through the new terms and implement the changes or new terms as appropriate.

After delivering that file to all translators, the reviser removes the highlights from all the terms and saves the official final version of the glossary. This is done every time translators deliver a new partial version of the translation, so that the glossary is enhanced and approved throughout the process and each time only the relevant terms are highlighted.

I find this really useful to help translators align the translation during the process of translation. This simplifies the work of the reviser and really helps translators in their terminology research.





Researching Terminology

13 08 2012

I am working on a technical manual for a mining company and I have come across a term that I will need to research a bit more thoroughly so I will show you step by step how I usually go about it.

The term in Portuguese is “madeira contraventada” (which is wood + a female adjective) and the manual is talking about types of rail cars made of this material. I want to translate it into English.

My first attempt at finding it is going to Proz Terminology and trying to find it there. No luck. The only thing I can find there is the opposite of the male word “não-contraventado“, which is “unbraced”. A long shot would say that “madeira contraventada” would be “braced wood”. I am not sure that “braced wood” is a term in English, Google translator (and this is one of the few acceptable uses for  google translator in professional translation -i.e. a word guide) does not have a translation for “contraventada” anyway.

So my next step, is to determine exactly what contraventada is in Portuguese. According to the dictionary, it means “supported, strengthened, made more resistant”, which seems to match the meaning found for “braced” in my hardcopy English<>Portuguese dictionary.

This is promising, so I do a quick search on Google UK to see if it comes up with entries for “braced wood”. (Important tip: make sure you search exclusively websites from an English-speaking country; do not go into Google Brazil and try to find it, because you may find several mistranslations that will mislead you into thinking you have got the right term. If you are Brazilian, you probably construe meaning in a similar way to other Brazilians, so a translation that may seem to make sense to you, because it did for another Brazilian, will not necessarily be the right term).  There are 3,140 entries, which is not that much in Google terms, but the term has been found in websites such as the “Engineered Wood Products Association“, which seems to be a reputable agency in the U.S. in the relevant industry.

Hence, I am satisfied that I have a good, or at least understandable, translation for my term.

I hope this process is helpful to other translators. Suggestions are always welcome.

 





My Journey (Part I)

13 08 2012

Well, what can I say? I did not become a translator by choice; I truly believe that it was my calling. As I tell my story, you’ll see that I have veered away from translation time and time again, but it has always found its way back into my life.

I am Brazilian and I first decided to learn a second language when I was 7. My parents took us on a holiday to Mexico and there were kids from all nationalities in our hotel. I remember being really curious as to what they were saying and desperately wanting to interact with them. I asked my mom what language would I have to speak if I wanted to communicate with as many of them as possible and she said: “English”. There and then I decided that I would speak English.

It took my mother two years to allow me to start taking English lessons and when she finally did I was hooked for ever. I can safely say that I have been an English student since.

By the age of 13 I had gone through all levels of English classes available in my school and in my town, so the school offered me a part-time job teaching English in their computer lab to keep me interested. Indeed, that kept me very interested for a while. I loved teaching, loved the challenge of having to explain things and try to find ways for people to be motivated by language and, of course, loved having a bit of pocket-money. I also got involved with AFS, which is an NGO with a very interesting mission (I will try to write a post about that as well, because this is an organization worth talking about). With AFS I had the opportunity to meet and talk to exchange students from all over the world, and had my first experiences with translation.

Nonetheless, by the age 15 I felt there was nothing else I could learn on my own, and if I wanted to speak English properly I would have to live in an English-speaking country.

That is exactly what I did (after two years of trying to convince my parents and finally succeeding) and in January 2000 I moved to Australia for a year. Australia would deserve a whole chapter if I were to describe the amazing experience I had, but the most relevant aspect of this experience for my future career as a translator was meeting a very special teacher. Ms. McCutcheon was my English and Drama teacher. When I decided to take PES (Public Examination Subject) English – which was the hardest level of English in year 12 in  the Australian education system at the time -, she advised me strongly against it. She said it was hard even for native speakers and I would probably fail. I told her that if she was willing to help me, I was willing to put in the effort. Boy, did she make me put in the effort! Every essay that my classmates had to write once and submit to her, I would have to write at least three times. I would always have two deadlines before everyone, when she’d correct and go through my whole essays with me. Looking back, I cannot thank her enough. Between drama classes, “hardcore” English and a very intense exchange student life I managed to come second in my English class at the final exams and win a Conscientious Effort Award. More importantly, I came home from Australia with near-native English and the grammar and structural foundations for my future profession (although I did not know it then).

Another legacy of my Australian experience was my love for and awe of nature. I decided to become a marine biologist and study life in this amazing planet. And, no, I did not even consider becoming a translator!

(Read more about My Journey in Part II and Part III).