[Resources] Mistakes to avoid

Yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting Levent Yildizgoren at a translators’ powwow in Toronto, and I was glad to learn about a brochure he has written to provide clients with strategies to avoid common mistakes in translation projects. The topics included in his publication are in perfect harmony with the material you find in this blog, and some aspects have actually been tackled in our previous posts.

Here are the nine mistakes discussed by Levent in his text:

1 – Doing it yourself
2 – Relying on machine translation
3 – Not telling your translator what it’s for
4 – Not providing all the details to your translator
5 – Not agreeing on the quality criteria
6 – Not using previously translated documents
7 – Choosing the cheapest translator
8 – Not planning the translation project
9 – Not using plain English in your copy

The Nine Translation Slip-ups to Avoid! is a free brochure. Just click on the link, follow the instructions, and you’ll get a beautifully formatted PDF in your mail box within a few seconds.

I’ll certainly be quoting from this brochure in future posts, as it addresses topics I’ve been meaning to write about.

I have more good news: Levent himself got excited about collaborating with us as a guest writer some time soon. So stay tuned!

As with other resources I find pertinent to share with my audience, this one has been added to the “Useful links” section (on the left).


Brazil and Portugal, two countries separated by a common language

As a Portuguese translator working in Germany, when talking to a prospect about a translation project, I always check if the prospect needs the translation done in a Portuguese dialect that I am able to translate into. I was born in Brazil, I spent the first 30 years of my life in Brazil, and I was educated in Brazil. I have had only limited exposure to European Portuguese (mostly talking casually and briefly to people from Portugal and reading some texts written in European Portuguese) and no exposure at all to other Portuguese dialects spoken in Africa. So I would hardly accept any job offer to translate into a dialect other than Brazilian Portuguese, nor would it be ethical on my part to accept such an offer. And that is what I try to explain to prospects.

Buyers of translation who contact me rarely know that Brazilian Portuguese differs substantially from European Portuguese. Major differences include not only everyday colloquial language (words, style, spelling, even grammar), but also specialized vocabulary. They are still the same language (“Brazilian” is not a language), but with highly specialized dialects. After all, Brazil and Portugal have developed differently in the past two hundred years, and, of course, their separate historical paths have impacted on their local dialects and on the mutual understandability between speakers of each variant. To quote from Bernard Shaw, they are like “two countries separated by a common language.”

It is precisely those differences that make it extremely important for a translation buyer to know which language dialect their text should be translated into. A text written in Brazilian Portuguese will most likely not be understood correctly by an average native speaker of European Portuguese, and vice-versa. Yes, the overall message would, perhaps, be understood, but not the nuances, details and between-the-lines information. It could come across as funny, awkward or even plain wrong. This is an even more important point to consider if communicating effectively is really a top priority. Those who just “want that translation done” may very well hire a Brazilian to translate a text and give the translation to readers in Portugal, or, worse still, commission a native speaker of European Portuguese to proofread a translation into Brazilian Portuguese. Some people have even asked me to translate texts into a fairy-tale entity called “neutral” Portuguese that could be used in Brazil, Portugal or Africa, and I politely turn down the offers, explaining that there is no such thing as “neutral,” or globally “standard,” Portuguese. But those who demand the highest quality in translation and who know that communicating effectively—i.e. targeting the message to the specific audience one wants to reach—is key to the success of a product or service would never want to do such things. And they usually have no problem accepting that a native speaker of Brazilian Portuguese should translate into Brazilian Portuguese and a native speaker of European Portuguese should translate into European Portuguese.

But what about the Portuguese language spelling reform that has been in force in Brazil since January 2009 and in Portugal since mid-2011? The reason behind the spelling reform was to make Portuguese a uniform language globally, thereby making it easier to perform internet searches and understand Portuguese documents on the Web, no matter which Portuguese dialect these were written in. But this is utopia. The spelling reform only changes about 0.5% of Brazilian Portuguese words and about 1.5% of European Portuguese words. Besides, the reform only applies to the spelling, and not to other language elements like syntax, regionally/culturally specific vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. So this reform will not unify the two variants into one “standard” language—at least not in the current scenario.

And, most important of all, the new spelling reform will not change the fact that translation buyers need a native speaker of Brazilian Portuguese for a translation that will be used in Brazil and a native speaker of European Portuguese for a translation that will be used in Portugal. But this, of course, only applies to translation buyers who really want high-quality translation and effective communication, which—I am sure—you do.

Dialects: a culturally-sensitive issue

A while ago I discussed how crucial it is for clients and translators to be clear about the specifications of each project from the outset. Two of the ten items listed as relevant in that article have to do with dialects: source language and regional variation, and target language and regional variationThis matter is so important that it deserves a post—or several—of its own.

Dialects are one of the elements taken into consideration when you do what’s commonly known as “localization.” This term derives from “locale,” which refers to a given geographical, political, or cultural region while also considering this region’s language and local variant.

Some scholars and professionals defend that localization is much more than “mere” translation, because it involves the adaptation of the whole message to fit a particular culture. The article “What Is Localization?” concludes that “localization is like translation but with a cultural twist and a rewrite attribute.” Nevertheless, others argue that the very notion of translation intrinsically encompasses localization: all translations necessarily involve cultural considerations and adaptations. Well, there’s certainly a lot to discuss on this topic—much more than what I have in mind for this particular post. I just wanted to introduce the issue by tackling these concepts and showing how language variants, culture, and translation/localization are interconnected.

It’s only natural that non-native speakers of a language find the divergences between two or more variants of the same language imperceptible. However, as the previous paragraph suggests, differences between countries go beyond linguistic nuances and involve cultural matters. A good, commonly known example is how sensitive language variation is for French-Canadians and for the French of France. Most people also seem to be aware of how different the language spoken in the US is from that spoken in the UK. In addition, there are many other cases of regional language variation, such as Brazilian Portuguese and European Portuguese, the wide array of Spanish variants, various dialects of Farsi/Persian (also known as “Dari” in Afghanistan and Tajikistan), among others I won’t even begin to detail.

The case of Spanish certainly deserves more attention than I can give it right now. But just to mention in passing, the Spanish-speaking countries have reached an implicit agreement on what’s called “international Spanish” or “neutral Spanish,” which works fine under certain circumstances. I intend to address this quite unique scenario in more depth at another time.

Problems with the translation itself

Although language variants are often mutually intelligible to some extent, sometimes the nature of the differences and their high frequency result in uncomfortable bumps in the texts: distractions and obstacles that prevent immediate understanding. For instance, a text that is simple, informal, and direct in one country might sound too formal, harsh, and wordy in another. A translation that doesn’t sound as fluent or natural as the original might fail to appeal to that particular readership. Therefore, a number of aspects of this very text will need to be adapted in order to reach the target readers appropriately and generate the desired results.

Your image and the readers’ attitude

If you are unaware of the importance of regional variants, you might hire translators from different backgrounds as if they were interchangeable. However, mismatching the target variant and audience might undermine the reception of your text and the communication as a whole.

Not taking regional linguistic differences into account might suggest disrespect on the part of the translation buyer or his/her lack of familiarity with the target culture. This often affects the way the audience responds to the text. Readers who are relegated to the position of what’s often called “chance receivers” might not interact with the text in the same way as the primary addressees.

Therefore, being aware of regional linguistic variation is the first step toward producing a translation that speaks properly to its intended readers. By appropriately translating and localizing your texts, you present your brand as culturally aware and earn the respect of your target audience by showing that your business is committed to their particular needs and interests.

Language professionals: a central piece

A serious professional should be ready to deal with language variation issues. It’s the translators’ job to raise the awareness of those involved with translation—from staff in translation agencies to members of professional associations, and translation buyers. For instance, if clients don’t specify upfront the variant they need (which happens more often than we’d imagine), translators are expected to clarify this point before going ahead with the project. I believe most colleagues would agree that it’s unethical of a professional to simply assume his/her variant is the one requested and start the translation without first checking with the client.

If you have two professionals working on the same project, for example, one in charge of the translation and one taking care of editing, avoid hiring people from different backgrounds. Save time and money by respecting regional differences and working with teams of translators and revisers who are prepared to meet the specific needs of the audience you have in mind.

Controversial approach: “penalties” for low rates?

We all tend to agree that the “you get what you pay for” rule generally applies to goods and services regardless of the industry. In the translation business, what I describe in a previous text about the common scenarios involving the cost-time-quality triangle is usually true:

“Lower rates are often charged by novice translators or those who have no option but to work for extremely long hours to make a living. Conversely, more experienced professionals usually charge higher rates, which are, more often than not, proportional to the quality level of their services.”

In a subsequent post under the same category, I briefly analyze the relationship between a professional’s working hours and translation rates. Those who charge peanuts have to work incredibly hard to make a decent living. Moreover, those who have no choice but to work very long hours are less likely to focus on their translations, do exhaustive research, and revise the text until it’s impeccable, among other details that interfere in the quality of their output.

All these arguments seem logical, as quality is a direct result of a combination of attention, research, revision, and expertise, of course. A professional needs to spend time with a text to be able to put all these into action. If time is not available, one will expect a drop in quality. Naturally.

Now what if a “bottom-feeder” intentionally disregards quality because the rate s/he is getting is “not enough” to pay for his/her full attention, proper research, and careful revision? Sad but true, as you can see in this Google Groups discussion. I’ve reproduced the original text (which is a reply to another translator’s message) and highlighted the parts I consider a must-read.

This is an interesting scenario, especially because I believe it happens more often than we would expect. And I don’t mean the intentional “customer suffers” approach. Instead, the real, widespread problem is the circumstantial—and sometimes inevitable—results of low rates, as I’ve described.

This attitude will sooner or later boomerang back at unprofessional individuals like this one and damage their reputation, as Kevin Lossner points out in his comment under a blog post about it. To complement the cycle, I quote Werner Patel’s explanation, found in another a blog comment, of how it can backfire on clients:

“If they [clients] are too short-sighted to realize that they’re only hurting themselves by throwing peanuts at language professionals, they will eventually go out of business due to lack of quality and professionalism.”

There has been good discussion around this topic through blog posts and comments, as seen in Ryan Ginstrom’s and Corinne McKay’s posts, both published in 2008. Still, I thought I should bring this up again by adding a few extra lines about it and making these links available. The subject is a perfect fit for this blog, in harmony with a bunch of previous articles, and I don’t think it’ll ever be outdated.

Subtitling – Part II

(4)    Why didn’t you list (audio) transcription as a common step of the subtitling process?

Transcription of the audio is not necessarily part of subtitling. A common misconception is that the translator needs to type the text in the original language before, and only then begin working on the subtitles proper. The truth is most translators work faster by listening to the audio in one language and typing it directly into the other language.

Nevertheless, the transcribed material is sometimes used by clients for preparing manuals or other sorts of texts in the source language (i.e. original language). Most subtitling professionals will provide you with the transcription if you make it clear you also need the original content in writing. Remember this service takes time and, therefore, should be agreed upon beforehand. It will certainly be charged as an extra service.

(5)    How many professionals do I need to hire?

This depends on what product you need and the type of professional(s) you hire. Some translators only do the linguistic part of the job, whereas others handle the full video editing process. Some of them will deliver the subtitled video after having outsourced the video editing phase, for instance. Here’s our advice: describe the final product you need; the translator will most likely give you some options and tell you what s/he is able or unable to do.

To maximize your results and minimize costs, we suggest you do everything at once. Translating the material this week with one professional, then looking for another professional to edit the film next month might result in wasted time and money. Even if two or more professionals are involved, the process will be streamlined if they can communicate and agree on certain technical details.

(6)    Besides the video itself, what other material should I provide?

Other than the reference materials you’d usually send before any sort of translation task, good written support materials (audio transcription, original script, dialog list, etc.) often make translators less prone to misunderstanding the audio. It might also speed up the process, since the professional won’t have to listen to an unclear excerpt numerous times before s/he gets the right message. Many translators add a surcharge when this type of written reference material is not available.

(7)    Are there legal issues, such as intellectual rights, that I should be concerned about?

If you are the creator or legal owner of the audiovisual material, you obviously have the right to translate and distribute it. And, when you hire a translator, you usually retain the intellectual rights over the translation as well. This may not be the case in every country and every situation, though. So, if you have intellectual property concerns, discuss them with the translator in advance.

In the case of third-party contents (films or TV shows, videos from another company, or even materials downloaded from websites such as YouTube), you must acquire the rights to translate them and distribute it. A copyright breach could entail legal consequences for you and the professionals involved.

Now that you know a bit more about subtitling, we hope you can optimize the communication with your translator from the onset of each project and, consequently, achieve the best results. Feel free to email us and use the comment section to ask questions about subtitling and the audiovisual translation field.

Translation agreements

“Spoken words fly away;
written words remain.”

– Latin saying

Once you have spoken or exchanged emails with the translator and all the relevant project specifications are well defined, the best next step is to put everything together in clear writing.

This can be done rather formally, by adapting a model contract to your needs and having both parties sign it. A translation agreement should be designed and customized to establish the specificity of the relationship between a translation buyer and a language service provider in any particular project.

Alternatively, a more informal way of specifying all pertinent details in writing is by email. I myself started using this email method at first: I’d write an email with all the specifications, send it to clients, and ask them to reply stating they agreed with the terms and conditions. Only then would I begin working on the project.

Lately I’ve been using a model contract and asking for signatures—it projects a more professional image and gives both parties a better sense of security.

In any case, I’d advise you not to rely only on spoken words or agreements.

Having a client–provider agreement is one of the requirements of the European quality standard for translation service providers (EN 15038:2006) and the Canadian Translation Services Standard (CAN/CGSB-131.10-2008), both developed to ensure the quality of translation services offered by translation agencies and translation companies.

A translation contract protects both parties: you and the service provider. Even if the translator doesn’t take the initiative to send you an agreement, you’re right to request one. Not surprisingly, some translators develop mistrust toward clients who refuse to sign this type of document. Come to think of it, if the service request is genuine, why wouldn’t a buyer want to formalize it in a contract? Conversely, you should be careful when dealing with a language professional who is not willing to sign an agreement.

Below is one of the most comprehensive model contracts I’ve seen, provided by the American Translators Association (ATA). There may be other specific issues either party might want to specify in writing.


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Post update – Jan 27th, 2012

Seeking to help translators draft their own contracts and agreements, the ATA Business Practices Education Committee has put together the Guide to a Translation Services Agreement.

This publication provides not only a customizable model contract in one column, but also enlightening explanations in the second column. While undoubtedly handy for language professionals, it’s certainly useful to translation customers as well.

To help with ease of access, this resource has been added to TCZ’s “Useful links” section (left column).

During and after the translation

“Most translators are not looking for glory. […] They simply want the ability to do the best job they can. They want to be proud of the difficult work they do. Giving them a closer relationship with the buyer facilitates that.”
– Nataly Kelly, Common Sense Advisory

This post is the continuation of what was discussed in “Resources and planning” and “The file to be translated.” If you haven’t read those, I’d suggest you start from there. The aim of this series of posts is to give you hints on how to achieve the best results by doing what you can to help the translator do his/her job faster and with greater accuracy. Below are some recommended actions you should take during the translation process itself and afterwards.

  • Respond to your translator’s questions

An inquiring mind usually makes a good language professional. Competent translators and revisers practically “dissect” the text throughout the project. As a result, more often than not they run into inconsistencies, ambiguities, cloudy areas, and the like. Their best shot at solving these puzzles is through the author, who supposedly knows everything the text intends to communicate. So, if you’re the author or have contact with him/her, you’d do well to let the translators know from the start that you can be contacted for clarification.

Here comes the most important piece of advice in this regard: make sure you or your team replies to the translator’s inquiries in a timely manner. Keep in mind that schedules are usually tight and that any unclear word or sentence might interfere in the understanding of the whole message. Sometimes a translator gets stuck and is only able to go on after that bit is clarified. So by responding to your translator’s questions right away, you can avoid delaying the process even more, which is of course in your own best interest. 

  • Send feedback and the revised version of a translation

Now suppose the project is done: you got your translation, read it, started using it… this is the end of your interaction with the language professional (at least until the next project), right? Not quite, unless you intend to use a new service provider every time you need a translation.

Nobody wants to be changing or correcting the same thing time and again. So, if you have someone in your team capable of revising the translation well, have this person go through the translated text (as I said in a previous post, this is a tricky situation I will discuss in the near future). Ideally use a word processor’s track change tool or highlight any alterations. Then make sure to send the revised version to your translator. An experienced professional will know how to analyze the modifications critically and incorporate the preferred styles, terms, words, expressions, or phrases into future texts.

Let’s not forget that most translators today work with translation memory tools (to have an idea of what this is, refer to my last post). Another advantage of this technology is the incorporated search tool: the professional can easily retrieve previously translated content to see how s/he translated words, terms or expressions and the context in which they were used. Needless to say, consistency is a key element in any well-written text and also among different texts of the same company. CAT tools can guarantee 100% consistency if handled appropriately by the translator and updated according to your revisions.

Since healthy relationships involve the exchange of constructive criticism, don’t be afraid of talking about mistakes with your service provider. Conversely, if your translator did an awesome job, go ahead and tell him/her. Committed professionals will be pleased to hear they’re on the right track and will always try to do better.

I started out intending to write a single post about this topic and ended up with a series of three (so far). This is a hint of how much there is to discuss about actions you might take in this regard. Interestingly, in writing these initial posts, I realized that a great deal of this blog will have to do with giving you the right tools to get the most for your money by collaborating with your translator.

I recognize that clients sometimes have no control over some situations. It’s enough that you might now be more aware of the best-case scenario and of the benefits you can get in return. If you decide to follow these recommendations the next time you get the chance, feel free to share the results with us.