Monday, May 23, 2016

Replaced by Machines

“The pilot is the last line of defence when things go catastrophically wrong. In January 2009 an Airbus A320 hit a flock of geese over New York City. With no power, the captain, Chesley Sullenberger, had to weigh up a number of options and act quickly. Using his extensive flying experience and knowledge of the plane’s handling qualities he elected to ditch the aircraft in the Hudson River. The 150 passengers were not saved by computers or any other automated system. They were saved by the two pilots – the very components that techno-enthusiasts claim can be replaced by computers and ground controllers.”

You see, the claim that humans can be replaced by machines is not made only in the T&I industry. I recently went to Panera Bread (a fast-food chain, though much more healthful than McDonald's) and placed my order on a tablet that was docked not too far from the entrance. The sign by the tablets claimed that this would expedite my order. A little further inside were actual people taking orders behind a counter, for those customers unable or unwilling to use the tablet. I felt guilty for using the tablet and promised myself to place my order with a person next time, even if that means having to wait in line. I refuse to use a machine and contribute to making a person lose his/her job just to save a couple of minutes.

Last year on a trip to Boston I had to rent a car at a very late hour because my flight had arrived late. Most rental car desks at the airport were closed. I saw that in a couple of them there were machines which you could use to rent a car, without the help of a person. In fact I saw something similar on TV a few weeks ago, in a commercial claiming that now you can rent a car even if you don't feel like talking to a person. So not only was that ad discouraging human contact (all right, maybe one is anti-social and really doesn't want to talk to anyone; fine) but it was also suggesting that it's OK to replace a human being with a machine.

However, when that machine breaks, who are you going to call? You are going to call the specialists, the ones that know how to rent you a car, the ones that know how to land a plane even when things go wrong, and the ones that can recognize immediately why a machine translation may be nonsensical and even deadly (numerous are the examples we’ve seen of bad medical translations produced by a machine, such as incorrectly translated directions for taking medication; and don’t even get me started on how many translation errors I’ve corrected in aircraft specs and assembly instructions).

So those that still think they can save money with machine translation should probably do a more detailed cost analysis and take into account the cost of fixing what will be broken. Because chances are, something—or many things—will be broken. One of the most important things that will be broken—and that will be really difficult to fix—is the reader’s/user’s trust. The other day I was reading an article in Deleátur (the journal published by the Union of Spanish Editors) on the importance of proofreaders and editors and on the negative impact of language errors found on websites ( The article referenced another article, published on the BBC website, which claimed that bad spelling on English websites costs the UK millions of pounds and that errors on websites can reduce online sales by up to 50% (the author went on to explain how this was measured). So we are making people all the more redundant, and for what? For the better? Are we really saving money or are we wasting more money and time? Because when I saw that the order wizard on that tablet at Panera Bread did not ask me whether I wanted chips or bread or an apple with my sandwich (you have to pick one of the three to get with your order), I realized that I had to go talk to a person, for which I’d have to wait in line, which of course would defeat the purpose of the tablet. And I was afraid to use the machine to rent a car at the airport in Boston because what would happen if it charged my credit card but didn’t give me a key? So I chose to go to the only desk that was open at that hour and where someone capable of a meaningful dialogue was present (well, as meaningful as a dialogue can be at 2 a.m.). 

But are humans useful only for debugging and fixing what’s broken, used only as a safety measure? Numerous articles have been written on why humans cannot be replaced; many of them by translators, explaining why translations should be done by humans and giving innumerable examples of bad translations and the damage that they have caused companies and individuals. Many articles have also been written by business people claiming that a company can save money by using machine translation. In fact I recently read one on the IAPTI (International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters) LinkedIn group. Think about it: somebody who isn’t a translator published a blog post in a translators’ group, claiming that it’s a good idea to use machine translation instead of a real translator. It’s not the first time I see this. In fact a few years ago in one of my talks at a translators’ conference I talked about “infiltrators”, who come to our conferences and our online groups and try to sell us the idea that machines are better/more productive/more cost-effective for translation, that machines are preferable to us translators, and that the smart thing for us to do is embrace post-editing because allegedly it’s the future and it’s inevitable. The nerve!

In any case, I don’t mean to go on and on about why translation must be done by professional translators and not by machine pseudo-translation. Like I said, a lot has been written already. This is a more general reflection on the “evolution” of several professions and the tendency to modernize them by reducing or eliminating human interaction and involvement. No, I am not a Luddite nor do I know of any engineers-Luddites; I am very much in favor of technology but only when it is appropriate and actually contributes to progress and quality, without causing harm. 

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Starting out in translation? Find a mentor!

I was reading one of Kevin Lossner’s blog posts from 2010, titled “No Monkeys!”. He gives 12 pieces of advice—a twelve-step program, as he calls it—for those getting started in the translation business. All of it is great advice and I think everyone should follow it, newbie or not; however, there is one point on which I’d like to expand to impress upon any new translator coming across this blog how important it is to follow.

"Find a mentor. This one is not optional. Most twelve-step programs involve a sponsor, usually one who has struggled with the same issues in the past. In our movement we offer more latitude: you don’t have to seek out a recovering monkey as your mentor. You can also work under the watchful eye of someone who got things right the first or second time."

When I did my traineeship at the European Commission’s Translation Service fourteen years ago I had a mentor. “The Godfather”, they called him (I still laugh at this). All trainees had a godfather. Mine was a walking encyclopedia, a Greek translator from Alexandria, Egypt, who taught me a lot; though it would be fair to say that most Greek translators in the technical/scientific translation unit of the DGT (Directorate-General for Translation) went out of their way to teach me translation methods as applied in the EU. Business practices I learned on my own and from other freelancers later on; it is difficult to learn the tricks of the trade and how to handle your own projects, do your own marketing, and interact with clients from non-freelancers.

Finding a mentor “is not optional,” says Kevin Lossner. It really shouldn’t be. Having a mentor will make your life so much easier. It will save you time and mistakes. Sure, after hours of looking for good online FR-EN dictionaries you may come across Termium and proudly celebrate your discovery when you realize what a gem it is; or you can skip to celebrating a FR-EN job well done after your mentor saved you those hours by telling you from the start “Make sure to use Termium, it’s an excellent resource, here’s the link.” Or he can save you the embarrassment (and perhaps the legal trouble) of finding out that Google Translate is not reliable and could not care less about the confidentiality of the document you need to translate by explaining to you how it is being developed and how it works. (I am assuming that all seasoned translators know about the dangers of using Google Translate. If not, please read on this topic, e.g. article Confidentiality and Google Translate.)

What should you not expect to learn from a mentor? How to translate! You should already know how to do that. Comparative stylistics and translation techniques should be well engraved on your brain by now. Expect to learn things you’re not exposed to in your translation studies. Use your traineeship to learn how to run your own business.

So what should you learn from a mentor?
  1. Research: how to do research on the topic of the text you’re translating, what resources to use. Resources include paper and/or online dictionaries in your language pair(s) and field(s), online encyclopedias (Wikipedia is the most popular one but please use it with caution—some colleagues and I had a blast with some outrageous errors in several Greek Wikipedia articles, and then didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the Greek entries machine-translated from the English ones. Your mentor will tell you which resources are reliable, which ones should be used with caution, and which ones should be avoided), journals with articles in your field(s), websites on the subject matter of your texts (could be a section of the Airbus website if you’re translating about airplanes, or the online Health Library of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute if you’re translating the medical records of cancer patients and need to know more about cancer).

  2. Proofreading. I wrote previously that you shouldn’t expect to learn how to translate because you should already know that before starting your traineeship. Proofreading, on the other hand, is a different story. How many of us who formally studied translation were taught how to proofread a text? How many learned how to edit a translation? And how many of us learned in our studies the difference between proofreading and editing? Sure, we knew how to use the Track Changes feature in Word, but were we shown what to change and what not to touch, what constitutes an error and what is simply a matter of personal preference and style? Were we taught how to charge for proofreading and editing and how to determine our rate? These are all things that your mentor can help you with.

  3. CAT tools. There are several: MemoQ, OmegaT, Wordfast, SDL Trados, among others. Should you use any of these? Which one is more user-friendly? Would the tool of your choice work on your MAC? Are the more expensive ones better? How do you answer to a client that might ask for a discount due to repeated terms as calculated by the CAT tool? These are questions your mentor can help you answer. See which tool he uses, if any. Watch him use it. Get your hands on it (don’t get nervous if your mentor is standing right over your head while you use it; many of us are very picky about what goes into our translation memories), or perhaps you can just use a trial version. How about voice-recognition software? Perhaps you’ve heard of Dragon Naturally Speaking. Is it available in your language? If your mentor uses it, take a shot at it and see whether it increases your productivity or not.

  4. Project lifecycle. A good mentor will give you exposure to the entire lifecycle of a project, including a translation request, a PO (purchase order), acceptance or rejection of a project in the beginning, and delivery of a project in the end. Look at a request with your mentor: sometimes (quite often, actually) requests are incomplete and make it impossible to judge whether we can take on the project or not. Sometimes a client will ask me if I can translate a text of X thousand words by such and such date, without telling me the subject field and sometimes without even telling me the language pair! Your mentor will tell you what to look for in a request before you jump into accepting it. He will also tell you when to say no. Look at some POs. What information do they contain? Does the client need the translator to sign an NDA? What is an NDA? Should you always sign it?

  5.  E-mails. All projects involve some correspondence between the translator and the client. Sometimes communication takes place over the phone but most often it is done by e-mail. The speed and convenience of e-mail communication does not mean that your e-mails can be sloppy. Shadow your mentor when she replies to a client: watch how she addresses the client, how careful she is with punctuation, what register she uses (which of course may vary from one client to the next, but not by much, a client is a client, and even if you’ve worked with him for a while and are on friendly terms, you wouldn’t use the same register as with your nephew), how she re-reads her e-mail before hitting Send to make sure it is linguistically and semantically correct, knowing the bad impression a message with errors written by a language professional would make. I’m stating the obvious, I know, but unfortunately I’ve seen too many e-mails full of spelling and grammar errors, even some e-mails starting with “Hey there,…”, to omit this point.

  6. Invoices. At the end of a project or at the end of the month you’ll have to send an invoice in order to get paid for your work. It is surprising how many posts we see in online forums by new translators asking how to write an invoice. I don’t know why so many university translation programs don’t dedicate a lesson or two to this. Ask your mentor to show you a couple of old invoices. Make a note of the information they include. Ask her to let you write the next invoice. Ask her also to tell you about different payment methods.

  7. Project-management tools. By this I don’t mean any complex software that a full-time PM might use. But whether you like project management or not, you’ll have to manage your own projects, so you’ll have to find a way to organize your work. There is software you can buy or you may opt for an Excel file or plain old paper and pencil. I use a weekly planner—which is always open in front of me—to write project names and deadlines, and an Excel sheet to write all my project details such as client, project number and/or PO number, project name, number of words, rate, total price, assignment date, and delivery date. These details come in very handy when it’s time to write invoices, that way I don’t have to look for this information in POs and e-mails. After I send my invoice for a project I write the date on that sheet, as well as the payment due date. After I receive payment, I mark the date of payment and move that project (that Excel line) to another sheet of the Excel file. You may use one or a combination of these and/or other tools. See what your mentor uses and ask for her advice on how to organize your first projects.

  8. Translation portals. You don’t have to ask your mentor which translation portal/site to join (I wouldn’t recommend them, except for Stridonium if you work with German and qualify to join) but do ask her to tell you everything she knows about them (hopefully she will know about them), including which ones to avoid—or at least which sections of them to avoid. You may have heard of,, (this last one is not just for translators but for freelancers in general, and I would stay away from it unless you want to work for a month to make enough to buy a sandwich). used to be a great resource for the first few years after it was launched—which happened to coincide with my first years in the business and I cannot deny that it helped me immensely. Unfortunately it has changed focus from serving the interests of translators to serving the interests of big translation companies that seek lower prices and treat translation as a commodity. So this site should be used with caution, if used at all. I would avoid the jobs section like the plague. The forum archives can be very useful, though for any new questions you might want to ask, I would opt for translators’ groups on LinkedIn and Facebook. Ask your mentor to recommend some translators’ groups; they can be general or language-specific or domain-specific. For example, I am a member of the following groups on LinkedIn: International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters, Applied Linguistics, Polyglot-Multilingual Professionals, Aviation Network, International Aviation Professionals, Aircraft Maintenance and Manufacturing, Boston Interpreters, IMIA – International Medical Interpreters Association, and Translation & Localization Professionals Worldwide, among others; and the following groups/pages on Facebook: International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters, Certified Medical and Healthcare Interpreters UNITE!, The League of Extraordinary Translators, South Florida Business Owners Networking Group, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Interpreting and translation forum, ESA – European Space Agency, Translation Journal, Interpreting the World, etc. Of course some of these may not apply to you (I have aerospace engineering background and translate for aircraft manufacturers, hence the aviation-related groups); your mentor, who is working in the same language pair(s) and probably also in the same field(s) will be the best person to recommend the most helpful groups for you.

  9. Associations. It is a very good idea to join a professional association. Look into the International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI) (you can join it if you have a translation or interpretation degree or four years of experience as a translator or interpreter), local associations (e.g. NETA if you live in New England in the USA, Société française des traducteurs (SFT) if you live in France, etc.), domain-specific ones (e.g. IMIA if you are a medical interpreter and/or translator). Ask your mentor which associations she is a member of, what she has gained from her membership, what the mission of those associations is and how they are contributing to the profession.
Where to find a mentor:
There are plenty of translators’ groups on LinkedIn and Facebook. I mentioned some above but there are many others. Join some. Actually join many; later on you can unsubscribe from the ones you don’t find interesting or useful. Browse some old discussions, learn from them, start participating, make connections. Introduce yourself, say that you’re a new translator and that you’re looking for a mentor. Try to find a mentor that lives in your area so that you can work at her office (even if it is a home office and even if you do so only once or twice a week) and so that you can practice all the points mentioned above, i.e. shadowing her while she e-mails a client to accept/reject a project, see in person how she uses a CAT tool so you can learn quickly, have her watch you write an invoice, etc. If that is not possible, you can still take advantage of a traineeship by finding a mentor willing to spend some time explaining things to you over the phone, by e-mail, skype, etc., guiding you as you take your first steps as a freelance translator.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Using Cloud Solutions for Translation: Yes or No?

We read about the benefits of using the cloud for work—using cloud applications and storage, for example. What we don't see are warnings of the risks. You have to look for these specifically; the information doesn't come to you as do the claimed benefits. This morning I got yet another e-mail from my web hosting service, encouraging me to use their new cloud storage, and I am tired of receiving iCloud notifications on my phone when I specifically chose not to use that service. So I’d like to share some things I learned in a graduate course on cloud computing at Boston University a couple of years ago, including some essential information from "Cloud Computing, A Practical Approach" by Anthony T. Velte, Toby J. Velte, and Robert Elsenpeter, to explain why using the cloud may not be such a good idea, at least for our work.

First of all, we should understand that cloud computing is not for everyone and it is not for everything. Just because it’s there and offers some benefits doesn't mean we should use it.  According to the author, whether or not we should use cloud computing depends on a number of factors, including whether our data is regulated. Is our data—i.e. the original texts we translate and our translations—regulated? Well, the original text is not even our data, it is the client's. And our translations are different-language equivalents of someone else's data. So even if it is not regulated by the client, it's still not our data to share.

Now I could just stop the blog here. It is not our data, we simply do not have permission to store it on third-party equipment or manipulate it with third-party applications. End of story. But for the curious, I'll give some more information.

What does "using the cloud" really mean? What would we use exactly? What is the cloud?

Based on conversations I've had with colleagues, many see the cloud as something obscure, something abstract, pretty much like a real cloud without a specific shape or form, something up there, hard to conceive, something shared by many or by all. Actually it is something very specific and definitely not abstract.

These are the three major implementations of cloud computing:
1.  Compute Clouds
2.  Cloud Storage
3.  Cloud Applications

Compute clouds allow us to access applications and on-demand computing resources maintained on a provider’s equipment; examples are Amazon’s EC2 and Google App Engine. (On demand resources means that you don’t have to have the infrastructure on your own equipment and run the code; the resources are on someone else’s equipment and you use and pay for them only when you need them.)

Cloud storage is the most popular implementation. It allows us to maintain our files on a cloud-storage vendor’s equipment. (This is what my website hosting service keeps bothering me about. I am not interested, thank you very much.)

Cloud applications are similar to compute clouds in that they allow us to use applications maintained on a provider’s equipment; the difference with compute clouds is that cloud applications use software that rely on cloud infrastructure, i.e. they depend on the infrastructure of the Internet itself. Examples are Skype (peer-to-peer computing), MySpace or YouTube (web applications, delivered to users via a browser), and Google Apps (Software as a Service – SaaS).

Let’s consider the translation of a medical record. I won’t even go into discussing the habit of some translators to ask terminology questions on sites like AmateurZ (aka PrAdZ, SuckZ, etc.) and include the patient’s name, because that is simply beyond me. It is inconsiderate, unacceptable, inconceivable! But that’s another story. Let’s focus on the cloud. So let’s say that you want to store the translation on some backup directory you have on the cloud, i.e. on someone else’s equipment, or translate a few sentences with an online translation tool or a CAT tool that uses a shared memory stored on a cloud server (requiring you to also save your translation in the shared memory). What is the problem with that? From the horse’s mouth (the horse is Volpe et al.):
"If you want to use cloud computing and post data covered by Health Insurance Portability and Accounting Act (HIPAA) on it, you are out of luck. Well, let’s rephrase that—if you want to put HIPAA data on a cloud, you shouldn't. That’s sensitive healthcare information and the fact that HIPAA data could commingle on a server with another organization’s data will likely get the attention of an observant HIPAA auditor."
No matter how much cloud giants like Google and Microsoft try to reassure us that the data placed on a cloud are safe, all it takes is one tiny breach to let sensitive data loose. And of course this raises another question: if the data is let loose, who is liable?

According to the authors: "If you have data that is regulated—like HIPAA or Sarbanes-Oxley—you are well advised to be very careful in your plans to place data on a cloud. After all, if you have posted a customer’s financial data and there’s a breach, will they go after the cloud provider or you? […] It is probably best to avoid a painful fine, flesh-eating lawyers, and possible jail time." Note that jail time can be 1 to 10 years for HIPAA and up to 20 years for Sarbanes-Oxley data. I won’t mention the financial penalties because I’d like to spare you the heart attack, but if you’d like to know about them, I refer you to this book, page 26.

Even if the customer considers going after the cloud provider too, chances are the cloud provider has already foreseen this possibility and has made sure to absolve itself of any responsibility in its agreement with you. If you want to know Google’s attitude towards confidentiality, I refer you to a couple of old blog posts of mine, "Confidentiality and Gmail" and "Confidentiality and Google Translate" where you’ll see that by accepting Google Translate's terms of service we grant Google permission to use our content to improve its services.

I'm not saying that cloud providers like Google are after you. And not all applications are like Google Translate which wants to gain something from your translations. In fact the big vendors have strict security measures. What I am saying is that you should not count on the cloud provider to protect or respect the confidentiality of your data or your client's data. In spite of the provider's security measures, you are responsible for keeping your data secure.

So the cloud provider is not after you. But you know what? Someone else is. Take a guess. Going once, going twice….

Hackers! Yes, hackers can cause a lot of damage if they get access to your data or your client's data. They can get access to the company trade secrets you translated and sell them to the company's competitor. They can get access to a company's proprietary information and threaten to disclose it if they don't receive a very generous sum. There are too many scenarios to list. Use your imagination and know that these things do happen. And on a not-so-funny note, when I took a "certified hacker" course (wait, let me explain, I worked as a software quality engineer for a while, where testing the quality of software products also meant testing security, and to test security you need to know how to break the software, hence the course, paid for by the company.) I was shocked to learn that some hackers do it for …fun! Just because they can and just because they want to test themselves. This too happens. You don't want them knocking on your door and telling  you "you either pay me 20,000 dollars and you get all those financial records back or pay 100,000 dollars in fines for confidentiality breach". It sounds far-fetched and maybe it doesn't happen often, but it can happen. Hackers are mostly after larger corporations, not individual translators; on the other hand, when they hack into data stored on a cloud, they care more about the data than about who put it there.

What does all this mean? Should we never store data on a provider's cloud or use cloud services?

Not necessarily. If you want to store data on a provider's cloud, one thing you can do is encrypt it. Look for programs like TrueCrypt ( to do this. That way, if someone gets access to your data, they won't be able to read it.

Another important thing you should consider is to look for paid services instead of services funded by advertising. When it comes to free cloud services, Volpe et al. point out that they "are most likely to rummage through your data looking to assemble user profiles that can be used for marketing or other purposes. No company can provide you with free tangible goods or services and stay in business for long. They have to make money somehow, right?"

Last but not least, always, ALWAYS read carefully your agreement with any cloud service provider. Make sure you understand the privacy and security implications of using said service and that you understand and agree with the terms of service.

Now, what if you are working in a translation team and need to exchange terminology databases or translation memories? It may be convenient to use a cloud service, but is it safe? And what if you don’t have a say in this, what if your client does not provide an in-house server but wants you to use a cloud-based service/application? In that case using a cloud service may actually be a good idea and make your team's work easier. But what about confidentiality? Well, if your client is the one that requested you to use that service and is coordinating the workflow, then you are not liable if the cloud provider's security measures are breached (though it's a good idea to double-check with the client anyway). If you are using a cloud solution for a project for a direct client, then you may want to follow the above advice and look for a paid service and read the user agreement very carefully. Tell your client that you are using a cloud service and make sure he gives you permission in writing. Most end clients don't care about the details of your process, they don't care if you're using such and such CAT tool or terminology-management tool, but when using a cloud service it is advisable (read: advantageous to you, in terms of liability) to have your client's permission.

So to the original question, "Using cloud solutions: yes or no?", my answer is this:

- If you don’t need them, don’t use them.

- If they increase your efficiency or generally improve your work process, use them but make sure your client knows and make sure you agree with the terms of service. It is safer to use a paid service.

- For storage, if it makes sense for you to store sensitive data (your own data, not a client's) on a cloud, encrypt it first.

And keep in mind that you don't have to follow the crowd; just because many people use a certain cloud service doesn't make it any safer. Consider your own needs and the sensitivity of your data; that is, your clients' data.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

A transatlantic flight and a movie

I'd wanted to watch “The fault in our stars” since it came out in theaters but I didn't have the chance. It came out during my big move to another state. Actually, to be honest I avoided the chance. Because to watch this movie you don't need a “chance”, you need time, time to prepare mentally, because you know it’s a movie that will make you cry, a movie that will bring back memories that are difficult to handle if you've had the chance –or rather the privilege- to work with terminal-cancer patients (the reason why it is a privilege requires a long explanation –and I'd like to give it when I have the chance / the time / the mental preparation to pour my heart out).

A few days ago on my long flight from Miami to Frankfurt, it was one of the movies offered on board. The stewardess passed by to offer drinks; I asked for white wine. Whatever helps, you know. I hit Play. It turned out to be an amazing movie from beginning to end, there was not a single second that you'd have wanted to hit Fast Forward. You wanted to watch every single moment carefully, breathe it in, feel how it feels; and the movie captures wonderfully how it feels. We medical interpreters working with cancer patients have an idea how it feels but it’s incomplete. We see it inside the hospital walls, but what happens outside those walls we can only imagine – unless we have a friend or relative with cancer (which is my case – and based on the statistics, it is the case for many of us).

Towards the end of the movie it was impossible to hold back the tears. I knew this was going to happen. I have never shed a tear in the hospital – it’s part of the job to be tough. But this time I was off duty and I was many thousands of feet over the Atlantic; so I let it out. When the guy next to me woke up (probably from all my sniffing) and saw me in that pathetic Rudolph-the-red-nosed-reindeer state, he laughed. And then I started laughing too. We chatted for a bit while my movie was paused right before the final and really painful moment. Then he went back to sleep and I hit Play and went back to my crying and my excessive tissue consumption.

When the movie ended I took a few minutes to pull myself together, just like I always take a few minutes in silence after every appointment/interpreting assignment at the hospital. I know how to do this, it is second nature by now. And then I put on another movie, “Quand j’étais chanteur” with Gérard Depardieu, a comedy. And what a comedian this guy is! I burst into laughter when he started singing “je ne suis qu’une petite fille” (I'm just a little girl) with such pizazz! I laughed so hard I woke up my neighbor again. And I continued to watch, the movie went on just like life goes on, but the laughter had some traces of sadness, “leftovers” from the previous movie, just like our days go on with traces and memories of those hospital moments that we have the privilege to live, those moments in the lives of cancer patients that we have the privilege to share. 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A special person

I was sitting by the pool a few days ago, working on my “You’re a Greek, stop looking like milk” mission, when another resident of my building came and sat next to me. He was blond and his skin was even whiter than mine. He started talking to me in Spanish; it turned out he was Cuban. When I said I was Greek he said I didn’t look Greek, that I didn’t look like anything, that I could be anything (Should I throw him in the water or should I ignore him?, I thought). I said “Well, you must have thought I was Hispanic, otherwise you wouldn’t have spoken to me in Spanish.” He said that was the only language he knew. He had been in the US for more than fourteen years but he’d been able not only to get by but to work in a hospital even with his very limited English.

After we talked for a while about things of little importance (he was telling me that his tanning accelerator didn’t have any effect, I said I use Coppertone because the smell brings back beautiful memories of my childhood in Greece), he told me about his life. He said he had just moved to the building and that he lived with his mother and his sister, who was a special little girl, “es una niña especial”. I smiled and tried to register this. Whenever I’m not 100% sure about the meaning of something someone says to me, I just smile a little and in those first few seconds I’m racing through my brain’s dictionaries and corpuses to see what it could possibly mean. After discarding the possibility that he just loves his sister so much that at the first mention of her he says she’s a special person, I realized he meant she was a child with special needs. Thank goodness I had only smiled, any other reaction would have been inappropriate and maybe even offensive (think “Oh, what’s so special about her?”, even if said with the best of intentions or out of plain curiosity).

He went on talking but at that moment I had already drifted away in virtual dictionaries and sunk into the Spanish depository in my head, trying to remember if I’d ever heard or read “niño especial” with that meaning. I could only find “persona con necesidades especiales”. I couldn’t wait to go back upstairs and write to my Spanish friends to ask if this term is commonly used to refer to a mentally or physically handicapped person. Of course I wasn’t going to interrupt the conversation or my mission! I jumped from dictionary to dictionary in my brain, in the other languages I know. I stopped at French for a while, then moved on to Greek and parked there. I tried several terms, several synonyms of special, periphrastic and paraphrastic equivalents. Nothing. Was it an Americanism of Spanish speakers? “A special girl.” I smiled again, although the man had long moved on to a different topic.

Eventually I joined him again in the conversation but went back to that special term again and again that day and the next, smiling at the sweetness of it and of those it describes or should describe, and wished that it replaced all other equivalents in all languages and all dialects and all registers and all situations. 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Uses and abuses of "heroes"

In the last thirteen years or so, since September 11, 2001 to be precise, the frequency of use of the word “hero” has increased exponentially. (Ouch, listen to me, “the frequency of use has increased exponentially”… I thought I’d left my engineering self in the past…)

Yes, those firefighters were heroes but after that, whenever someone does a good deed, he’s called a hero. A guy climbs up a tree to bring down a cat that has been stuck there for two hours, and he’s a hero. I’m not making this up, the cat story was on the news a couple of years ago. A calf fell into a pit in Flagstaff, Arizona and the policeman that pulled it out was called a hero on the Flagstaff local news. The people that survived the Boston marathon bombing last year were also called heroes; the ones that got injured were greater heroes than the others –the plain heroes. It seems to me that the word “hero” has replaced less extravagant characterizations such as “brave” or “courageous” or “admirable”. For some reason, the first person that comes to my mind when I hear this word is Manolis Glezos, who climbed up the Acropolis and tore down the swastika back in 1941, when the Nazis had entered Athens. That is a hero. To equate bringing down the Nazi flag from the Acropolis with bringing down a cat from a tree is just absurd.

Of course we don’t have go to back to a war to look for heroes. There are many among us. I am a member of the Facebook group “Living Donors Online”. Yesterday a member wrote:
Hi all, just donated a kidney to my cousin 2 hours ago! I feel hopeful my gift can make the recipient better”.

Another member replied:
You are a true hero. I can’t wait until I donate on July 15.. Hang in there, get well and keep us posted.

And then another member said:
Welcome to the real life super heroes club, bro. Speedy recovery.

Now these are heroes. Super heroes indeed.  Giving life, looking forward to taking out part of themselves to offer it to someone else. These are heroes. Let’s use the word where it is appropriate and deserved. 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Too much informations [sic]

Just recently in a translation facebook group we were talking about “informations”, that monstrosity we’re hearing all the more often. Well, on my Delta flight a month ago, the flight attendant -a native English speaker- said through the intercom: “For internet service look in your Sky magazine for informations on how to connect”. Is this going to be yet another case of widespread misuse leading to widespread acceptance? Like …/nucular/ instead of nuclear? Of course it’s not as painful for me to hear as my pet peeve –actually, calling it a pet peeve makes it sound cute. It’s not cute. It’s closer to a knife than to a pet. Not a knife sitting in my cutlery drawer but a knife being stabbed in my chest. So my “stab knife” is …aircrafts (surprise surprise). And spacecrafts. As if mounting an engine is an activity of arts and crafts.

On the same flight, a couple of rows behind me, a mother –native English speaker- was teaching new words to her little baby daughter. I could hear her say over and over again: “Where’s the keys?”, “Where’s the books?”, “Where’s the bus?” (she got one right, sigh of momentary relief), “Where’s the girls?” (back to stabbing). I felt the need to turn around and stop this, I wish it weren’t inappropriate to intervene in cases of linguistic abuse, or to put it less mildly, language butchering.

On a more recent trip, right after I landed in Boston, I received a phone call from a guy claiming that I was in legal trouble and that I needed to pay him two thousand dollars to settle the matter in a friendly way right then and there, over the phone, instead of going to court. You guessed it, he was a scammer, but a professional one! Very well prepared, he had answers to all my questions. “I’m calling from your local police department, ma’am”, he said. When I asked him which police department that was, he said Cambridge. (I don’t live in Cambridge; I used to, many years ago.) He kept saying to me in his Indian accent: “We got informations on you ma’am. We got informations. According to our informations on you, ma’am,…”.

I’d had enough.  The grammar freak in me was getting palpitations, so I interrupted him and said: “First of all, it is information, not informations, there’s no s! Speak English damn it! And second, if you were really calling from the police department you would know that I don’t live in Cambridge!”
The guy went on: “Well, where do you live ma’am? We can transfer this to your local police department…”.  I hang up. I probably should have referred him to some English-language trainings (ouch, I stabbed myself).

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

CEO, freelancer, or what should you call yourself?

Over the years I have seen many colleagues just starting out and presenting themselves as CEOs, Directors of their “company”, Owners, etc. I think it is great to be CEO if that’s what you want. But is that what you really are? And is that what you really want?

In order to present yourself as CEO, i.e. use it as a job title in your resume or your social-network profiles, you need to actually be a CEO. Being a freelancer / having your own business/ working for yourself is not the same as being a Chief Executive Officer. Chief Executive Officer means you’re someone’s “chief”, that you have people under you. Calling yourself a Director implies that you have people to direct. Directing yourself does not qualify. Does anybody report to you?

Several times I've seen the title of CEO under the names of colleagues that had just presented themselves in a translation forum to say they were new in the translation world and needed advice on how to find new clients or what to charge. This makes me very skeptical. There’s a discrepancy here that simply makes those translators look somewhat unreliable or insincere. The above titles require experience, some prior steps/titles, and usually people under you, and I don’t think they should be used lightly.

“Owner” is somewhat different. You can be the owner of a company and be a sole proprietor. If you have your own business, you are a “business owner”. For example, I do business as “FRESNEL technical translations”, I have registered this as my business name in Massachusetts. I am a sole proprietor, so I don’t have anyone reporting to me. I have regular collaborators (e.g. for large projects or for when I don’t have time or when the language pair requested is not one I work in); when I offer them a job the PO says FRESNEL, when I pay them the check says FRESNEL, my bank account is under the name FRESNEL technical translations. To cut a long story short, this is a registered business and since I own it, I can call myself its owner (not that I do, really, it’s of no use to me, but I could). But I wouldn't dare call myself a CEO. And frankly, I don’t want to. It would be bad for my business. Why?

Because I don’t want to run the risk of having clients see me as an agency. I am not an agency. In fact I state this clearly on my website: “FRESNEL is not a translation agency. There are no intermediaries or non-experts ever involved in your project. In order to handle large projects with tight deadlines, FRESNEL has a small, highly reliable network of expert translators and editors.” And it is for the same reason that my team consists of freelancers and not CEOs or Directors or Chiefs of any kind. Also because I want to make sure that what I pay them goes directly to the person that does the work.

So to be brutally honest, when I see CEO, Director and the like next to a colleague’s name, I stay away. I’m not saying you shouldn't use such titles; but if you do, make sure they reflect reality. When you ask in a Facebook group how to do a word count in a PDF file or what the cheapest CAT tool is or how to determine your proofreading rate, and at the same time write CEO on your resume or on your online profile (or on your website, if you have one; many people don’t, and that’s even worse because if you’re a CEO of a company, the company should have a website), how do you expect a potential client not to be skeptical? And if the client is skeptical about your title, how do you expect him to trust your description of your qualifications, skills and experience?

Saturday, December 28, 2013

On minimum rates

When I first started in translation and was about to write my first invoice, I asked a colleague and friend to check if I had forgotten to put anything on the invoice. He gave me his template as an example and there I saw that he had a checkbox for a "Minimum fee", which in his case was 35 euros. That was in 2000. Maybe it's worth repeating: thirty-five euros in the year two thousand. That was back when translation rates were actually higher than today, in many countries. When I saw that, I didn't ask any questions, I assumed it was the norm. So I included that in my invoice as well, and I've had a minimum fee ever since. 

How do you determine the minimum fee? Even if the job is 30 words, you still have to read the client's instructions, save the file, translate the file -perhaps import it in a CAT tool, translate it, proofread it (sometimes you have to read it multiple times, e.g. if it's a marketing text), clean it up, check the final layout- and send it off. That takes time. It can take half an hour or even one hour. [To translate Gilette's "The best a man can get" in Greek may have easily taken several hours, although it's only 6 words, because the translator would have had to make sure the Greek equivalent is short and catchy and meaningful and equivalent to the original.] Then of course you have to prepare an invoice. I don't know about you but it takes me a while to prepare an invoice and make sure everything is accurate. My minimum fee is equivalent to my hourly rate. I know people who charge less (25 euros). When I outsource work, translators charge me a minimum fee of 30 euros and I pay it gladly, no questions asked. I find it more than fair. Of course there are exceptions: When a good client asks me how to say something in X language and I see that it will only take me 10 seconds to translate it, I do it for free. Again, in exceptional cases and for good clients only. If I do not know the person I don't offer a free translation even if it's one word.

How to break it to your clients: I think the easiest thing to do is tell them straight out: "I'd be happy to do this job. I'll charge my minimum fee which is X, is that OK with you?" If they say anything, you could answer that you'll be applying a minimum fee starting in 2013. Don't be afraid to tell them that you know it's the norm in the industry, they surely know it already. 

I have some direct clients but they never assign me small jobs, so I've never had to charge them a minimum fee; I've only had to apply this fee for agencies. Maybe I've been lucky, but in my 13 years as a translator, no agency has ever complained about my minimum fee -for having one or for it being as much as it is. I assume it's because they expect it. 

Keep in mind that once you've set your minimum rate and informed your clients, it will be hard to increase it next year, you'll probably face some resistance, so don't start too low. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Please stop the please™

Please read the following sign and see if there’s anything that doesn’t sit well with you.

Done? OK, now let me point out that when I wrote that first line, I started it by “Read the following sign”. Then I went back and added “Please”. It does not come naturally to me. It’s not because I’m rude, it’s because I’m Greek! Yes, it’s a cultural thing. When I read that sign I immediately thought of my colleague Lefteris, an excellent Greek translator whom I hold in very high esteem, and who brought up this issue in a translation forum a few years ago. His posting was titled “Happy new year and please stop the please” (hence the TM in my title). Two seemingly irrelevant things, but perhaps the latter was actually his wish for the new year. I searched for that posting and just read it once again, and I found myself thinking and saying out loud the same things I had said when I first read it: “Yes! Exactly! Thank you! I know! Amen!”  

If I had to translate this sign into Greek, all these pleases would fly out the window. This is not something that only I would do; it is not personal and has nothing to do with politeness or lack thereof. It would actually be the right thing to do, from a translation/adaptation point of view. You don’t see that many “pleases” in Greek instructions. When you dial a number and you get to have a “dialog” with a machine (alas, this is no longer an American privilege), the Greek voice on the other end of the line won’t say “Please press one, please press star, please dial 12345, please don’t curse at me because I’m a machine and you’re wasting your energy”. It might say “please” the first time only; the rest of the instructions are not adorned. And if you think about it, why should they? They are not requests. They are instructions. You don’t need to be asked politely, you’re not doing anyone a favor by pressing the star key; if you don’t want to press it, then don’t, it’s your job that won’t get done.

The liberty to omit the word “please” is actually a blessing in interpretation. Why? Because the Greek equivalent is long! In English it is one short and sweet syllable. In Greek it has a terrifying grand total of 4, 5, or 6 syllables (parakaló, se parakaló, sas parakaló, parakalíste, sas parakalúme - depending on whether you’re talking to one person or more, or depending on whether you –who are saying please- are one person or speaking on behalf of a group, or depending on whether or not you’re using the polite form – it´s similar to saying in English “I ask you to.., we ask you, we ask all of you, you are asked, etc”. And you thought Chinese was difficult.) I remember my very first interpreting exercise in Lucille Barnes’ school in Buenos Aires: the speaker was using the word “coup” (as in coup d’état) repeatedly. By the time I managed to say the 5-syllable Greek equivalent (πραξικόπημα [praxikópima]), the speaker had gone off to another sentence. The 4th time it happened is when I decided that I would never become an interpreter and that I’d rather stick with translation than deal with all the stress caused by a bloody little coup. (I know, never say never, things changed since then and I became a medical interpreter.)  But I digress. My point is that if you don’t have to interpret the word “please” 50 times, it’s easier not to fall behind.   

As to the sign in my building’s laundry room, it was taken down sometime in the last couple of weeks. Hopefully by a linguistically sensitive neighbor of mine. (I’m saying hopefully because I’d hate to think that I’m the only one that had her blood pressure rise exponentially with every please.)

Please excuse the rambling (now this one was intentional!) and thanks for reading.