Category: Articles For Translators

What’s Right Is Right

“In the end, isn’t translation a matter of personal opinion?”

Construction in Progress (photo by Jurvetson [flickr])

The question was thrown at me by an attorney for the other side who hoped what she was saying was true. If it were, and translations could only be evaluated in the same way we make decisions about fashion or flavors of ice-cream, then the one she had in her hand would be just as valid as the one that my client had submitted.

Obviously, the answer is, “No.” But the question the attorney put to me is an interesting one, and deserves a longer answer. For one thing, this wasn’t the first time I had heard it. The notion that translation is a nebulous art, ill suited to clear rules or standards, is not uncommon, especially among those who have a little multilingual knowledge. That said, I have been working in technical and legal translation for more than a quarter of a century and, outside of the very special context of a court room, where some people can be particularly disinclined to change their minds, I have never seen two translators remain in disagreement over the proper translation of a phrase for more than a few minutes. Invariably, a short discussion is enough to satisfy one of the translators that the other is right, and an evidence-based consensus is quickly achieved.

So where do non-translators (and even some novice translators) get the notion that there is no such thing as a wrong answer?

Part of it comes from the general idea that language itself is mysterious. It is, after all, amazing that so many of us manage to generate complex and flawless grammatical structures without even knowing the rules. (Be honest, gentle reader, if I were to ask you to give an example of the future subjunctive mood, would you be able to do so?) And then there is our awareness of the ambiguity that pervades our communication. If you have ever spent time with a teenager who has just learned how to tell “That’s what she said” jokes, you will know that there are very few short utterances that cannot be taken in two ways.

Another potential source of confusion is bilingual dictionaries. The entry for the French word “adhésif,” for example, is likely to include such English translations as, not only “adhesive” and “glue,” but also “sticker” and “seal.” If they are all listed in the dictionary, who is to say which one is correct?

Going further, even amateur translators will have come across situations in which the same idea can be expressed in two different ways. There is not much difference between saying that, “the cargo is carried by the vehicle” and saying that “the vehicle carries the cargo.” Both are possible, so isn’t the translator’s preference the ultimate arbitrator?

There are two fallacies at work here. The first lies in assuming that, because human choice is involved, the choice is inherently arbitrary. The second is imagining that, because more than one possible correct translation can be conceived,  all translations must be correct.

In any form of complex communication, ambiguity increases as the sample length decreases. One bit could mean anything, and a handful of bytes in a data transmission is generally useless without knowing which packet it came from. So while it is true that an “elongate member,” mentioned by itself, might mean any number of things to a thirteen year old, when we hear that it is “eccentrically coupled to a rotary drive means,” the possible interpretations narrow significantly. Context, in short, determines which readings are right and which are clearly wrong.

It is also context that tells us which of the many terms in the bilingual dictionary will be appropriate. Even if “sticker” is one of the terms listed under the entry for “adhésif,” it is simply incorrect to translate “collés par un adhésif liquide” as “bonded by a liquid sticker.”

The question of how to select the most suitable phrasing is a little too complex to address in a blog post, but is covered in some detail in my chapter on literal translation in the ATA Patent Translator’s Handbook. Suffice it to say, there are rules and, while there may be more than one possible right answer, there are also unquestionably wrong answers.

Forming an option is indeed part of the translation process, but not all options, or translations, are equal.


On your toes

You know how it is when there are no line breaks in long Japanese claims. Here’s a macro that adds gray highlighting at the end of each likely element (と、). It will save you some eye strain.


Sub gray_to()
With Selection.Find
.Text = “と、”
.Replacement.Text = “”
.Forward = True
.Wrap = wdFindContinue
.Format = False
.MatchCase = False
.MatchWholeWord = False
.MatchByte = False
.MatchAllWordForms = False
.MatchSoundsLike = False
.MatchWildcards = False
.MatchFuzzy = False
End With
Selection.Range.HighlightColorIndex = wdGray25
Selection.MoveRight Unit:=wdCharacter, Count:=1
End Sub

i ro ha ni ho he

Who else finds it annoying to remember this archaic version of the Japanese alphabet in poem form when you get much past the third letter? Here is a conversion chart for the first 12 that you can bookmark. For fun, I am also including the translation from Wikipedia and links to other translations.

i       i
ro     ii
ha    iii
ni     iv
ho    v
he    vi
to    vii
chi   viii
ri     ix
nu    x
ru    xi
wo   xii

Even the blossoming flowers
Will eventually scatter
Who in our world
Is unchanging?
The deep mountains of vanity–
We cross them today
And we shall not see superficial dreams
Nor be deluded.

Is there a translator in the house?

Translators are required to make hundreds of judgments every day. Some of these are analytical judgments, which call on the translator to come to conclusions based on limited evidence. That means answering questions like this:

  • what is the author trying to get across?
  • what does this term mean in this particular context?
  • does this adjective modify the whole noun phrase or just the noun in that phrase that is closest to it?
  • what is the implied agent in this passive construction?

Other judgments are prescriptive, which is to say that they concern the conventions of the target language, and include questions like:

  • what is the best term to express this concept in this context?
  • what tense should this be written in? (when there are tenses that exist in the source language but not the target language or vice-versa)
  • should I use plural markers, singular markers, or no number markers at all? (again, not all languages have the same options)

These sorts of questions are of particular importance in cases where the wording of the translation is likely to be scrutinized. Legal translations are an obvious example, but translators of poetry or advertising copy may spend even more time struggling with these decisions.

Most of the time, the answers are obvious or can be determined with a bit of research but there also exist cases of genuine ambiguity in the source language or lack of consensus in the target language. In such cases it may almost seem that there is nothing for it but to flip a coin, but a professional translator is obviously obliged to come to a reasoned decision.

This situation is, in fact, analogous to that faced by doctors on a regular basis. Just as a translator may encounter a sentence that they cannot understand, even after consulting all of their dictionaries and the Oracle of Delphi Google, a doctor may encounter a patient with symptoms that are not clearly indicative of any one particular illness, even after various diagnostic tests. Or, just as a translator may understand a phrase but be unsure of the best way to render in the target language, a doctor may know exactly what is wrong with a patient but hesitate when it comes to the best treatment.

In such situations the doctor will seek a second opinion, and the translator’s best course of action is to do exactly the same. At Patent Translations Inc. we are fortunate enough to work in teams, so there is always a native speaker, or a technical specialist, or a legal expert to consult. It is not uncommon for us to have three or four people discussing one particular term or phrase. But many freelance translators do not have this support. Fortunately, it is possible for freelancers to build their own support network.

There are many places where translators routinely support each other in this way, such as the Honyaku list for J-E translations, the Japanese Patent Translation List and  the Patent Translators list, which is for all languages, but tends to deal with a lot of German. Proz is also a good place to ask questions and get answers. Keep in mind that, whichever forum you use, your question is likely to get the most attention if you have a reputation for answering other people’s questions.

It is also possible to go to non-translators for an opinion, but just as the doctor will be reluctant to ask the advice of a non-doctor, there is good reason to seek the advice of another translator first. The trouble with muggles is that they are likely to tell you that it doesn’t matter which word you choose (engineers are particularly guilty of linguistic indifference) or to suggest a radically different phrasing, or even a different technical solution to the one described. In short, they rarely “get” what the job of a translator is.

One last source of counsel, which should not be overlooked, is the person or company ordering the translation, particularly if this is a translation agency.

Wherever you turn for your second opinion, remember that asking is a sign of strength, not weakness, and that small-group consensus is the mainstay of almost every profession that relies on judgment.

So you wanna be a patent translator…

I recently got an email from a fellow who is interested in a career in patent translation and I thought I would help to rectify the lamentable lack of posts on this blog by answering it in public.

I get quite a few letters of this sort every year, so it is not the first time I have considered the question. In fact, I gave a talk on the subject at the ATA Conference in New York. But the New York talk was directed at people who were already working as translators and who wanted to move into patent translation. The gentleman who wrote me recently, on the other hand, was a student, still plotting out his career path.

So here is my advice to people who are considering the career from a distance. The very first step has to be determining whether or not you like translating. Me? I can’t think of a more relaxing way to spend an afternoon. Given the choice between translating and almost any other gainful activity, I’ll translate (which is why this blog never gets updated). When I was first married, and my wife and I were living in Italy, I used to love sitting at the breakfast table translating Italian newspaper articles into Japanese for her. Nowadays, I am learning Chinese, and my idea of a self-indulgent Sunday treat is laying on the sofa with a Chinese book and my iPhone dictionary.

But I am also aware that I am not entirely normal. A lot of people, in fact, the vast majority of people, hate it. I have had many ex-patriot friends who have tried it and said things like, “I would rather have my fingernails ripped out, in the rain, while listening to ABBA.” Other people, including one or two professional translators of my acquaintance, while not seeing translation as an actual form of torture, tell me that they find it so dull that, for several hours after translating, they cannot safely operate heavy machinery.

It would be a shame to make a career plan only to find out that translation is not your cup of tea. And unlike lawyering or brain surgery, you don’t have to wait until you have established yourself as a professional translator to find out whether you like it. You can start at the hobby level by translating books for which translations already exist and comparing your efforts against those of the pros. With a little practice, you can even start marketing your skills to the bottom-tier translation agencies, which care more about price than experience. It will not be long until you know whether or not you have a vocation.

There is more to say on this topic, but I’ll have to put that in a second installment.

Cloud Cats

I picked up a brochure from the LionBridge booth at the ATA conference about GeoWorkz, their soon to be launched, on-demand CAT tool service. It’s a good idea. It seems to be an in-the-cloud CAT tool with an MS Word plug in, which will be available to agencies and freelancers. The product has not been released yet and both the brochure and the “tour” and the website are just frothy industry speak with no real content, so we will have to wait to see if it is useful.

I have also tried the Wordfast cloud offering, which they are calling Anywhere. (Wordfast is our default working environment, though many of our freelancers actually use Trados.) I didn’t get much out of the online offering. It looks a lot like the Word plugin, but when I started working with it I found it difficult to move text in and out of segments and do other Wordy cheats. And, of course, you cannot run your own custom Word macros. It does have a built-in call to Google Translate, which is intended to provide you with a raw MT output on the fly, which you can then edit. For me, I found the response time to be too slow to be useful. In almost all cases, I could have translated the segment in less time than it took to call up the MT.

Whining aside, I am happy to see these early attempts at offering a cloud based solution as I am sure this is the future of translation. I think everybody knows that, in not too many years, almost all translation will involve a lot more input from machines. Our silicon helpers already take care of boring tasks like typing out sentences that we have already translated in the past and looking up terms in glossaries. Soon they will do more, so that the job of the translator will essentially become that of a bilingual editor. As this change increases throughput, the bottle-neck will be in the review process, and semi-automated rule-based systems will become more and more important. From an agency point of view, the idea of being able to deploy all of this in the cloud, so that several different freelancers can work together on one project without having to have dedicated software on their machines is huge.

Snowball – Live

I thought I would try something different here. What I’m going to do is use Snowball, which I mentioned in my last post, as a new CAT tool, for the very first time, and I am going to blog about it as I go.

So here I go over to the snowball website to download the program and set it up. It is now 3:20 PM.

It is now 3:23 PM and the software is downloaded and installed and registered. Now I am going to read their quick start guide from the website.

It is now 3:26 PM and I have read the quick start and the cheat sheet and, after making myself a coffee, I will come back and start using the program.

It is now 3:40 PM and I have figured out Snowball, been impressed by it, and realized that I cannot use it. I must say, that it was extremely cool to see that it offered useful translations of the headings in the patent right out of the box. It took no time whatsoever to be able to start using this application and for it to be useful. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who was going to translate a European language. Unfortunately, it was not possible to segment Japanese. In the first sentence, it went along until it came to the first katakana “bo” and I could extend the segment to the other side of that “bo” or to the end of the sentence, but not to individual words. Snowball was obviously looking for the spaces between or what it considered to be punctuation and is not capable of dealing with languages that do not use spaces. But perhaps in the future this problem will be overcome (all they have to do is get it to recognize a switch from kana to kanji, which is what MS Word does and is pretty simple from a programming point of view) in which case I will gladly give it another try.

There was, however, another reason why I decided not to go any further with my explanation of Snowball and that is that the source text is entirely overwritten, and disappears. That means that, when you go back to check over your translation, or when, on page 3, you change your mind about the way page 1 should have been translated, you would have to go back to the source document to find the source text. Side-by-side presentation of the source and target texts, and the ability to search for both source and target in the translation is 75% of the utility of a CAT program, and Snowball, not having this, is not really going to cut it.

UPDATE: I sent a link to this post to the folks at Snowball and immediately received a very friendly reply. A fix to support Japanese seems to be in the works and there is also a possibility that source text access may be handled differently in future versions. It looks promising. If anyone is using this tool and has blogged about it, please leave the links as comments or otherwise just let me know. I can’t help feeling this one has a lot of potential and I am eager to keep abreast of it.