Thursday, 31 January 2019 09:44

SENSE Utrecht translation SIG meeting 9 January

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A small but animated group of eight met up at Bistrot Centraal on 9 January for a post-holiday catch-up and to discuss the ups and downs of our professional lives.

(In)visible translations

The topics discussed were many and varied. One issue brought up was potential clients not being able to find your work on the internet if your translation is only used for something like an app, especially one for which people have to pay. (The example was a tourism app from one of the Dutch VVVs.) While you can refer prospects wanting to see samples of your work to a published book/journal, or send them to a web page via a search engine, search engines can’t ‘see’ apps. When the sole destination of your translation is an app, the chance of a possible client finding your pet project is virtually nil. There is no solution yet, but if you’re proud of what you’ve written/translated for that app, beware, and see if there’s a way to make it available (eg, on your own website).

Getting yourself sworn

Someone else was curious about what being a sworn (beëdigd) translator entails, as well as what advantages it might have. Fortunately, one member who was present is a sworn English-Dutch translator and was happy to share her experience. In brief:

  • there is probably more work from Dutch to English; much is short documents like birth certificates and diplomas, but we don’t know enough to say how much work might be longer documents
  • there is no option to register a specialization (eg, medical), so be responsible about what you can do
  • translating the same kind of documents may feel tedious at first, but soon you’ll build up a ‘library’ and it will go much faster
  • since the translated document is supposed to also resemble the original as much as possible, you’re often fiddling with PDF conversion, which is not everyone’s cup of tea
  • if you’re working for a court, they have often contracted with an agency and fees are therefore not negotiable
  • it costs €125 to become sworn, plus €40 for the VOG (Verklaring Omtrent het Gedrag or Certificate of Conduct)
  • you need to keep up your PE points (80 per 5 years) but there’s the option of following a minor at eg, ITV Hogeschool instead of attending several workshops/courses
  • liability insurance is also recommended
  • the status seems to impress customers even if they don’t need a sworn translation.

For those wanting to know about the current terms for registration, they can be found on the WBTV website.

Quoting for jobs

There was also a question about rates and how to quote for a job. This seems to be a hot topic right now, according to people who use other forums, with translators encouraging one another to charge more for their services. Perhaps the economic upturn is making even translators optimistic? One member pointed to the Editorial Freelancers' Association's list of the typical hourly rates for different types of editing and other work including translation. If you’re interested in knowing more, Sally Hill has written three articles on ‘Quoting for jobs’ for eSense. (Part 1 is on p.12 of eSense 41, part 2 is on p.13 of eSense 42 and part 3 is on p.18 of eSense 43.

Upcoming SENSE events

As an aside, we heard during our meeting that work has already begun on organizing the 2020 SENSE conference. Although nothing has been set in stone, there is already some planning and extending of feelers. Spirits were high; we even got as far as proposing Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama as keynote speakers! More information about both the conference and the upcoming (September) Professional Development Day will be forthcoming at SENSE’s Annual General Meeting (AGM) on 23 March.

Our next meeting is scheduled for 13 March, venue to be announced.

train3So there I was on Friday evening sitting in the train back to Zwolle after the recent UniSIG meeting in Utrecht. I’d had time for a quick drink with other attendees before heading to the station and was feeling fired up from the stimulating discussions with both new and more established SENSE members, both during and after the meeting.

And then I suddenly remembered what had happened in the train that afternoon just as we were approaching Utrecht station. Oh. My. Word. Did it really happen?

I’d been totally absorbed on my laptop, giving feedback in Word on a student paper. These particular students are novice writers so my edits and comments should not go too far. It’s an educational exercise to help them practise scientific writing and get feedback from a scientific editor. So the text doesn’t have to be perfect and I must be careful not to make unnecessary edits, or perhaps edits I’d make for a client whose text is going to be published.

So there I am, deep in concentration, when the lady sitting next to me reaches over and points to a word on my screen: influences. ‘Why don’t you make that the subject of the sentence?’ she says in Dutch. ‘It’s such a Dutch construction otherwise.’

I was speechless. What a nerve! She admitted she shouldn’t have been looking but couldn’t help herself. I already knew she was a teacher because she’d been reading the teachers’ union (AOb) magazine but never in my wildest dreams had I imagined she’d chip in and help with my onscreen efforts.

I stammered something about it being a student text and hastily packed my laptop away. Thank goodness it was time to leave the train. I was mortified. Partly because I didn’t have a snappy response (I couldn’t work out whether or not she was right, argghh) and of course mainly because she’d been prying.

So if any of you ever find yourself sitting next to a stranger doing some editing on their laptop, and feel tempted to make some suggestions, just don’t. Restrain yourself!

Thursday, 17 January 2019 09:21

UniSIG: a lively encore for Maria, to a full house

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UniSIG launched its 2019 programme with a presentation by SENSE member and academic editor and lecturer Maria Sherwood-Smith on ‘Outreach and research communication in English: Opportunities for language professionals’. This was an opportunity for members who had missed her SENSE 2018 conference session in June to attend a reprise. The chord she and her subject-matter struck with the 19 participants (including three newcomers to UniSIG) made for a lively, interactive session from which all left seriously thought-provoked. SENSE members John Linnegar and Theresa Truax-Gischler report back.

Communicating one’s research is a challenge at the best of times, but doing so in a second language to a variety of audiences, some of them multidisciplinary, some lay, is often beyond the capabilities of many a researcher. With the increasing emphasis in research funding on communication with non-specialists, policy-makers and the public, this new genre of speaking and writing has become a core academic competency, a reality many universities have been slow to embrace. Enter the language professionals – either as copywriters, editors or translators, or as teachers of writing and communication – to help researchers ‘sell’ their work to funding agencies, industry, government and the general public.

In a master’s course at Leiden University, Maria and two subject specialists work with the students at honing the content and structure of a brief research talk. Maria shared the ‘Daisy model’ applied in this course as a way of effectively organizing and presenting complex research. The model alerts authors to the genres and registers that best suit their target audience. In doing so, it points writers and speakers towards identifying their core message, expressing it in everyday, non-technical language and indicating its relevance to broader societal issues.

The vexed matter of formulating and wording grant applications took up much of the session, with a range of stimulating views being expressed around the room; but the drafting of brochures, blogs, websites, tweets, pubcasts and similar communications has also become necessary nowadays. For these media, experts other than the researcher are often needed. But how will they be accommodated and funded by institutions of higher education? Perhaps in combination with teaching academic writing and presentation skills or via the creation of university writing centres?

These and other issues were echoed in the animated Q&A exchanges with which the event ended – continuing into the drinks session that ensued. The takeaway message? There is a great need for language practitioners with the expertise to convert (or to teach how to convert) texts so that they communicate effectively to diverse audiences; but will the universities be able to deliver?

SENSE has a number of special interest groups (SIGs) which meet regularly throughout the country. They are open to all members, and guests are welcome to attend one or two meetings before deciding whether they would like to join SENSE. See the events calendar for more details.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019 11:39

Eastern SIG borrel

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Cafe photo 14 December 2018

On Friday 14 December, six Eastern SIG members, one ex-member and a potential member all braved the pre-Christmas crowds in Zwolle to enjoy what turned out to be a very jolly ‘happy hour’ gathering.

Despite best efforts by Sally Hill and myself, the table we had bagged and hoped to hold for the group gradually filled with café regulars. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, however, as we were forced to find extra chairs to ‘expand the circle’ (as in a full-blown traditional Dutch birthday party) so we had no choice but to get even more up close and personal.

The venue – café De Hete Brij – lived up to its fifth place in the Dutch café top 100. Credit to Elles Hetebrij, the owner and creative brain behind this small but gezellig café. I think I can speak for all the attendees when I say it was refreshing to meet and talk with fellow wordsmiths in an informal atmosphere without a pre-set agenda. It’s amazing what a convivial setting and the Christmas spirit can do.

Once the supply of bitterballen had dried up, five of us plus one member’s husband, who joined us later, went in search of a place to have a meal, but could we find a table in the centre of Zwolle? No way. Until someone suggested heading to a shoarma restaurant close by that they'd been wanting to try for a while. And as if by magic, there was just enough space for the six of us. The broad selection of lahmacuns on offer proved to be too tempting for the majority. Washed down with a cool Efes beer, it was just what the doctor ordered.

It must have been around 20:00 when we all went our separate ways – convinced that an Eastern SIG tradition had been born. See you all in February for the next regular meet-up!

SENSE has a number of special interest groups (SIGs) which meet regularly throughout the country. They are open to all members, and guests are welcome to attend one or two meetings before deciding whether they would like to join SENSE. See the events calendar for more details.

Monday, 14 January 2019 14:10

Contrasting learning methods: SENSE Ed SIG

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The most recent SENSE Ed SIG took place on Saturday 8 December at Park Plaza Hotel in Utrecht, where Giulia Colacicco, a PhD candidate in mathematics, gave a presentation on ‘Contrasting learning methods.’

Giulia gave a demonstration, drawn from her master’s thesis, of a new way to teach mathematical concepts to high-school students. We looked at several videos in which two dots moved back and forth while we were asked to express our perceptions of what we were seeing. More information was added to each successive video, first gridlines, then numbers running along each line.

If you think back to your high-school maths classes, do you remember functions? It turned out the two dots were the values x and y on which a function is based. Giulia reported that this new approach has quite a few advantages. The students on whom she tested her method reacted positively to both the visual presentation of the material and the opportunity to discuss how things worked with their peers. This meant that they learnt together at their own tempo, instead of being individually pressed to give answers. Giulia then presented the traditional equations with which this concept is normally taught, and the contrast was quite striking.

In the second half of the meeting we investigated two ways of learning a language, namely Chinese. This time we did things the other way around. I started by presenting an ‘old’ method – Hugo’s Chinese in Three Months – which I bought back in the 90s. This starts with long explanations of how the tonal system of Chinese works, and builds up (slowly) to words and then a few sentences. Everything was explained in quite laborious detail.

We then switched to the online method developed by Rosetta Stone. Here, no verbal explanations of any grammar or pronunciation points are given, and there is not a word of English in sight. Instead, the student looks at pictures and learns by example. Once a word is taught, it must be successfully picked out from a series of photos on a later page. Grammar is also taught by inference without stating rules.

The attendees certainly seemed to prefer the new method. However, it is worth pointing out that there are no resources such as dictionaries (you have to learn the word and then remember it), one never hears what an extended conversation is like (Hugo’s audio material does offer this) and the method is pretty expensive. What’s more, once your online subscription expires, you lose access to the materials, so you can’t review anything.

Our group had a very enjoyable afternoon, enhanced by the excellent technical facilities offered by Park Plaza’s newly renovated meeting rooms. It is unfortunate that the turnout was so low. Please keep an eye out for the next SENSE Ed SIG meeting, which will be held sometime in May.

SENSE has a number of special interest groups (SIGs) which meet regularly throughout the country. They are open to all members, and guests are welcome to attend one or two meetings before deciding whether they would like to join SENSE. See the events calendar for more details.

Monday, 07 January 2019 11:14

Business goals for 2019

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Business goals

It’s time again to put Christmas behind us and get back to work. January is always full of fresh possibilities, and most of us are setting new goals for the year ahead. In this post, we catch up with two members of our SENSE content team – Claire Bacon and Ruth Davies – to find out what they learnt in 2018 and how this influenced their business goals for 2019.

How long have you worked as a language professional?

Claire: I used to work as a research scientist at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. I quit academia and set up my editing business back in September 2015. Now I use my research expertise to help non-native English-speaking scientists get their research published in peer-reviewed journals.

Ruth: I have been editing for around 15 years; before that, I taught linguistics for a few years, working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from all over Australia. I own my sole trader (ZZP) freelance editing business, which I’ve been working in seriously since 2012. I mostly edit research reports in the topic areas of primary production, climate change and remote Australia.

What were your business successes in 2018?

Claire: At the start of last year, my editing business was still a baby. Now it’s more like a toilet-trained toddler that can dress itself. This is all down to the time I invested in editing training last year. I successfully completed three courses run by the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) – Copyediting Headway, Medical Editing, and Brush Up Your Grammar – and this increased my confidence no end! It was probably thanks to these qualifications that I was hired by Springer as a copy-editor for one of their biomedical journals. I was recommended for the job by somebody in my professional network (yes, networking really pays off!) and after looking at my CV, they offered me the job.

Ruth: This year was much the same as in previous years, but the conditions were more difficult, so this feels like a success of sorts. I was very busy in 2017 with work, convening the Institute of Professional Editors (IPEd) conference (which was held in Brisbane in September), and then moving to the Netherlands with my partner in October. In contrast, this year has been relatively quiet.

Looking back, I’m most proud of being able to work hard to solve problems for clients, even in tight timeframes. I took the opportunity to do a little more professional development and have done massive open online courses (MOOCs) about grammar (a refresh), social media marketing (new and scary) and corpus linguistics (fascinating). Of course, I also attended the SENSE conference and have had some work through the SENSE forum.

And what lessons did you learn?

Claire: I learnt that continued effort is necessary for marketing to pay off. Marketing is all about making sure that people know what you can do. I’ve started blogging regularly and getting more involved in networking. It took about six months before I noticed the effects. I learnt that you just have to keep at it and that (annoyingly enough) clients won’t find you unless you make yourself visible.

I also learnt how to prioritize. My working time is limited and I realized that something had to give. I stopped doing low-paid editing work for agencies, focusing instead on building my own client base and being there for my children. I also learnt how to say no to people who do not want to pay you the rate you are asking for.

Ruth: First of all, I learnt that a balance is needed between looking for new work, doing voluntary work and doing work. I worked hard on my professional development, but I now realize that if I put the same amount of effort into chasing new work as I did into MOOCs, I’d probably have more work. The same applies to doing voluntary work, which I do for IPEd and for a women’s group I’m a member of here in Utrecht.

Second, I learnt the importance of identifying gaps in production processes. I had a job this year that lasted a long time because the production process went a little awry. While my role was not that of production editor, I should have seen the gap and made sure everyone had all the information. 

What are your business goals for 2019?

Claire: I will continue to work on my professional development. I want to learn how to be more efficient with my editing, so will take a course on editing with Word. I also aim to gain professional membership of the SfEP, which will allow me to be listed in their directory of editorial services. For professional membership you need to prove you have sufficient training and experience and you have to provide references, so it really proves your worth as an editor. I also plan to increase my marketing efforts and put more time and energy into developing my blog, which will hopefully bring in more clients.

Ruth: The focus for me will be on building up my client base by putting the social media marketing course I did this year to better use. I’ll also try to use the corpus linguistics method to inform my blog articles for 2019. In May, IPEd will be holding its next conference in Melbourne, so I’ll make that my main professional development activity.

What are your business goals for 2019? Why not share them by posting a comment below?

Sunday, 16 December 2018 11:28

2018 in review: the year in numbers for SENSE

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Utrecht SIG challenging clients 1

On Wednesday 14 November, 12 of us met upstairs at Utrecht Central station in the Bistrot Centraal to discuss difficult clients. Joy Burrough had been present at similar discussions at the American Translators Association Annual Conference in New Orleans in October and had quite a bit to share, but everyone contributed insights, anecdotes and suggestions to make it a successful evening.

For many translators in other countries, the client doesn’t speak the target language and is ever so grateful that you can help them out. But not here in the Netherlands. Many of our clients speak good (occasionally very good) English, and there’s always one who knows better, having learnt something at school – sometimes something dead wrong – and has to let you know. Many of us had stories to share about these clients. We do need to remember, though, that occasionally the client can be right, especially if specialized terminology is involved. On-line corpora such as Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) are valuable tools in this respect.

Asking questions

We agreed that back-and-forth interaction to answer a question is better than having to deal with complaints. Most clients are happy to answer questions and like to feel they’re part of the translation or editing process. Asking them what they think of a given suggestion can even help them save face. It’s unusual that you are able to communicate directly with the client when you work through an agency, so you do need to establish early on how any questions will get answered.

The issue of putting comments/questions in the text vs in an email also came up. You need to know if the client is actually going to read your translation or just send it on. Agencies sometimes just pass it straight to their client, and the question you may have asked never gets answered. If you have put questions/comments in the text, it’s a good idea to put something like ‘be sure to read my comments’ in the email when you send in the translation.

‘Correcting’ your translation 

Another recurring problem is that someone ‘corrects’ your translation after you’ve sent it in. If it gets published and your name is associated with a bad translation, it can damage your professional reputation. One translator puts a clause in her Terms and Conditions stating that she must be sent the printer’s proofs to proofread and if anything is changed afterwards without her permission, she is entitled to claim €5000 in compensation. How easy – and how costly – this would be to enforce is another matter, but at least it seemed to raise awareness among clients. 

Then there is the issue of payment. Sighs all round. Don’t be afraid to be obnoxious if a client is late paying you. If it’s a large company saying ‘we lost the bill’, you can threaten to ask for an internal audit. As with the compensation clause, whether this would work in practice remains to be seen.

Our next meeting will be Wednesday 9 January – stay tuned to the Events page for details.

Tuesday, 11 December 2018 07:33

Freestyling at the SENSE UniSIG meeting

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UniSIGnov2018

The UniSIG meeting on 9 November was billed as the first meeting of the academic year, but that wasn’t enough to set warning bells ringing. Even when the introductory round started I was none the wiser: our convener asked me to go first as one of two newcomers in the group of 12. Very nice to get away from my laptop and meet some others in the same line of work, I said.

But were they in the same line of work? It finally dawned on me, as the others introduced themselves, that it was no coincidence that everyone seemed to be doing academic editing. This meeting was aimed at academic editors – whereas I mainly do commercial work. But any feeling of being in the wrong place very soon passed.

Anything and everything

We met in the breakfast room of the Utrecht Park Plaza Hotel, just off the lobby, as the upstairs meeting rooms were still being renovated. It was a busy afternoon at the hotel, but a flip chart was soon trundled over to us so that our convenor could write down the day’s agenda. Officially billed as ‘Anything and everything’, we would discuss agencies offering thesis editing services, whether or not thesis editors should be acknowledged, editing tools and how to manage – and offer – comments.

Writing skills needed

The first topic, commercial agencies helping students with their theses, was prompted by a recent article in the Groene Amsterdammer. Some of these flourishing agencies are apparently now also offering undergraduates help on the writing side, and the article grumbled that their services are a form of plagiarism. Those present agreed that students and scientists at all levels, especially non-native English speakers, have poor writing skills in English. They need help – particularly PhD students who won’t be published if their writing isn’t weighty enough – and few universities offer enough support. A possible niche opening for academic editors, our convener concluded.

To thank or not to thank

This led to the second topic – acknowledgement. With rare exceptions, editors are not acknowledged in academic papers. Ethically, it might seem the right thing to do, but most respondents in the recent SENSE survey on the topic said they didn’t mind if their contributions weren’t acknowledged. One member pointed out that they may not want to be associated with mediocre writing – most authors can’t resist making changes before publication to the version delivered by their editor. Another said simply that he doesn’t need the advertising, while another still leaves it up to the client to decide whether to acknowledge him.

Taking criticism…

This led to a side discussion on what to do about billing to make sure you don’t lose out if editing takes longer because the writing is especially bad. But our convenor managed to turn the focus to topic 3 – how to deal with vague criticism from peer reviewers who don’t accept a version of a paper. The person who had proposed this topic said, ‘They say the English isn’t good enough but don’t go into detail, leaving me guessing what the problem is.’

Asking the journal’s peer reviewers for more information is not an option as they work anonymously, so someone else suggested discussing the situation with the client, which helps build your relationship with them. An alternative suggestion was to arrange for someone else to read the paper and modify it based on their suggestions.

One member said he wasn’t sure if he could charge the client for the time it takes to make such extra amendments, but this was met by a vociferous ‘yes, you can!’ by several people. After all, we cannot guarantee publication. In fact, criticizing the English could be a way for journals to avoid publishing a paper without disclosing the real reason for their decision.

…and giving it

Going off topic only slightly, we discussed what to do with criticism from non-natives along the lines of ‘that’s not English’. These remarks can be hurtful, but it may simply be a case of rephrasing an idiomatic expression or complex construction. One member then handed out copies of some feedback of her own that she had sent to a well-known publisher regarding a poorly translated book. She had agreed to edit it for a certain amount before realizing how much work was involved. Others shared similar experiences. I was reminded to watch out when asked to prepare an estimate based on a short extract. And warned that publishers may seem glamorous but are so cash-strapped they are not good payers.

Editing tools again

The last topic of the afternoon was editing tools. The member who proposed the topic was curious about the PerfectIt workshop on 19 October that a couple of attendees had been to and could report back on. He mentioned liking the subscription version of Grammarly for long texts as it ‘takes out the drab’ and reduces the time needed by the reviewers he contracts for editing services. As well as checking for spelling and grammar, Grammarly looks at consistency, suitability within a certain genre, paragraph length and active verbs. Grammarly flags each item and it is up to the user to decide whether or not to accept the suggested change: luckily, we haven’t been made completely redundant yet.

Right at the beginning of the afternoon, our convenor had asked for questions from the newcomers, but we ran out of time. However, she herself answered one of the questions I had about what might motivate an academic editor: ‘I want to give biomedical students a credible voice so they can go and find the cure for something.’

Marijn Moltzer is a freelance writer, editor and translator for clients including Rabobank, Aidsfonds and Cargill.

Thursday, 22 November 2018 15:37

What can we learn from our mystery shopper experiments

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Mystery shopper 1

Like many others, we recall being first astounded and then fascinated by Chris Durban’s two ‘mystery shopper’ experiments, on which she reported in detail at the 2011 ITI (Institute of Translation and Interpreting) Conference in Birmingham. We decided that we would love to replicate the experiment in the Netherlands, where we live and work. And so we did, adding a number of new elements at the same time. If there is one thing we learnt from our mystery shopper experiment for the 2015 Dutch National Translation Conference, it was that standards in the translation industry in the Netherlands are just as low as they proved to be in France – indeed perhaps even lower.

First of all, standards proved to be low in terms of marketing, where our mystery shopper – a Dutch marketing expert – found it much harder than he had expected to choose a translation agency as they all looked the same. He encountered bland, lookalike websites, meaningless slogans, stock photos and massive and inexplicable price differences. Plus banners brandishing cheap, cheap, cheap, with the occasional ‘quick and cheap’ thrown in for good measure. Standards were also low in customer relations, with shoddy, poorly phrased quotes, a frequent lack of interest in the demands of the job on offer, and minimal customer briefing and debriefing.

Perhaps more shockingly, standards were also low in translation quality, with the translations sold to our mystery shopper proving to be clunky and full of poor collocations, unfortunate phrasing, mis-punctuations, spelling mistakes, typing and formatting errors and – perhaps most damning of all – not even vaguely fit for purpose. This was despite the many extravagant claims made by the suppliers themselves on their websites about ‘working exclusively with native-speaker subject specialists’, producing ‘creative translations’, employing ‘experienced revisors’ and ‘specialist translators from all over the world’ and of course adopting ‘the appropriate tone of voice’.

In assessing the five translations sourced by our mystery shopper, we decided first to ask a panel of three external assessors for their general opinions. Our panel members were less than impressed: three of the translations were dismissed out of hand as being completely unusable, and the other two received mixed assessments.

Perhaps the only morsel of relief for the conference-goers was that the two not-quite-as-bad-as-the-rest translations were also the most expensive ones.

Phew.

We then performed our own detailed examination, marking glaring errors in red, stylistic problems in yellow and nice ideas in green. We allotted points as follows: red = minus 3; yellow = minus 1 and green = plus 2. We were also interested in seeing whether there was any correlation with the cost of the translations in question, so Table A also shows their prices.

Table A Quality and price of five translations sourced in the Netherlands

As there was not enough time at the conference for a wide-ranging discussion of the implications of the experiment, we organized a follow-up meeting for colleagues from the profession at which they could take a closer look at the translations and debate our findings.

Their analysis of the translations generated two fascinating findings: firstly, the professional translators were broadly in agreement with the original panel of experts. They too felt that the same three translations were worthless and that the remaining two were a mix of good points and alarming weaknesses. None of the translations earned a pass mark from everyone.

Secondly, it was interesting to see that, once the professionals actually embarked on the translation of a short passage from the source text used for the experiment, they soon started asking all manner of questions. Not so much about technical terms as about the target audience and the purpose of the translation. Things like: what exactly does the company want to offer their foreign customers (the source text was a marketing brochure for a corporate events organizer)? Are they planning to organize activities abroad or do they want to invite their foreign customers to come over to the Netherlands? And, which particular foreign markets do they want to break into? Hardly trivia these, but vitally important questions if the translation is to make sense and be effective.

Curiously, not a single one of our original translation suppliers came up with any questions along these lines. True, one of them asked (before starting on the translation) whether our mystery shopper had a preference for either US or UK spelling, and another asked him whether he had any ‘special requirements’. But none of them stopped to think.

Yet stopping to think is exactly what is going to distinguish us human translators from our (ever smarter) mechanical competitors in the future. It was staggering to see that none of our five original suppliers asked for any sort of briefing. None of them called the mystery shopper with questions before delivering their translation. This was despite the fact that we actually asked our mystery shopper to add an extra (poorly formatted) paragraph containing two unnecessary technical details, and various repetitions of points that had already been made. None of our translation providers queried these. Everything was translated simply ‘as is’, including (in most cases) the wonky formatting.

And none of them reported back afterwards to explain what they had done. True, two of them sent a perfunctory ‘How was it for you?’ email, but there was no meaningful engagement at any stage. Indeed, the preferred business model would appear to be: customer chucks a text over the fence; translator translates it as literally as possible and chucks it back over the fence. Quick. Cheap. No questions asked.

We were aware, however, that we were working with a pretty small sample and could hardly claim to have applied much in the way of academic rigour to our experiment. The least we could do was to see whether the situation in the UK differed from that in the Netherlands. So we recently performed a mini-repeat of the experiment for the 2017 ITI Conference in Cardiff. Same text, same mystery shopper, same panel of experts.

What did we find? Well, first of all, it was well-nigh impossible to track down a UK-based translation provider. Despite using a variety of internet search techniques, we consistently found ourselves staring at a hit list consisting largely of global translation agencies and the odd Dutch agency dressed up as a UK operator. Even more surprisingly, individual translators were almost entirely hidden from view: even when our search phrase contained the word ‘translator’, the hits still consisted of agencies.

In the end, we managed to select five potential suppliers for our mystery shopper to contact. Two of them failed to respond to our mystery shopper’s request for a quote. This left us with two ostensibly UK-based agencies and one freelance translator. We say ‘ostensibly’ because one of the agencies proved to be Irish and the other may well have been a one-person eastern-European operation, albeit purporting to be based in a specific English town...

Table B Quality and price of three translations sourced in the UK

As expected, we encountered the same variety in terms of quality and pricing, except that the range was wider: one of the translations was quite simply appalling (‘Why did you not have a ‘woeful’ category?’ one of the assessors asked), while another was actually much better than the others, including the five we had previously sourced in the Netherlands. The findings are shown in Table B. (Good news for freelance translators: the best translation was that supplied by the freelance translator!)

So, what can we conclude from these two experiments?

1. Four of the eight translations we bought on the open market were complete and utter rubbish.
2. Three were substandard; just one was ‘natural-sounding’, showing ‘good idiomatic choices’ and ‘OK as a first draft’.
3. There was no meaningful customer communication.
4. Agency websites tend to be bland, impersonal lookalikes. They all claim to deliver high-quality products, very often both cheaply and quickly.
5. It’s hard to find individual, professional translators.

If we want to be treated as professionals, we need to act as professionals. That means, for example:

• Doing more than just supplying a passable literal translation, and hence delivering a far more professional product than our clients can get from any mechanical source.
• Communicating with our clients: asking them questions, finding out what they want and telling them what we’ve done.
• Making sure that our clients can find us on the internet and encouraging our professional associations to advertise.

Tony Parr and Marcel Lemmens are professional translators and translator trainers based in the Netherlands. They both have extensive experience as translators (freelance and in-house) and as teachers of translation, principally at the National College of Translation in Maastricht. They are the authors of Handboek voor de Vertaler Nederlands-Engels. Operating under the name of Teamwork, they organize short courses, workshops and conferences for language professionals in the Netherlands.

 

 

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