Only Human Translators

Getting into print

Getting into print

One of the few positive things that’s happened to me in this truly appalling year of 2020 is that I’ve become a published author for the first time. So apologies to those of you who don’t like to hear the sound of someone blowing their own trumpet, but this is the story of my book. When I was a boy, there was a foreigner living in our village. He drank in the local pub but, unlike nearly all the other older men who played bowls with my father, he didn’t speak with a Suffolk accent. They told me Gaby, which was what everyone called him, spoke like that because he was Spanish. They also said he was a musician – a cello player. Sometimes we even got to see him play on the television. I’d love to say that old Gaby (he would have been in his sixties at the time) and young me became friends, he told me his life story and then instilled in me a long-lasting love of classical music, but it didn’t happen like that. I spoke to him a few times, he bought me the occasional drink in the pub, then I left the village and didn’t really think about him for many years. But a quarter of a century later, and a few years after moving to live in Barcelona, I went to a party at a friend’s flat in the nearby town of Sabadell. There, I got into a conversation with a young woman who asked me the question so many people ask an immigrant from the UK. “Whereabouts in England are...
Perception is the key

Perception is the key

There is nothing like the COVID-19 crisis to teach us how important perception is. Of any group of people in the same place, at the same time, governed by the same rules, you will find some who are ultra cautious, going out as little as possible, always wearing a face mask and taking no risks and others stretching the rules to the limits and beyond, ignoring social distancing and making sure they’re the first on the beach or in the bars. The real risk is the same, but these people perceive it very differently. I was reminded of this a few weeks ago, when my attention was drawn to a European Union web page entitled “eTranslation for SMEs”. What it is, effectively, is EU-sponsored computerised translation aimed at small businesses – or “a state-of-the-art online machine translation service”, as it describes itself – between the 27 official EU languages. “The eTranslation service is free of charge and will help you save time and money to translate your documents and text between any two official EU languages, and more!” trumpets the blurb. On top of this, and unlike rival services, “eTranslation guarantees the confidentiality and security of all your translated data”. There is even €4 million available for businesses to integrate the service into their processes. In a Facebook discussion on the subject, some colleagues made the quite reasonable points that machine translation is nothing new and that the service appears to be no better than those already available. Others found (I did not) a caveat on the website stating that for critical documents human translators would always be necessary....
Real connections

Real connections

All over the world, like other conferences and congresses, translation events have fallen victim to the coronavirus. The question I want to answer in this post is what they are going to look like in the future. And can online events ever provide a real replacement? In the lockdown period, we’ve all, including – or perhaps even especially – our school-age children, become accustomed to the Zoom video conference. It’s a wonderful thing for seeing each other’s faces, chatting, playing games and even having a drink with friends, together but socially distanced. Does it, though, really work as an educational tool? I’ve had several different experiences with it over the past few weeks that make me wonder, at least about whether it can be used for everything. First of all, I took part in a MET workshop which was moved online after the face-to-face version in Barcelona had to be cancelled. Three hours in front of a screen is a long time and I have to say that at times I felt my attention wandering. I also felt for the presenter, who had had to adapt his face-to-face workshop into an online version in quite a short time. The amount of information he was trying to give might have been possible with us all in the same room, but online it seemed way too much. He also tried some hands-on activities, using a Zoom feature which allows a group to be randomly broken up into twos or threes but once again it was not entirely successful. The problem is that being in a group of three on a video...
Life after lockdown

Life after lockdown

In my last post I talked about coping with the coronavirus lockdown we’ve almost all been living with in one form or another for several weeks. This time, although the confinement seems to be continually extended, I want to look forward. What’s our professional world going to look like when all this is over? How can we face up to the future? I mentioned last time that I had been quite busy in the first two weeks of lockdown, and I’ve continued to have a good amount of work since. I’m under no illusions, though. I am very fortunate and this state is unlikely to continue. A colleague, Andreea Sepi, who lives in Germany, wrote to me after my last post confirming that I am a lucky exception. “My income has plummeted, since I was also teaching, and that’s all closed now, as lots of older language students are not fond of Skype,” she said. Most of us have seen online references to colleagues applying for the various government assistance programmes that are available in different countries, although often the conditions attached make this money difficult for self-employed people like us to claim. There is certainly no doubt that the pandemic is going to cause, and is already causing, the biggest recession any of us has ever seen. We just don’t know how many of our clients are going to survive the pandemic, or what kind of a world we will emerge into. Will people still travel and go on holiday? Will we do the same things we always used to or will our priorities change? In terms of...
The spring that never was

The spring that never was

Three weeks ago we were just beginning to get an idea that this wasn’t going to be an ordinary spring. Since then, the world has fallen in very quickly and, as I write this, it’s not at all clear how or when we’re going to come out of the coronavirus crisis. I want to look forward to what happens next, but I’m going to save that for another post. For now I would just like to document how this has been affecting my life and work and maybe draw one or two conclusions. Before the lockdown The crisis caught me just as business was picking up after one of slowest months I have ever had. After that disastrous February, March was looking good and I’d picked up one or two big projects. About the time it became clear that we were all going to end up confined to our homes, I was offered another piece of work it looked as if it would be difficult to fit in and I decided to work over the weekend to make sure I could take it on. It was already obvious that the shut-down was going to lead to a recession and I thought it was wise to take all the work I could, while it was available. That week was probably the strangest of my life. Things that, on the Monday seemed perfectly normal, like having coffee with a friend or going to the swimming pool, by the Friday seemed unthinkably dangerous. I spent the weekend between work and taking the chance to go for a couple of walks by the...
A language love affair

A language love affair

Last week, I was invited to a language awards ceremony by a good client of mine. As I’d never met any of the many people I deal with at the organisation, I thought it might be a good idea to go along and get to know them a little. So it was that I found myself at the presentation of the 7th Martí Gasull i Roig award, organised by my client, Plataforma per la Llengua, an organisation promoting the use of the Catalan language. In most countries, a language award would be a literary matter, given to a writer, or perhaps a publisher. Here, the finalists were a group of Wikipedia enthusiasts, some computer game fans and a bookshop. Because the Martí Gasull i Roig award is about services to Catalan, not use of it. In fact, it is given for defence of the language, or a notable contribution to improving its situation. For speakers of one of the world’s dominant languages, like English, this is hard to grasp. Why would a language need defending? What would be the point? But our language hasn’t been banned within living memory. And people are not, even now, commonly discriminated against or humiliated for using it. If you think I’m exaggerating, you should read some of the reports I’m asked to translate. Perhaps in order to understand you need to be in the situation I was in when I first arrived in Catalonia. I had met Marta, who is now my wife, some months earlier and I had almost immediately decided to learn her language – the one she spoke most often...
Tuning the machine

Tuning the machine

In my last post, as well as looking back at 2019, I described the changes I want to make this year in the way I work. This has led me to thinking about freelancing, and about what we can and can’t change in our businesses. I see freelancing as a series of inputs and outputs. At its simplest, we put in time and we want to take out money, but, of course, it’s all rather more complicated than that. We also invest money, paying for training courses and computer hardware and software, for example, with the idea of being able to take out more money at the end of the day. Most of us also want a little more than just money out of our work, and, to some degree, we’re looking for job satisfaction as well. Nor can we convert time directly into money. We also need have to have clients giving us work, and the need to find work means that we can’t spend all our work time earning, because we also have to sell ourselves. As well as marketing activities, we might also choose to go on training courses and do other kinds of CPD not only to improve our skills but also to look more attractive to clients. The reason rates are such a hot topic with translators is that they provide the mechanism to alter the amount of money we can make with our time. They might almost be a magical solution to all our problems except for the associated risk. If we raise them too high, we will lose work until or unless...
Out with the old

Out with the old

What kind of a year have you had? My 2019’s been strange. As I identified in a previous post, I put my basic agency rates up at the beginning of the year without properly combining this with a marketing effort to ensure I would have enough new direct clients to compensate for the inevitable drop-off in agency work. I paid for this mistake by having more slack periods, when I felt obliged to take on jobs bristling with red flags, and the predictable result has been a year of nightmare projects, some of which I have also described in another post. But the year has also had its upsides. At the beginning of the year, I took another wine course to improve my expertise in one of my specialist areas. Apart from enjoying it greatly and learning a tremendous amount about wine, I ended up with a Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET to its friends) level 3 certificate. Beyond expert knowledge that you can feed into your translations, another beneficial aspect about doing specialist CPD is the confidence it gives you when dealing with clients. Recently, for example, I went to a wine event where about 100 producers – all potential clients – had samples for tasting. Being able to go up to them, try their wine and know enough to chat to them about it with a reasonable degree of knowledge was something I couldn’t have contemplated without doing the two wine courses I’ve taken (the first one was WSET level 2). The same would apply to any specialist area you could name. In May I went...
Remember: the expert is you

Remember: the expert is you

I’m going to remember 2019 as the year of nightmare jobs. I’ve already written earlier this year about taking work I might have known I shouldn’t have accepted. This is a tale of two jobs that have more than qualified for the nightmare category, but which have ended up in very different ways. The first was just a simple-looking job involving translating a few certificates. There were no red flags or warning signs; the only complication was that the translation itself needed to be certified. Now, unlike many countries, the UK doesn’t have an established system for certifying translations. The Spanish system, for example, is well-established and the procedures are absolutely clear for those who have passed the exams to be “sworn translators”. The British system, on the other hand, is vague, with single set of proper guidelines. What filters through to translators and clients is that translations made by members of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting and the Chartered Institute of Linguists are accepted by official bodies if they include a certificate giving the translators’ details and confirming that their work is a complete and accurate rendering of the original. I am a member of both organisations and I’ve done a good many of these translations, so this particular job didn’t seem any kind of risk. I quoted a price, did the translation and the client – a colleague who runs a small agency – came to pick it up. Her question to me was: what if it’s not accepted? And, based on my experience with similar translations I’d done before, I made what turned out to...
The underlying theme

The underlying theme

Themes are problematic for conferences, I always think. And for me, the title of this year’s MET conference in Split – “Make it count: communicating with clarity and concision” – was doubly so because it included a word I’m certain I would never to use. Despite the fact that it does appear in the dictionary and the obvious analogy with “precision”, that word “concision” didn’t manage to convince me. Anyway, as we all know, despite everyone’s best efforts, not many talks at any conference you might mention take very much notice of what the event says it’s supposed to be about. Speakers have their own agendas and conference organisers, above all, need people to speak, so they don’t insist too much on their speakers toeing the line. Strangely, though, at some point, what I call the underlying theme of a conference always emerges: and that’s the real message to take home. In the beautiful Croatian city of Split, the underlying theme started to appear in the first keynote talk by David Jemielity. I’d already seen David this year at the ITI Conference in Sheffield, but although his message was the same his talk here was completely different. He explained how he and his team of translators had managed to win the confidence of top management at the Swiss bank where he works to the point where they are now included in corporate communication decision-making. This had been achieved, David explained, by learning to speak the language of the managers and bankers and to think like them. Only in this way could they be convinced of the need to change...