What normal translators can learn from theory

For my first 8 years as a translator, I never read a shred about translation theory. After passing the state exam with some markdowns, I started to wonder. I also did an M.Sc. in Software Localization, which required basic theory courses.

I’ve always seen myself more as typist than theoretician. To me, easier language means fewer keystrokes, so more money for the same work. I hardly know the difference between Perfekt and Plusquamperfekt, because I believe using any tense but the simple present is snobbery.

Coincidentally shorter, simpler texts are also easier to understand, and isn’t that what all clients want? And if the clients don’t, isn’t it what their readers want?

Translation theorists, like all humanities scholars, just like to fill pages. It’s all Judith Butler to me; why do I need read treatises on shit even animals can do? I much prefer reading user manuals and style guides if I have a concrete problem to solve.

It’s no coincidence a lot of the leading theoreticians come from places with a strong faith in big words, like Germany or New York. Fortunately, this also means the basic ideas are so banal, no ordinary person would ever think them worth writing down. You can learn all the buzzwords from Wikipedia.

Theory offers some guidelines you can refer to when selling your work. For example the idea of functional translation (Reiss/Vermeer).

We all adapt our message to the reader/listener in some way. But did you know it’s a selling point?

Prof. C. Nord says you can classify the information in a source text into various functions (phatic (social), appellative, informational, etc.)  So if you have an informational function like “this bottle of Coke contains only 200 grams of sugar”, the 200 grams are informational, the only is appellative (or propagandistic). The 200 grams has to be translated, it’s clear. But how and whether you translate the only depends on who’s paying you: Coca Cola or a consumer health organization.

Questions like these are called “translation problems” and your agility with these problems shows how good of a translator you are. Many buyers don’t care. If they don’t pay for your extra brain power, don’t squander it.

But when you write a quote and add a sample translation where you comment on the difference between foreignization and domestication, the raging debate and ask the client on their opinion – it really makes you look like you know what you’re doing. (Maybe add that foreignization is linked to a wider criticism of hegemony and that the debate has roots in the Soviet school of translation.)

These questions concern not just literary translators. Such random knowledge also helps stand your ground in the face of unhelpful edits from overzealous proofreaders.

So even if you’re a total noob and have no Feingefühl, some brute theory helps smash all criticism of your substandard translation of a soft drink advertisement.

Writing a good quote

Clients are called clients, not customers, because they pay for our service, not for our product. End clients especially deserve extra service. Extra service costs extra money – and therefore we translators have to invest extra time. This starts with the quote.

When a client sends me a text for translation or proofreading, I make it a rule to send them 2 or 3 translated paragraphs as a sample (with track changes if it’s a proofreading job).

I use these paragraphs to comment my choices – for example why I prefer translating German substantivizations into English verbal phrases, why I’m skipping the literal meaning or why I’d choose an entirely different headline instead of just translating the existing one.

Incidentally this showcases my experience, how I add value to the text and that I’m willing to put in “extra” effort. Fortunately my target language, English, is one most Germans read well enough to appreciate my work. So I have to use this advantage.

I take time to respond to e-mails and pick out relevant projects that could interest the prospect, before I hit ’em over the head with my fat resumé. Sometimes I take half a day to prepare a quote; it’s good advertising, even if I don’t get the job.

I also tend to write a real PDF quotation instead of just throwing a price and deadline at them. Initially, I write very formally and then scale it down to always sound just a hint more formal than the client. They will usually be the ones to break the ice.

All these preparatory services cost me more, so I state that in my quote. Instead of guesstimating a low price to win the job and then trying to correct afterwards, I start high. If the client negotiates, so do I. If they decline, also good. In any case, I won’t regret it if they say yes.

No client will be insulted by a high bill, if it’s served properly. Even if in the end you get the same hamburger, it’s a big difference, if the waiter brings you the bill in one of those leather booklets or if a cashier says: “That’s 2,99. Would you like fries with that?”

Writing hacks – Part 1: Keep it simple

For good writing and for good translation, always pick the simplest phrasing and word you can find. “Find” means it sometimes costs you more work to find a snappy three-letter word than dropping the Latin bomb that first blasts into your mind.

Microsoft has a writing policy that no specialized terms should be used in end user texts. So it’s “check” not “activate”, “open” not “access”, “change” not “transform” etc. This helps us translators work on technical texts. German tech writers, for example, love to boast their expertise through lofty verbs: “beheben”, “aufrufen”, etc. If you translate that as “fix” or “open”, no one can accuse you of a mistake; you’ve actually improved on the original within your professional scope of judgement.

Remember, the basic rule is to find the easiest expression. It works wonders in academic editing as well.

So let me repeat Orwell’s golden rules:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

There’s one exception though – if your audience is international, Latin words are often preferable, because second-language English speakers will understand them  more easily. But use your common sense; everyone understands “fix”, so you don’t have to write “remedy”.

How Effective Are Proofreading Methods Currently Practiced by Translation Agencies?

Patenttranslator's Blog

Every few months or so I receive an offer to proofread a translation of a patent or another document from Japanese, German, French, or Czech to English from an agency that found my name in the American Translators Association (ATA) directory. I still accept translation offers from agencies, but I don’t proofread translations that were done by other translators for translation agencies anymore. It is just too much of a hassle for me. For one thing, I have no idea whether the translation will be very good, pedestrian, passable, horrible …… And you can’t really charge much for this kind of work because proofreading is generally paid quite poorly. So why bother.

I think that translators who still accept this type of work are mostly beginners, or occasionally perhaps also more experienced translators who are going through a slow period. Incidentally, the last time when I was still accepting proofreading…

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FM interpreting system for 10 bucks?

I was recently at a conference where they used FM radio frequencies for interpreting. The attendants could either use their smartphones to receive the signals or borrow a pocket FM radio.

I thought: “What an easy alternative to the bulky, expensive systems you usually see.” So I did some research. There are some legal restrictions on broadcasting over FM, so it’s hard to purchase a cheap, strong transmitter, although it’s apparently easy to DIY.

However, there are tiny car radio transmitters on the web for 10 EUR or less that will do the job for most smaller settings. They easily broadcast 10 m and can be modded to extend the range. (The simplest way is to tape some copper wire to the casing, but there are more techy options on YouTube.) You can set them to send on any FM frequency, from 87.5 to 108.0 MHz. The sound quality is just like radio and there’s no delay, as in VoIP.

As interpreter you can use it with your laptop (speaking through a microphone and sticking the transmitter in your line out socket). In this case you have to do a few clicks de-mute your microphone (Windows).

Or you can plug it to your smartphone. There are apps that let you send your phone microphone to your headphone jack (where your FM transmitter is plugged in).

In the end, you should be able to simultaneously interpret for larger audiences using only your phone/computer, the transmitter and your listeners’ smartphones (or a couple of cheap pocket FM radios). Of course you need one transmitter per language pair.

You should be able to cover up to 20 m without major modifications. Let’s say you want 5 languages + 10 pocket radios. The whole set should cost you less than 100 EUR and fit in a handbag. I tested a single-transmitter setup; it works best using my laptop. Let me know in the comments if you find any improvements!


Notes on the state exams for a) translators and b) interpreters in Germany

This text is about the state exam. The translator assocation BDÜ has a good overview of exam venues. I strongly recommend that you go venue shopping. There are 2 different authorities that let non-enrolled students do an accredited exam in Germany – Chambers of Trade & Commerce (IHK) or the federal education ministries (Kultusminsterium / Schulamt / Bildungsagentur).  You can apply in any Bundesland, not just where you live.

For example, Berlin offers the state exam for translators, but not for interpreters for the English language. So I had to reapply in Leipzig to do my interpreter exam after completing the translator exam in Berlin.

Many people fail the state exam, so the application process is very thorough (although they’re said to be more lenient with applicants for rare languages). I had to provide references for my entire freelance work history, although I did an English-language BA in management and did my Abitur in Germany. They explicitly say that studying or being bilingual is not enough. Especially for world languages you need some kind of training or work history as a translator. You also have to pick a subject field; I chose business.

The written exam (for translators) has 3 parts:

  1. Translations and essays in all of your exam languages & subject fields at the Ministry – without dictionary
  2. Translations in all of your exam languages & subject fields at home
  3. Oral exam at the ministry – extempore translation (off the paper) & conversation about current news & culture of both language regions

My grades for the on-site exams were pretty good. I work very fast (for agencies), so the exam time was plenty. I got articles from business newspapers to translate and a topic of my choice to write about.

If you’re a student without translation work experience, I really recommend you do some fast-paced projects before attempting this. Also practice handwriting, I don’t really use it anymore. You should be able to translate the next sentence in your head as you’re writing.

I didn’t do well in the homework exams. I had to translate 2 general magazine articles and 2 business-related articles. Unfortunately they only gave limited feedback. Maybe I researched something wrong, or I was too literal. When you’re used to translating sentence for sentence, like most practicians, you easily lose sense of the larger text. Classically trained translators might do better here.

At the oral exam I was extremely good in the extempore part. I can basically read a German text out loud in English, and I speak both languages accent-free, so that impressed them. The exam committee here consists of one senior translator and the head of the Ministry’s language department. It helps if you dress and carry yourself well, but here it’s just a sidenote – in the interpreting exam it’s part of the grade.

I flunked the cultural knowledge part. I hardly knew how the German parliament works or who some famous authors are, except the ones you read in school. You should really watch the evening news in both languages 2 weeks before the exam.

The interpreting exam I did a year later in Leipzig (Saxony). They have a big translation institute at Leipzig University, so the Ministry here offers more languages than other cities. Mainz (Rheinland-Pfalz) is similar.

I did it in a single sitting, but the application process also required a lot of letters and took some months. I even bought a suit, but I should’ve also done some speaker training. My performance showed I’m a very solitary worker. So translators – interpreting really is a different kind of work. I was prepared linguistically, but you need to make a personal impression.

To prepare I watched a lot of training speeches at the EU Speech Repository. You have to know consecutive translation with note-taking and need a really good memory. So read a little bit about note taking (not shorthand!)  and practice jotting down 5-minute speeches and interpreting from your notes – a lot!

Also practice liaison interpreting, where you have to recall passages of up to 90 seconds (!) from your memory, with only enough time to jot down numbers.

Simultaneous interpreting practice is the easiest I think, because you just need to keep going – there’s not really time for embarrassing gaps.

I had little actual experience – I’d done some liaison interpreting (sentence for sentence) and a little simultaneous whisper interpreting, but not in extremely official settings, like a court.

So I was way more nervous than before the translator exam. In the waiting room at the Ministry, I met the only translator (out of 4!) to pass the translator exam that day.  The exam board consists of 4 senior interpreters (in my case one of them was a professor, which made me more nervous) and the head of the Ministry’s language department.

This exam also has three parts:

  1. Liason interpreting in both languages (Verhandlungsdolmetschen)
  2. Simultaneous interpreting into one language
  3. Consecutive interpreting into the other language

I didn’t do too well in the 1st part, but not for the reasons I thought. I thought I might have missed some facts. The piece was a business interview, with lots of facts (KPIs, sales figures, etc.), which are hard to grasp even for the exam board. So I think they didn’t even notice, if I mistranslated a figure, but they did notice I was hesitating. You’re graded for overplaying parts of the conversation you misunderstood – just keep going.

I asked some important questions – like one time the German speaker said “our sales are 25% of the whole UK economy”, and I asked if she meant the WHOLE economy of the UK or just the company’s global sales – but you’re encouraged to ask only very few questions (as in real business).

I thought I’d flunked the first part, but they called me in for the second, and simultaneous really saved me. I’m very fast, but my memory is shit. I interpreted a speech by Tony Blair on Brexit, read by one of the examiners. You have to stand up and speak very clearly and confidently, and don’t let the speaker confuse you – sometimes they talk stuff that just makes no sense. Just keep going and smiling!

In the third part, consecutive, I messed up for 4 reasons:

  1. I just learned some rudimentary note-taking and haven’t yet developed my own style, so I often pause to riddle what I just wrote down.
  2. I take too many notes and forget to listen and remember. Definitely practice reproducing speeches without notes.
  3. When these gaps due to sloppy note-taking occur, I use filler words, such as “also.” The examiners didn’t really care so much about the gaps, but about how I filled them. If you get in the habit of using more pompous fillers (“furthermore”), it’ll help you a lot in public speaking situations.
  4. I was just so nervous. I must’ve looked like a turkey on Thanksgiving. Although I’m not a horrible introvert: I always did well in presentations at university, I’m impressively tall and I spent 50 EUR on that C&A sink-washable suit! (I would’ve felt much more comfortable in my pajamas, which is my usual work outfit anyways!)

So practice public speaking and consecutive interpreting at your next translator pub night. Go accompany your friends to official appointments – wearing a suit. You have to know how to fake it.

In the end I passed with a very good grade, because I’m technically good, but I could’ve done much better, if I’d practiced more people skills. If you have anything, please comment below and I’ll answer.



Use Wordfast online TMs as concordance reference in other CAT tools

I work for one agency, which only sends me remote TMs & glossaries for Wordfast as a reference. I don’t have a Wordfast license. However, there’s a neat hack to access these remote references in my favorite CAT tool without buying Wordfast.

Wordfast has a free online service called Free TM or Wordfast Anywhere (www.freetm.com). Here you can set up a project like in most other CAT tools. (You need a free account; if you don’t want to give your real e-mail, use a disposable one, like Mailinator.com).

To set up your remote TM, proceed a follows:

  1. In the “TM & Glossaries” Tab, go to “Setup”.
  2. Click “Add” for either TM or glossary, depending on which one you’re adding.
  3. Choose “Add remote TM with a given URL”
  4. Copy the remote TM link provided by your client or customer into the box that appears. (It should start with “gltm://”)

Fig. 1: Add the remote TM in Wordfast Anywhere.

Now you’ve added the remote TM to Wordfast anywhere. To search it, click either “Concordance” or “Glossary Search”, depending on whether you want to search the TM or glossary.


Fig. 2: Find the search link for your remote TM in Wordfast Anywhere.

In the browser window that pops up (enable pop-ups!), copy the link from the URL bar. You can now add this link to the CAT tool of your choice like any old search engine! Just make sure you’re logged in to WF Anywhere in your browser in the background.

I’m showing you an example using MemoQ. Here the option is called “MemoQ Web Search” (Ctrl + F3). In SDL Studio, it’s under Advanced > Lookup > Web Lookup. It will be similar for other tools.

Just add the WF anywhere URL to your list of custom search engines, according to your CAT tool’s specifications. Voilà! You can now access the client’s TM and glossary without having to use Wordfast. Just select a word in your project and press the Web Search hotkey (Ctrl + F3 in MemoQ) to get straight results from the remote TM / glossary in your favorite CAT tool. Share if you like!


Fig. 3: Add the remote TM link to MemoQ as a custom search engine.