Monday, February 22, 2016

What Makes an Expert Translator a Professional Translator?

Previously, on this blog and elsewhere, I have maintained that what distinguishes a Professional Translator from a Non-Professional Expert Translator is that the former is paid for translating (see the definitions obtained by entering essential definitions in the Search box on the right). I still believe that's the defining characteristic. Yet there are many Expert Translators whose productions are of as high a standard as those of the Professionals but who do them pro bono publico or for friends and colleagues, and so on, without charging. And on the other hand there are translators who work as Professionals and charge accordingly but they lack training or experience and are not so good. Caveat emptor!

The upcoming International Conference on Non-Professional Interpreting and Translation makes me think again. Payment, whether by piecework or by salary. may still be the defining characteristic of the Professional, but there are also other important differences. Here are some of them. They aren't necessarily in order of importance.

1. The time constraint (see image). The Professional undertakes to produce a translation not only for a certain price but also by a certain deadline. There may well be a penalty for missing it. The Non-Professional cannot always take his or her time but can expect more flexibility and can hardly be penalised.

2. Speed. The would-be Professional who can't keep up a certain speed won't earn enough to make a living or may be unemployable. The question is often asked, what's the minimum speed or the optimum speed to demand of a translator, but it's too variable to be dealt with here.

3. Training. By the norm of other professions, a Professional Translator should have received training somehow from somebody, and be in possession of a piece of paper to prove it. That is, if you think of translating as a profession like law or medicine; but not if you regard it as something more creative like music. While many employers of translators do these days require a degree or diploma from applicants, a large segment of the translation 'industry' remains unregulated and untrained..

4. Technology. Obviously this applies to the parts of the world that are technologically advanced; but where today are there no computers? Today's Professionals are expected to know how to use word processors and term banks at least, and many job ads now call for mastery of more complex translator-aid software like machine translation systems, translation memories and translation project managers. Sign of the times: I've just received an announcement from University College London for this year's edition of their "very popular" Intensive Summer Course in Translation Technology, which you too can see at

5. Ethics. Professionals are expected to conform to certain standards and principles of conduct. They may be generally accepted but informal, or they may be codified into a Code of Ethics. Among other things, it may enjoin translators to turn away work for which they are not qualified or to refer the client to a better qualified colleague.(I recently received a circular from the professional association to which I belong, asking me to sign the updated version of its Code.) Non-professionals are not bound by them.

6. Versatiity. The non-professional Expert Translator is usually only expert in a particular subject or subject area. Take the case of Einstein's English translator, described on this blog a few posts ago. Would he have been capable of such a good translation in a different area such as biology? Anyway he never did publish any translations outside mathematical physics. But the Professional Translator cannot afford to be so picky and must adapt to market demand. I knew a professional Canadian government translator who was a qualified geologist and could rattle off 6,000 words a day in that area. Then the government decided it didn't need so many geology specialists and he was switched to pension legislation. His output slipped to 1,000 words a day and he hated it. But, as he said ruefully, it was pensions or unemployment.

In another dimension, that of the medium, today's Professional Translator may be called on to translate not only texts but also audiovisual captions and subtitles, dictionary entries, etc., whereas the Non-Professionals can turn down what they don't like. The number of 'professional updating' courses currently on offer for audiovisual translating is striking, whereas 20 years ago there were none.

The case of the geologist-translator illustrates an important component of translating. Translators need not only fluency in languages but also extra-linguistic background knowledge in the area dealt with by their texts. You can't translate well or quickly what you don't understand. Non-Professionals may decide it's not worth their while researching to acquire background knowledge they don't already have. The Professional Translator, on the contrary, must be prepared to do so and the ways of doing it should be part of their training. Fortunately the internet makes it much easier than it used to be.

7. Liability. In practice it's very rare for translators to be sued for errors and omissions. I only remember one case a long time ago concerning a maintenance manual translated by IBM. But it suits the insurance companies to advertise that translators could be sued and to sell professional liability insurance against it. In short, professional liability is a dubious characteristic of professional translators, yet some translation agencies ask for insurance.

Can you think of any other characteristics of the Professional Translator?

Source: someecards,

NPIT3, Winterthur (near Zurich), 5-7 May 2016
International forum for Non-Professional Interpreting and Translation, the latest paradigm in translation studies.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Young Interpreters Again

I always await the latest Hampshire EMTAS bulletin eagerly. EMTAS, in case you don't know, runs a Young Interpreter Scheme (YI) that provides support to school pupils who are learning English as an Additional Language. Hampshire is a county in southern England, but the scheme has spread beyond it.
"It recognises the huge potential that exists within each school community for pupils of all ages to use their skills and knowledge to support new learners of English so that they feel safe and valued from the start. Young interpreters undergo specific training to prepare for this role and are selected on the basis of different personal qualities."
Most of them are bilingual, and there is an assumption that if they are bilingual they can translate. Note that YI does not replace the need for professional adult interpreters. Guidance is given on the situations where it is not appropriate to turn to YI.

YI and its indefatigable coordinator Astrid Dinneen have been given honourable mentions several times before on this blog. To find the posts, enter emtas in the Search box on the right.

The latest issue of the bulletin is as interesting as ever. Its lead article is not from the UK but from far away Jordan, where the International Community School (ICS) is the first to have set up the scheme outside the UK. What is most striking about it is the children's testimonials of motivation and satisfaction. For example:
"I am from Korea. I am proud of myself to be a Young Interpreter. I like to be an interpreter because some of the new students can be friends with me. One of the new kids that came to our school is my best friend now. It is a really good idea to have a Young Interpreter in a school because we can communicate well with the new children. We can know about them and whenever they need help we can help them. So the new kid whenever the teacher needs translation I will go and help him. So I like to be a Young Interpreter."
This is all very good. I do, however, have a couple of caveats.

1. The bulletin records successes and expansions; it doesn't tell us about setbacks or withdrawals. It seems unlikely that in such a large and varied body of children there aren't a few who find the interpreting task too difficult of frightening, and we would like to know why (personal reasons? institutional reasons?) and what can be done to help them.

2. A distinction must be made between effects that are specific to translating, such as (perhaps) increased verbal intelligence, and 'side effects' such as friendly relations with other children. The latter might be accomplished by everyday behaviour or being good at football.

But these are quibbles about a very praiseworthy initiative. The mystery, to me as a translatologist, is that no studies have been done either of YI as a movement or of individual young translators. There is a large and varied pool of subjects waiting for you eager beaver researchers.

Astrid Dinneen (ed.) Young Interpreters Newsletter, Issue 22, 26 January, 2016.

NPIT3, Winterthur (near Zurich), 5-7 May 2016
International forum for Non-Professional Interpreting and Translation, the latest paradigm in translation studies.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Machine Translation Comes of Age in Canada

The law in Canada requires that all Federal Government documents written in one of the two official languages (English or French) be translated into the other one. That means millions of words of translation year in year out. For five decades the Government of Canada has been seeking ways to speed up the work and reduce its cost by using computers. I know because I worked on the National Research Council of Canada's first attempt at machine translation (MT) way back in 1966. There has been one outstanding success, the METEO system for translating weather bulletins, but it has very limited application.

Now the spread of MT software like Google Translate and Bing Translate and the improvement in their quality are obliging the Government of Canada Translation Bureau to take a leap forward or be made partly redundant. According to the Bureau's CEO, Donna Achimov (see photo), government employees log over a million uses of Google Translate each week. A proprietary MT system called Portage is scheduled to be made available to 350,000 Federal Government employees on April 1. A pilot version is being tested, not without criticism.

Of course the human translators are up in arms, worried ostensibly about the quality of the translations but in reality more about losing their jobs. The professional association to which I belong, the Association of Translators and Interpreters of Ontario (ATIO), has written to its members asking them to make their feelings known to the minister responsible. Here's how I have responded.
Machine translation (MT), for all its many imperfections, is here to stay. Rejecting it is like King Canute trying to hold back the tide. If public servants are not allowed to use the Translation Bureau's MT device they will simply turn to Google or Bing Translate, which are available for free. They are already doing so right now. Indeed one wonders why the Bureau is going to the expense of developing its own system when the ones just mentioned could be adopted and improved for less.

That said, there are real dangers in people using MT who do not understand its limitations and who are not themselves bilingual. You just have to try using the current systems to see their shortcomings - hence the complaints that have already been received. The state of Maharashtra in India has barred employees from using Google Translate in the wake of of an embarrassing Marathi mistranslation it caused them of a circular for imposing sedition charges (see References). So caveat emptor! ATIO should press for some precautions:

1. MT translations should always be headed by a notice, "To save time and expense, the following translation has been produced by computer and is not guaranteed against meaning errors or poor language. If you have any queries, complaints or suggestions, please contact Client Services of the Government of Canada Translation Bureau at [email address] or [phone]."

2. The official who commissions or produces the translation should accept responsibility for it by signing a docket to that effect and filing it

These precautions would IMHO make users think and have more effect than would opposition, Certainly more effect than protesting that some translators will lose their jobs (which is no doubt what the government would like). At least some of the displaced translators would find new work as consultants and correctors.
Marion Marking. Cats and dogs trigger machine translation row in Canada. Slator, 8 February 2016.

Faizal Malik. Maharashtra govt bars employees from using Google Translate. Hindustan Times, 14 December 2015.

Donna Achimov, CEO of the Government of Canada Translation Bureau

Why Portage? Canadians think of it as a Canadian word, coined first in French from porter meaning to carry and then borrowed (with a slight change of pronunciation) into Canadian English. The fact is the word has been around in English for centuries, but it may be necessary to explain it for modern readers. In Canada it means the old practice of carrying canoes and their loads across a land barrier between two rivers or lakes. Hence it is a metaphor for overcoming the barrier between two languages.

NPIT3, Winterthur (near Zurich), 5-7 May 2016
International forum for Non-Professional Interpreting and Translation, the latest paradigm in translation studies.