Jul 30, 2010

Juggling formats

Juggling formats has probably been an issue for translators since ancient days when the various media of stone, clay and papyrus required different tools and sets of skills. And the Babel of formats has only gotten worse over the millenia as any practicing translator knows instinctively. It often seems that the portion of time spent on actual translation diminishes as customers submit documents with insane mark-up schemes that require graduate studies in formal logic to sort out. Some time ago, I published a little PDF guide on preparing MS Word and PDF files with content to exclude, i.e. cases like when a customer asks you to "translate only the green text, proofread the hot pink text, pray for the red text and ignore the rest". I thought I had pretty much covered all the cases when last night I received a help request from a charming colleague who had read the instructions but still couldn't sort out what to do with her particular project. It was actually a scenario I had described - copying text to translate from one column into another and hiding the original source column - but in her case, only the green text in the source column had to be copied over for translation with a translation environment tool. Minor variation on an old theme.

But there are sooooo many of these variations. I had one yesterday that had me baffled. Three simple Excel spreadsheets that refused to import into memoQ. I was really baffled by this one until Kilgray's support department offered the following explanation and workaround:
Hi Kevin,

As far as I know this error message occurs when embedded tables are present in the Excel document. At the moment unfortunately memoQ cannot import the files you have sent us in this format. I can suggest two workarounds in this case:

- You can convert the embedded tables to ranges, please check out the following guide:

- You can save the XLS file as Excel 2003 XML format in Excel, then this XML file can be imported to memoQ with the Excel2003 filter. After you have exported this XML file you can save it as XLS in Excel.
These suggestions work, but by the time I got the timely response I had already gone another way copying table content into MS Word, the re-importing it to Excel via OpenOffice to avoid getting messed up by line breaks in the cells. All a bit complex and time consuming, all of it an unwanted distraction from what I would much rather do: concentrate on producing the best translated text I can.

I have about 38 years of IT experience of various kinds, though for much of that time computers played a supporting role for other interests. But still I'm reasonable good at sorting out data migration puzzles, format nightmares and the like give a little time to ponder matters (though, alas, in our profession, time is one element that is often missing). However, lately I am often hard put to find solutions for some of the crazy format challenges presented. And if I find things a bit nightmarish, what must others with less geeky histories be experiencing? Something is definitely wrong with this picture. More than webinars, training courses and dummy books is called for, but I can't say what. And the high priests of complexity, the witch doctors who make a good living as consultants from other people's confusion, see the problem as a opportunity... and perhaps that is part of the problem.

Jul 24, 2010

Alex Eames saves a life

Alex saved a fox tonight; I was so engrossed in reading a draft of the new version of his advice book for translators that I didn't see Meister Reinecke until he had finished off the tasty stink bait and was headed for the bushes to get out of the rain. Taking a netbook to the raised blind isn't conducive to hunting success it would seem.

The new themes of the book are found to some extent in the material of his recently revived tranfree newsletter, but there was a lot of other useful new content as well as interesting online media statistics. Although I suppose I could almost be counted as an "old pro" by now (well, "old" at least), I finished the book with a nice little to-do list of changes I need to make in my business marketing. Like earlier versions of his book, this one doesn't make any enormously surprising points if you are blessed with a little basic common sense, but it offers a nice, digestible summary and reminder list that can help brush the dust off the glasses of "old pros" whose vision of the profession has gotten a bit obscured. And the book is as useful as ever for those starting out in the profession. An earlier version was probably the best general advice I received on getting started and was worth in practice about two orders of magnitude more than I paid for it.

There are so many good points in the book that caused me to make a note to myself that I wanted to write a blog post on the subject. Simple, powerful stuff like the discussion of client acquisition costs and the high value of repeat business. Sure, it's "obvious". But how well have some of us learned that lesson if we are still inclined to turn the cannons on customers in difficult situations which, if handled with a bit of grace and intelligence, could be used as opportunities to reinforce one's professional reputation and increase customer loyalty? I've earned a few demerits there this year as I've dealt with reorganization stresses and other issues, and reading Alex's clear exposition on the subject was a fine and necessary mental Kur in a very real sense. The discussion of translator CVs (résumés) is another point which is discussed often, but the guidance of his clear examples will be a great help to many I think. It also reminded me that I need to trim half a dozen pages or so from mine... something I have been aware of and intended to do for a decade now as soon as things slow down a bit :-)

No idea when this year the book is scheduled for release, and some important additions and revisions of the content are apparently still under consideration. But the structure of what I've seen and the updates to the content make this book as relevant to survival as a freelance translator in today's market as the original editions were when I started translating full time. The markets for translation are indeed changing in some interesting ways now, and I think that this new edition of the book will be a valuable mixture of timeless good advice and strategies for staying of top of a rapidly evolving global situation that affects many translators. If you aren't already a tranfree subscriber, I recommend signing up for the free newsletter so you won't miss the release announcement later this year.

Jul 22, 2010

The end of agencies?

I had an interesting conversation with an agency owner tonight. He described how representatives of various agencies in a certain non-European country have been making the rounds here lately with larger agencies and companies offering technical manual translations with two rounds of proofreading for about half of what I typically charge for translation alone and about a third of what this agency typically charges. The frustration in his voice was clear as he talked about one project after another with 20,000 page volumes that get sucked up by these rajahs of translation who have armies of highly skilled translators working night and day at their keyboards for about 80 euros per month. "Really?" I asked. "Where do they get the skills to do this?" "Over here," he said. Now I'll admit that I haven't spent much time on German college campuses lately, and I only occasionally visit German software and engineering companies in person these days, but when I have had occasion to do so I haven't noticed a lot of people from this magical land of Fearsome Cheap Translators acquiring the skills here that would be necessary to make sense of the average crappy source text that I see from a German patent lawyer, a Swabian automotive engineer or a Frisian wood-burning stove specialist. Perhaps my old eyes can't penetrate their clever disguises of body paint in European skin tones and those ever-so-clever Kaiser Wilhelm false moustaches. Perhaps I am just in deep denial; a spectre must indeed be haunting the halls of agencies as one after another talks of contracts and opportunities lost on a scale that I with my modest earnings can scarcely imagine.

Perhaps, I thought, it's time to go to law school. There is surely a great future for litigators when those Boeing repair manuals translated by moonlighting elephant trainers for one cent per word show their worth and tons of metal rain from the sky.

In the past few years I have heard from many cherished agency customers that for their customers price is all that matters and they must play the "emerging country outsourcing game" to survive. I'm sure that's why I haven't seen any translations for the Maybach line from Daimler in a while. Some guy in Laos is surely doing those German marketing texts better and faster.

Despite all I've heard and the well-grounded commercial reasoning to explain this "inevitable" trend, the words "live by the sword, die by the sword" keep coming to mind. Substitute price for sword. Feed the beast with Trados-inspired discount scales that bear no real relationship to real effort in most cases and it only gets hungrier. Fail to communicate what real value you may add and don't be surprised if it isn't appreciated. Deal with people who are unable to appreciate the qualities of languages they haven't mastered and at the same time fail to build relationships of trust, real partnerships, and you might as well be casting pearls you-know-where.

I asked if this Fabled Land also had a stable of superior translators for Czech. Apparently not. Yet. I suppose the Lithuanians are safe for a while too, though they should watch those Cambodian tourists carefully. They might be on a mission of linguistic espionage.

I think one of my friends from this country will be in town in the next week or two, and I'll have to ask him if I've missed something. If there is in fact a gold rush in his country I hope he gets a few good pans full at least.

But these apocalyptic tidings reminded me of another prediction I heard some months ago regarding the End of Agencies, and I think that there is indeed something to this particular forecast, at least for the long term. It would go nicely with trends I have observed with larger companies and insourcing of translation project management functions again.

With the growth of online networks and databases for translators, editors, occasionally project managers, it is becoming easier for companies of all sizes to make direct contact with service providers for the language and skill combinations they need. Portals like ProZ or Translators' Café have serious disadvantages, of course, because it is often hard to determine the reliability of those advertising services until one has tried them, and sometimes there simply isn't enough time available to do a thorough evaluation. However, the growth of quality-evaluated networks promises to change that perhaps. ProZ has made some fitful efforts in this direction, but at each stage the usually reasonable efforts of the site have been met with howls of protest from the trees. More promising, perhaps, for companies looking for reliable service are evaluated networks intended primarily for agencies, such as the Quality Translation Network from I've seen this system from the inside for several months now as I've worked with the company on documentation, localization and administration issues. I've used the evaluation system for service providers myself a few times and see how the ranking system works. And it occurred to me that an "end customer" with a regular need for translations might just as well join such a network with an inexpensive SaaS account and directly access quality-evaluated data on all the roles needed and build a team dynamically for specific projects. Take provider X for one role, provider Y for another and specific freelance editors or translators for other roles. Feedback from satisfied or dissatisfied customers on a project manager's performance in complex multi-lingual projects might avoid many expensive mistakes.

Far fetched? Not really. When it comes to top quality, often the agencies are competing for the same small pool of service providers. I don't get sent the same specialist text by more than one agency every week, but it's happened a few times over the years, and more than once I've heard from someone who is asked by agency Y to edit his translation done for agency X. And that in common language pairs. It really is a small world.

Give the premise of a small pool of truly top individual service providers in a free market, a reliable quality evaluation system is a potential gold mine for quality- and cost-conscious corporate translation buyers. Will such systems arise and evolve to the point that the translation agency as we know it will be as dead as the dodo in our lifetimes?

Jul 18, 2010

Choosing a blog software platform

Since starting my translation blog in late 2008, I've launched two others reflecting my personal interests with dogs and the experience of hunting in Germany. I don't update the others nearly as often as I could or probably should, because I need to reserve a little of my non-working time for eating and sleeping. But these other blogs have been very useful for gathering personal experience in how to work with certain blog software and what to avoid.

Having worked with other types of content management systems in the past, I find that blogging tools are relatively easy to master and offer a better alternative to most static HTML-based sites. Informal tests I have conducted show that content posted in a blog environment is indexed better and faster than on sites with older designs. This means that CVs, descriptions of services offered, etc. will probably get viewed more often by potential customers and business partners. The wealth of widgets and plug-ins available for different platforms also offer a lot of flexibility for customization and experimentation.

One thing I've learned is that some mechanism for filtering comment spam is critical. There are many different mechanisms practiced for comment vetting; on a number of translators' blogs the practice seems to be "once approve, always passed through". Others (like me) check every comment, though if I do find a "white list" function somewhere in the tools for this blog, I'll certainly add most of the regular respondents for administrative convenience. What I do try to keep out are spurious comments or self-serving links that add nothing useful to a discussion. On the one blog I operate without comment spam filtering, I get dozens of trash messages each day like the one show here. The purpose is to add a link to a scam site for gambling, drugs or other undesirable things. I don't see that on my translation blog - Google's Blogger environment filters garbage like that out quite effectively - nor do I see it on my dog blog, because the filter plug-in I use has been very effective.

My time to deal with technical troubles outside my main revenue-generating activity (translation) is very limited, so I appreciate the convenience of the hosted solutions. As far as I know, I don't have the full control over every aspect of the format in the same way I do with the two Wordpress blogs hosted on my own domains, but then perhaps I do: I can modify the HTML code of the template here directly if I am inclined to do so. And when I decided to change the URL for the blog to a domain name I owned, it took about ten minutes to arrange the switch; old URLs are forwarded automatically. And dealing with graphics (adding photos, screenshots, etc.) has been generally easier to manage than with the two blogs where I have "more control".

The Google platform I use also appears to have good facilities for creating migratable backups of the templates and content. If I were interested in fooling around with "monetizing" options like AdSense or Amazon, many of these are already integrated in the infrastructure and are simple to implement. That's not something that interests me much, as I lack the time for something that I consider deadly dull, and if I want to generate cash there are more interesting ways to do so. My rare flings with such things are either experiments or a deliberate endorsement of a company whose products I feel are beneficial to translators (like the AIT links currently in the sidebar and at the bottom). Nonetheless, for those with an interest in such things, I think there is less work involved in setup and maintenance if you use someone else's infrastructure to the greatest extent possible.

That feels like a strange recommendation given that I programmed and developed applications on mainframes, desktops and web environments for about 30 years. And I'm sure that a number of people I know and respect will be able to explain very persuasively why I really should tinker with every last bit of the configuration for the blog myself, but they remind me a little of my friends who always called me an idiot for not building my ow PC from individual components. I listened politely to the criticisms, made lame excuses about a lack of time and went back to work on my functioning systems while theirs seemed perpetually out of service due to endless compatibility problems and hardware failures.

I think each of the "canned infrastructure" solutions available for free, such as Google's Blogger, Wordpress (hosted) and TypePad have particular advantages that may fit an individual language service provider's needs better or worse. It's worth experimenting with several briefly to see what feels right, though I have no hesitation in recommending the solution I use for this blog as a simple, effective communication platform. It's far from perfect, but it's good enough, and I don't have time for more.

Jul 17, 2010

Take out the garbage!

We all need to do it once in a while so the house doesn't stink too badly. The same goes for online information: the accumulation of stale, irrelevant, obsolete and undesirable infotrash that accumulates really stinks after a while, and I don't imagine it's particularly helpful to one's "professional brand". Before the beginning of this year I had a sense of nagging irritation about outdated profile information on various portals where I had once registered and then forgotten because they were of little or no value. Worse yet in my mind are the portals that "register" me without my permission, having scraped the data from elsewhere. Social media sometimes remind me of a social disease with their harmful promiscuity of errors and obsolete data.

But the worst offender, as it turned out, was The portal is very good at getting its content indexed by Google; for years this was a real advantage to me, because it made my CV and my profile prominently visible in various relevant online searches and brought in a lot of interesting project queries. Then I started participating more in the forums several years ago as part of a research effort on common software user habits and problems, and things began to get out of hand. The first time I really became conscious of the amount of garbage tagged with my name which ProZ spread on the Internet was when an old friend tried to look me up on Google and found that my name autocompleted almost as soon as he started typing my surname. There were nearly 60,000 Google hits associated with my name! That seemed excessive, even for a compulsive blogger and commentator like me. Then I had a look at the individual entries and noticed that the same forum posts were being indexed separately for a zillion languages. Korean. Hungarian. Estonian. And so on. The information I wanted people to find about me was being buried in a huge pile of virtual trash. I felt I had to take action.

Although for years I had made it a point to use my real name on the public portals, because a serious business person does not hide behind aliases in my opinion, I promptly changed the name displayed for my ProZ profile from "Kevin Lossner" to "KSL Berlin". There were other reasons for doing this, but the main motivation was to take out the trash and give "real" information more visibility. My real name is still displayed on my profile and CV there, which are the main areas of interest for me. I would recommend a similar approach to all those who maintain profiles on that site and wants to avoid having their online information buried in irrelevancy. Now the 60,000 hits have dropped to under 9,000, most of which are old forum contributions where someone quoted me or referred to me by name. Although to judge by the recent unexplained imposition of vetting on my PrAdZ posts I'm persona non grata there, staff have not yet done me the favor of expunging my name from the electronic records as good Stalinists might do with history books.

After the "purge", my Google record is more or less as I would like it. Of the top the hits today, there are really only two that I don't feel belong there, from a "bingmusic" and a "pipl" site that seem to have lifted data without permission. Most of the hits in the first few pages point to reasonably current, relevant professional information.

If you haven't done a "health check" on the online results list for searches with your name, I encourage you to do so, and if you find a lot of unhelpful stuff in the most prominent hits, think about how you might change that.

Road kill in the fast lane

Life in the fast lane
Surely make you lose your mind
Life in the fast lane, everything all the time

-- From the Eagles' song (c) 1976 

It's a bit frightening how the theme of a silly pop song inspired by an out-of-control ride with a drug dealer has become a description of the reality of life for too many today. Everything all the time. Always connected, always available, 24/7 at work and at your service. For what?

Certainly not for quality and even less for mental and physical health.

Bob Herbert, a New York Times columnist, advises that we "tweet less and kiss more". I couldn't agree more. Now if only I can convince my lady of that....

This post was originally inspired as a response to or affirmation of Corinne McKay's commentary on the importance of downtime. In it she referenced an article from Science which described how time off and rest is essential to creativity.

My own experience has had numerous incidents that illuminate the role of rest in creativity and productivity. My start as a programmer of scripted applications for the Macintosh years ago came after I told a friend that a jigsaw puzzle would be too difficult to program on the Mac for her three year old. I shut off the computer, went to sleep and woke up at 3 am with all the code dancing in my head. Hyperpuzzle was born and enjoyed some use in rehabilitation and recreation with image sections scrambled, rotated and mirrored through two axes. My invention of the first UV-blocking silicone material for intraocular lenses came from an inspiration I had while nodding off in a really boring organic chemistry lecture at USC. Patentable breakthroughs in my research with radiation-curable adhesives came when I blew off the lab and went home to wash dishes or wander the halls of the LA County Natural History Museum and look at dinosaur bones.

The list of evidence is much longer than that, more likely because I'm getting old and not because I'm more creative than my peers. (I'm not, but I am slightly less crazy than some.) Very little work of which I am proud has resulted from a frontal assault on the problem. Rested, indirect paths inevitably lead to a better result.

This holds true in translation too. Am I the only one who finds that a text flows better and my translation has more rhetorical polish in the first draft than it would after two re-writes if I just walk away from it for a while and look again with fresh eyes? Or am I the only one who sees the deadline-driven mass production quality-be-damned-MT-will-soon-be-good-enough approach to translation as a deeply poisonous thing?

If you have no work, a deadline isn't usually a bad thing, and schedules are important and unavoidable to plan our activities in some reasonable way. But too seldom is a distinction made between important and arbitrary deadlines. To one person "important" might mean having the translation on the day before he leaves on holiday so he can lie rested on the beach for a month knowing that the text is awaiting him upon return. Or perhaps the person assigning the job can demonstrate great efficiency and competence and impress her boss by having another person turn the translation around a week sooner than she might be able to do with her busy days. No explanted heart on ice here awaiting the translation of instructions for how to implant it in the patient lying on the operating room table now.

If you have work - lots of it - and do not have the wisdom to leave off calculating all your time as a financial asset, you may eventually find the value of that time deteriorating in proportion to how much of it you invest in work. At extreme levels of commitment that deterioration appears to follow an exponential function.

Quality is worth its price. Rest promotes quality. Work less and charge more. Discerning customers will be grateful.

Jul 8, 2010

Divided by a common language

It happened again today for the third or fourth time this week, possibly the tenth time in the last month or the hundredth this year. A call from a stranger at a strange agency:
"I have a document that urgently requires translation into English. Can you do it?"
"Good question. Your guess is as good as mine. What's it about? Why don't you send me the text and I'll let you know."
A few minutes later the text arrives. Several small documents on automotive technology. Easy stuff, unless...
"What variant of English did you have in mind?"
"Uh... I don't know. British English I suppose. The customer didn't say."
And you didn't ask, either, you git, I thought. Ooops, scratch that. I'm American. Make it "you idiot".

One would think that language service providers would be aware of the important differences between language variants in English, Spanish, Portuguese and a host of other languages about which I know very little, because I don't pretend to provide service for all the world's languages, just from German German and occasionally from the Swiss variant into US English. San Gabriel Valley English to be more precise, with occasional bits of Oregon country thrown in for rustic flavor. We don't use no spanners. Boots are for wearing on feet, preferably with spurs, and bonnets are mostly out of fashion, except with the occasional surviving grandmother. So we don't do no steenkeen British automotive texts, because we pity the technicians in the UK who wouldn't understand a lot of it. Just like my auto mechanic in California wouldn't get far with a British repair manual most likely.

Now there are some fields and situations where I'm not too uncomfortable trying to follow British conventions for spelling, though I won't even pretend to know much about the peculiarities of insular punctuation or the rich British vocabulary one absorbs between floggings in school. What I find more disturbing is that the project manager never thought to ask the customer about the intended use of the translation and the preferences for usage. I recently did a certified legal translation for a client and sent it off for checking by a few pairs of eyes at the agency before producing the final stamped and sealed official version. The corrections came back - lots of them. One was legitimate, a typo I had missed I think. The rest was my beautiful American legalese defaced with British spelling. I went a bit nuts over that, in part because I don't know a thing about contract language and legal conventions in the UK, and the use of British spelling in this case might imply that I do. My choice of contract language in English is governed by my linguistic and cultural background as well as the guidelines for clear language in contracts taught in California law schools like USC in the late 1980s. This time the decision to mess with the text was based on an internal agency style guide that used British conventions. Once again, no one ever thought to ask the customer what was really needed.

Perhaps I'm old fashioned to believe that knowing the intended use of a translation and the variant of the target language to satisfy that intent is a fundamental requirement for professional service in most cases. If there's even a chance that British English is called for, I'll probably fend off the query and send it elsewhere. And I do admit to a certain secret delight in sending the prospects trotting off on a pilgrimage to find a competent British translator, armed perhaps with a few e-mail addresses and telephone numbers from me. Everyone wins: the prospect will probably get a translation, someone I know and like might get an interesting bit of work and make a new business acquaintance and I don't have to give another English lesson when I'd rather be burying fish heads in a meadow to bait the foxes.

Jul 4, 2010

New rates from offer lower outsourcing management costs

The public beta of the Online Translation Manager (OTM) from began in January of this year. The system had been in active use by a small network of agencies for about six years, but the transition from this group with its very specific working preferences and needs to a wider group of language service providers resulted in a number of fundamental improvements and added flexibility, particularly with regard to data input methods and customizing, a process which is ongoing, with major steps taken in this week's upgrade and another planned in about three to four weeks.

At a basic rate of 29 euros per month per PM or administrator login for access to all features of the online system, OTM is a bargain in my opinion. I do find some parts of it a bit cumbersome, and as a single translator or member of a small team, I have a somewhat different view of optimal workflow in some cases than the agencies who have used it for a long time to manage complex, multi-lingual projects, but the better I get to know the system through my cooperation with that network of companies and my workflow documentation efforts for, the more I understand the sense and utility of some features which first seemed irrelevant or obtrusive to me, and the clearer the benefits for small offices or even busy Einzelkämpfer become. My backoffice partner is part of the original network using OTM, so I have now adopted the system to manage all my project work, and I have no regrets. Alternatives would generally cost me more and/or offer me less of what I need and want.

One variable cost which was a concern to small, active agencies working on a tight budget was the fee of 2 euros for each job which was assigned to someone other than the project manager. If the PM assigns a lot of small jobs, this was felt by some to be an excessive burden on margins despite the monthly cap of 300 euros for total costs. (That would be 135 jobs assigned - if 271 euros additional cost is too burdensome with a job volume like that, something is wrong. On the other hand, if these jobs consist of three sentence texts and I'm too timid to impose reasonable minimum charges, I suppose it could be a problem.) I followed those discussions for months with little interest, because I almost never outsource, so my total costs in a given month would never have passed 33 euros in any month since 2000. However, the company takes the concerns of its customers and other interested parties seriously, and this week unveiled a new price schedule offering a "business" package with a cost cap of 49 euros per login per month for an unlimited number of assigned jobs. Details can be read here. (Access to the system is free of charge for customers to submit quote requests or download jobs, invoice copies, etc. or for service providers to whom work is assigned.)

For a complete management system for translation workflows, internal and external service providers, files, financial records, etc. with secure uploads and deliveries and access anywhere via the Internet, 29 or 49 euros per month isn't bad at all. The costs and services provided are laid out quite transparently and are easy to understand and plan for.

I appreciate this transparency, because I have experienced quite the opposite with some well-known alternatives for SaaS or intranet solutions, including the Open Source software Project ]open[ Translation, which is "free" but basically impossible to get configured completely without hiring the consultants who created it. The Project ]open[ Translation documentation sucks, and the database and web programming seem particularly vulnerable to unintentional monkeywrenching. On the site for another well-known solution, if one follows the "How to Buy" link there isn't the least bit of price information that I can find. If I were to pursue that by contacting the company, dealing with the sales dance and so forth, I will have wasted enough time to pay a year's fees or more for OTM. So for now, I think I'll stick to a simple, honest system that works, lets me check my project status and inquiries from anywhere, and if I ever go completely nuts and start subcontracting like crazy (ain't gonna happen, so hold those unsolicited applications, please), my costs won't break 50 euros per month. I can buy that.

Related posts:

A customer's view of OTM

Re-sending e-mail to OTM

Jul 2, 2010

Xtreme tech!

For some time now I've been wanting to say a public thank you to a favorite client of mine. I have to use the indefinite article in the previous sentence, because I am blessed with some truly wonderful clients, both agencies and direct customers, each of whom is special in a unique way. Thinking of these people gives me a boost many times when my nerves are frayed from too much work, too many phone calls or the elements of chaos which can sometimes find their way into a less considered freelance lifestyle.

I have a bit of a reputation for technical competence, some of which is actually deserved. But there are a rare, few individuals that it is my privilege to know whose technical depth goes well beyond mine and whose extreme competence and greater generosity have enhanced my business and rescued me from some seemingly impossible technical messes.

Ben Pischner, the owner of tectranslate KG in Tübingen, Germany, stands out among the technical experts in the agency world. Time and again in the years I've worked with him, he has stepped in to save the day when Trados issues strike which baffle your average SDL support tech and most other "experts" with that platform. His creative approach to problems often involves programming custom macros on the fly to sort out appalling formatting issues like the horrible mess I described in my "Foolish Tools" post. His clients are most likely seldom aware of the amazing work he does behind the scenes to take some of the ugliest source source files I've seen and make them much "translator-friendlier". He is also extraordinarily attentive to the important details of compatibility in processes which involve a mix of translation environments. He has caught a number of flaws in my interoperability strategies over the years and contributed a lot to improving them or at least inspiring caution where due.

Just as outstanding as his technical skills are Ben's personal qualities. Arrows don't get much straighter than he, and the real concern he has expressed for end customer value and fairness in his dealings with translators on too many occasions to count over the years has given me absolute confidence that his company will always make its best effort to get things right and most likely succeed. And although his educational background would not lead one to suspect it, he's also one of the finest proofreaders I know in English, despite the fact he's a German.

For agencies in need of a partner in projects who can safely cover your back in technical matters, it would be hard to find a better man than Ben. And for translators without tails who like a personal touch, total integrity and a fun, competent team, tectranslate is an excellent agency to work with. This company punches far above its weight, and the care and skills of Ben and his staff, including their rigorous commitment to quality control and careful selection of resources, are the best guarantors of knockout quality for those in need of well-managed projects and top translations.

Jul 1, 2010

Results of the June translation tools surveys

At the end of May I discovered that a new widget had been added to Google's Blogger tools, which offered me a simple way to conduct single question polls. I had been wanting such a feature for a while, so I promptly tested it with a poll on translation tools used (the one on the bottom in the graphic at the left) and followed it a few days later with a question on the number of tools used routinely when it occurred to me that they were a number of others like me who make routine use of multiple tools. As I see it, the responses to that question are also important when considering the significance of responses to the other question. The initial trend of the results remained fairly constant throughout the month, even with a large surge in responses after Alex Eames kindly mentioned the polls in his last tranfree newsletter.

Over 40% of respondents use more than one translation environment routinely. (Astute readers may note that the percentages don't add up. Google's programmers are obviously fond of new math or at least screwy rounding and truncation.)  This would include people who actually translate in multiple environments as well as those who use environments other than their favored one for project preparation and QA. My partner is a good example of this latter category; she uses "classic" Trados all the time to export TMs and terminologies provided to her, pre-segment Word/RTF and TTX files for translation in Déjà Vu X or memoQ and to perform tag QA on TTX files. Probably a few other things too. But after she learned the benefits of more modern translation environments, I would risk singing soprano if I suggest that she actually take up translating with the Trados Workbench macros or TagEditor again. Maybe I can get her to look at SDL Trados Studio 2009 one day, but first I think I'll take up something safer like mud wrestling with crocodiles.

The 8 to 12% of respondents who indicated that they use no translation tools is probably well under the true figure in our profession. My blog tends to attract readers with an interest in the technology of translation and not so many who like to contemplate flowery phrases for translating obscure poetry (too bad, really - that's more my taste, but first bills must be paid). But since one of my intentions in creating these polls was to get an idea of the technology interests of my readers and perhaps choose some future topics to reflect these interests, I'm not really concerned about an accurate representation of the full population of translators. The profession is simply too diverse and fragmented for me to care. It's interesting to see that I belong to the 1% of nutcases that use 5 or more tools - I can hear I told you so on this one already from many quarters. And I like to think I'm not a nerd. Einbildung ist auch 'ne Bildung.

In the poll on specific tools, I received some criticism for not including certain tools under a category more specific that "other". As you can see, with a grand total of 15% other, I'm probably not missing much there. When I see interesting minor tools I'll certainly mention them if I can do so with some knowledge, but I don't have the time to offer the extensive expert surveys that you'll get from a guy like Jost Zetzsche and his Toolkit newsletter or book on computer skills and tools for translators.

I probably also should have split the Trados part of the question into at least the new and old generation of SDL products, but I simply didn't think of this until a few days after the poll was running, and I decided to deal with that issue in a follow-up question another day (and I have - see the poll in the left sidebar, which will run until August 1st). This is also relevant to me, as I'll be exploring the no-longer-so-new Studio 2009 version more in the future. (Why call it 2009 still when you release the service pack that actually makes it work in 2010?) It may run like a lame pig on many machines, but I do like some of the interface elements a lot, and it's the best program on netbooks I've used as far as critical parts of screens and dialogs not usually getting cut off.

If the poll statistics even roughly approximate the real distribution of tools among commercial translators, then the perception that "everyone" uses Trados is certainly not even close to correct. The greatest share of licenses is certainly for some version of Trados, but if one considers the number of people who use it as I do primarily for some of its filters and to prepare projects for clients who ask for Trados uncleaned deliverables, then the percentage actually translating with Trados will be far under 50%. This is a point well worth considering for those who want to use the most qualified translator for a given subject: statistically, the odds are against you if you insist on Trados use. It's far better to design projects in a tool-neutral manner as far as practical and let the translators work with whatever they feel most comfortable with. The importance of using the best qualified translator for a particular subject rather than the first monkey with a particular tool in his box is one of the reasons why I like Déjà Vu X and memoQ so much: the RTF table exports from these two tools allows projects to be translated or edited by anyone with a modern word processor regardless of the source format. Every translation environment tool should follow the example set by Atril and Kilgray in this respect.

It's also interesting to note that "major" tools like Star Transit and Across only have 6% of respondents claiming use. Anyone who tries to insist on a translator using those tools is playing a very bad hand.

The main conclusion I draw from these data is that give the diversity of tool use among qualified translators, it is more important than ever to design and test our processes for true interoperability and to drop the religious insistence on the use of One True Tool, no matter what that tool may be.

But that's just my initial reaction to the data. What do you think?