Feb 28, 2009

What's busy?

Ken Fagan, a French to English translator, made an interesting comment in a recent forum discussion:
At the risk of making an obvious point, a translator who averages 5,000 words/day is clearly going to find it much more difficult to keep busy, week after week, than a translator who translates 2,500 words/day.

Personally, I define "busy" as the total number of words I'm offered (= total number of words translated + the approximate total number of words turned down).

With all the to-do about busy or not busy, business good or bad in all corners, I think this is the first time I've heard this particular quantitative perspective brought up. I suppose if someone used to churning out 4,000 words a day only finds 3,000 on offer, there may be concern, whereas a person able or content to do 2,000 words a day will still feel deluged. I think my own perception of "busy" is probably a lot in the sense I understand Ken's own definition. It's not just how much I do, which may be a lot or a little, depending on my personal choices and other commitments, but also how much I turn away. Saying "no" in a professional way can also be time-consuming; for me, it often involves careful consideration of the work calendar, consultation with my partner, counterproposals and often detailed alternative recommendations. There have been days when "no" involved far more work than the actual translations, because basic courtesy requires some response to valued clients and strangers who approach you politely.

That's how I see it. How do you define "busy"?

Feb 27, 2009

No saving needed if you work with Déjà Vu!

The following question arrived by e-mail a short time ago from a new user of Déjà Vu X:
When I save the project file, is everything saved, or do I have to also save the translation memory file?
Here was my answer:
Save the project file? How do you do that? You won't find a Save command under the File menu. It's actually a database of sorts which autosaves every few seconds or so and every time you exit a segment cell. And if you have your settings done right, the segments are written to the TM immediately when they are marked finished (on Ctrl + down arrow). So no saving necessary - that's one of the best aspects of DVX compared with Trados or Star Transit. You can lose a lot of work in those if you forget to save. With DVX, the worst that can happen is you lose one segment in a crash. (Assuming the project file is not corrupted, and if it is, most of the info you need is in the TMs and termbases anyway!)

As it turns out from a later conversation, what she was really interested in was advice about backing up DVX resources. That's a very good question, which people answer very differently.

My personal approach is to save everything. This includes the project (DVPRJ) files. The "official" reason is that my understanding of German laws is that it is wise for me to archive this project resource, preferably in a manner compliant with auditing standards. The real reason is that it makes my life easier very often to be able to look up old projects as they were set up, re-check word counts and match statistics, rescue a lexicon that I forgot to export, etc. I find the project file to be more than the sum of its parts in many ways and worth saving or backing up.
Of course, other important resources like TMs and termbases should be backed up, but that goes without saying.

Feb 25, 2009

Proofreading Trados jobs with the free version of MemoQ

The other day I was asked by a friend at an agency to review a few points of linguistic dispute with an end client's proofreader. It wasn't one of my translations at issue, thank God, because although it wasn't horrible, it did have a few things in it to make one cringe. But as I talked to my friend about the project, I realized that the problems went far beyond quality, and some of the problems lay with a lack of technical preparation on the part of the reviewer to deal with the translated files efficiently, so there was a great deal of manual work involved in incorporating legitimate changes.

This friend and I have been arguing about CAT tools for years. He's probably the best expert I know for Trados, but there are a number of technical challenges we've faced from time to time where DVX would have done the job better, usually avoiding a nasty problem. The inability of the proofreader to modify the TTX file from the project under discussion was another such case. If the agency had a copy of DVX, the translated TTX could be read into a DVX project, then exported as an RTF table for a proofreader working with nothing more than a word processor. Or a satellite project could be created for use with the free DVX Editor version. That is in fact what may happen next time, though whether the agency will get a DV license or whether I will process the project for a small fee is still up in the air.

After a rather long phone chat, however, another possibility occured to me. MemoQ can also read pre-segmented TTX files. Or bilingual Word/RTF files for that matter. So theoretically a reviewer could use the free (or the licensed) version of MemoQ to correct uncleaned Trados files. I'm not one to let a theory remain untested for long, so I tried it and it works.

There are a few caveats. With the current state of MemoQ, I think the DVX approach is better, primarily because the RTF tables and satellite projects allow comments to be shared efficiently. I keep bugging Kilgray about this point, and I'm told it's "in the works", but I'm the kind of guy who needs to stick my fingers in the wounds before I'll believe. Given the progress of MemoQ over the past year, however, there is good reason to hope. The current free version is actually not a bad tool. It is limited to one file in a project, and has other limitations, like no importing of TM material for a self-created project, but in general, one can use a lot of the MemoQ features and get a pretty good idea of what it's like to work with the program. I'm running the free version, because despite Kilgray's generosity in extending my multi-month test license several times, I haven't finished evaluating the program to my satisfaction. (I am also waiting for exportable comments. Make me believe, guys!) When the ever-patient Istvan offered to extend the temporary license yet again, I decided to do penance instead and see how far I could go without a license. In fact one can do a lot for no money, almost enough to make me want to shell out for a license (which costs less than DVX). But not without exportable comments! And preferable an editable RTF external view feature like DVX too.

In any case, I have a lot of translated TTX files, so I started importing some of these into MemoQ Free v 3.2.10. Each file as a separate project (that's the limitation for cheapskates). In a few cases, I experienced crashes in the set-up dialogs; TTX files from some "top secret" Open Source experiments were indigestible (but OK with Trados), and clicks in the "wrong" place probably precipitated other crashes when trying to import other TTX files that I know are 100% OK. However, most of the time I was able to import the translated TTX file, proofread it, make changes and export the modified versions. Without being able to export the comments I made in the MemoQ project. Nag, nag. Still, this is the only option I am aware of at the current time which enables someone to edit a TTX file in a tag-protected environment, do basic QA, filter to compare similar strings, etc. etc. and export an edited TTX file all for free. Not bad, really. This could open up the possibility of a few extra emergency editing jobs to put cash in the pockets of starving, technology-poor reviewers and help agencies out of a bind if the only editor that can be found isn't a Trados user.

While I was on a roll, I thought I would take a look at uncleaned (bilingual) Word/RTF files. That works with MemoQ too (free version). Just like the procedure I've published for editing these files in DVX, one must search and replace the string '<}0{>' for No Matches and change the zero to '01' or some other fuzzy score. Otherwise the target content will not be shown.

So MemoQ, even the current free version, is an effective tool for editing uncleaned Trados files, just like DVX. Kudos to Kilgray for creating this viable, if limited, option and making it available to the translation community at no cost. If some of the stability issues in the import routines can be sorted out and the exportable comments implemented, I think MemoQ will become a killer app. On the subject of exportable comments, here's a suggestion for Kilgray, or Atril too for that matter: when exporting comments associated with a TTX file or files, there should be an option to generate TagEditor comment files for the individual TTX files. I doubt this is hard to implement, and it would make the workflow between agencies which use Trados only and translators who use MemoQ or DVX for Trados projects even better.

Feb 24, 2009

Finding your stopping point in the Trados jungle

In a recent online discussion, the question was asked how one could determine the point at which work stopped the night before when working in Trados. A number of suggestions were made. I rather cheekily suggested doing the work in DVX so the bookmarks feature or even the program's memory of the project's scroll status could be taken advantage of, another person suggested using the Workbench feature for changing the colors of translated text (only applicable if translating with the macros in Word) and most had some scheme in which they would type a bunch of nonsense characters, insert their dog's name or whatever. I'm always a little skeptical of adding nonsense text because I might overlook it if I'm tired. I know this should not happen, and it never has, but I'm paranoid.

The "winning suggestion" in my mind is to use the comments feature in both Word and TagEditor. These comments are easily found and removed later and do not disrupt the text. Kudos to Marie-Claude Falardeau, an English to French translator, for that suggestion, which I had overlooked in all the baseline noise until the ever-astute technowizard Ben Pischner pointed it out.

Feb 23, 2009

If you can't catch the drift, get out of translation!

Given the current economic situation in the world and the climate of nervousness it has inspired, it is not at all surprising that translator forums are dominated by "how are you doing this week?" threads or the darker "are you ready to eat your dog, too?" discussions. This is not to make light of the real difficulties which some are experiencing for whatever reason; the situations in different language pairs and different fields and different market segments are so diverse that generalizations of any kind - including those of the doomsayers - are pretty worthless. I'm sure plenty of my pronouncements fall in that category if you try to apply them outside of my language pair and target markets. 'Nuff said.

In one recent "how are things in your language pairs" discussion, the responses passed along the highways and byways as well as through the gutters of translators' discourse, and when one fellow who is well known for dark generalizations launched into a wandering diatribe based on a complete misunderstanding of comments I had made, which ended with
Kevin Lossner wrote:
Of course, that statement may not be much comfort to someone lacking the cash cushions recommended for a freelancer (me, for instance), but it's still better than irrationality.

I am a bit confused here, because your phrasing was not very clear to me:

1) Do you mean other people were not methodical enough to enjoy the cash cushion that you have, and you wish to remind everybody about that?

2) Do you mean you don't have the cash cushion either? But you wrote earlier that you were making so much money that you don't find the time to write your invoices.

Could you be more precise about that please? In normal language also, please.
another translator observed:
With all due respect, Kevin's use of language is perfectly 'normal'. In fact, I'd go as far as to say it should be perfectly understandable to anyone with a proper command of English, especially someone translating from it.
Which raises an interesting point. I have noticed that quite a few of the flame wars which erupt on public forums are based on a misunderstanding of language. If a German-Russian translator misunderstands a point in English, I tend to shrug and try again patiently to explain a point. But when someone who translates from English requires an English text to be at a grade school level in order to grasp it properly, at some point one must ask the question what that person's true calling must be. Not all clients are stupid, and if it is noticed that a translator consistently fails to understand a source language text, it should not be surprising if clients lose faith and move on to other more expensive but reliable service providers. Especially in these hard times, the price of amateurism is much too high.

Feb 19, 2009

Onward and upward

Things have been rather more hectic than usual for the past week and a half with travel, projects and more projects and an unpleasant fall on ice. As a Southern California boy from the hot, smoggy San Gabriel Valley, I have a great appreciation of rain and snow, but I don't think anything will ever make me love ice.

The past week has been personally interesting to me for the pleasant surprises that some unexpectedly productive collaborations have brought. Today I was very surprised and pleased to learn that some suggestions I had made regarding a certain Open Source CAT tool have been implemented in a proof of concept. Too bad that it's too early for announcements, but I find the whole matter very exciting, not the least for the huge economic implications this may have for some translators. And I do find it very pleasing that some people take the time to do such things when they stand nothing to gain in a material sense. It puts some of us money grubbers to shame.

Feb 14, 2009

Tables for estimating job volumes

Anil Gidwani is a software engineer and German to English translator. Like me, he's fond of analyzing data and finding or creating tools to help him plan his business. One of his recent efforts in this regard involves creating Excel tables to show the relationships between weekly translation volume, word price and income as well as weekly volumes, the number of words per job and the number of jobs per month. A description of his efforts as well as the two tables can be found here.

Such quantitative analysis isn't for everyone, though for those who prefer more than a guess and a prayer in their planning it can certainly be useful. And as "obvious" as the principles and content of these tables are, I never made the effort to build the tables myself, because I usually calculate numbers like that in my head. However, seeing all the data in a well-organized table is more helpful. Thank you, Anil.

Feb 13, 2009

Talking about what works

Having grown somewhat tired of online discussion threads in which worried translators resonate with each other over their concerns about the world economy and their extra capacity in the past months, weeks, day or even hours in a manner all too reminiscent of the wind and the former Tacoma Narrows Bridge, I decided to start a discussion on ProZ.com regarding what seems to be the reasons for the continued success of some translators in difficult times. Some of the reactions are to be expected, including the objections of some who find the idea of discussing anything but trouble offensive or who think that success is all a matter of "luck", but there have been some rather interesting points raised, and I'm curious to see how the discussion develops. I've gleaned a number of useful ideas from the responses, which I'll be thinking about in the weeks to come.

Some people appear more interested in sympathy rather than solutions, which is, of course, understandable. But sympathy won't pay the electric bill. The public woe-is-me routine also exposes the individuals involved and others to a greater likelihood of disrespect and exploitation by present and prospective clients. Some clients have already tried to put the thumbscrews on translators in interesting ways; one I found especially "entertaining" was a claim by an agency in Europe that many translators had volunteered lower rates because of the "crisis" and more should follow suit. No comment on that one except to say that if anyone wants to negotiate a lower rate for my electric bill, a lower interest rate on my mortgage and other loans, lower prices for the same quality of vegetable and meat and... well, that will be enough I suppose... I will give that person some super-favorable rates and probably a big bouquet of flowers as well. For all others, I'll just offer my best work at a fair rate.

I am in a very fortunate situation so far. I have a language pair with a huge demand, I have in-demand specialties that represent a big chunk of my host country's industry, and I live in a country where my source language is the official language. Not everyone enjoys these advantages, so I find it entirely plausible that some very good translators who have been successful for years and have reasonably good business models (for the past at least) are experiencing difficulty now, even if I see no evidence of trouble in my own situation. Anyone can be caught off guard by events - in recent months, the "experts" have ended up with egg on their faces too often to count. Discussions of "fault" are really beside the point, though analyses of why certain difficulties may exist or how they might be addressed are entirely relevant. And whether "fault" is a word you want to use if nothing changes is something I'll leave up to you, Dear Reader. But I am rather fond of the saying that "a good definition of insanity is doing the same thing all the time and expecting a different result." If the old ways don't work in the new world situation, obviously one needs to find new ways that do. It's so obvious that it would be insulting to say it if so many people were not too dense or insecure to accept that basic principle.

I'm a really big believer in Darwinism as some may realize from another rant here. But I don't subscribe to the so-called Social Darwinist views of some who have a rather different view of human evolution and survival. I think it is important to note that human populations stayed rather small through most of our evolutionary history. Life was not only nasty, brutish and short, but the scope of social contact was rather limited. Only when humans began to organize into larger groups were significant improvements in wealth, living standards and life expectancy achieved. Cooperation and specialization made survival possible on a scale that was unprecedented in earlier hundreds of millenia of human history.

Translators would be well advised to leverage these Darwinist principles and engage in behaviors that promote their survival and well-being, by cooperation, information sharing and positive mutual support which includes looking for new ways to cooperate with and support clients to help buffer them against potential trouble. Let's skip the destructive discussions, and for those who really insist that public breast-beating sessions about how desperate their situations are (which, of course can be and are being read by clients), I would like to remind them that rope is cheap, but cooperation and adaptation have a better future.

Feb 6, 2009

How big is your pond?

Richard Schneider recently posted some interesting statistics for job postings on the German translator's job mailing list U-Jobs. Not surprisingly, translations involving English are at the top of the list with about 35% with French and Italian distant second and third with 13.6% and 6.9% respectively. German to English translation accounted for 23% of all jobs posted, while English to German offered only half as many opportunities. These and other statistics can certainly go some way toward explaining the very different perceptions among translators of the "market situation". You'll find a lot more fish in a big pond, and even in hard times, a good fisherman should do OK.

This is just one set of statistics for one forum, a set of data I chose particularly because of its relevance to me as a resident of Germany with the majority of my business transacted here. I don't follow the list myself (though I may at some point in the future), but I'm interested in data that shows what may be going on. Mr Schneider posted other U-Job statistics with which he seeks to demonstrate that the crisis has hit the translation market in Germany, but I see the data in a little different perspective than he does. Mr. Schneider probably considers me one of the "Zweckoptimisten" to which he refers elsewhere, but I in turn find his contention that rates will remain stagnant until 2012 to be unfounded. He points to the bursting of the Internet bubble and the decline in translation volume as indicative of things to come (only worse this time), but my experience of that downturn taught me something else.

Before the dotcom bust I was translating IT manuals in my free time as often as I liked at good rates despite the fact I was rather inexperienced on the whole in the field of translation. If I wanted a computer-related translation, more than 50% of the time I submitted a quote, it was mine. Suddenly, however, things changed. A couple of big customers got bought out and the IT market in general went to Hell. I think I can count the number of computer-related manuals I did in the two years after than on the fingers of one hand. Prices that were once easily attained in that sector were suddenly often "too high". Did I starve? Did my rates drop? No, in fact when things really got bad, I asked to be laid off and started freelancing full time. I just shifted my business focus as a translator to other specialties for which demand remained strong. Demand for my services has remained strong overall since then, though certainly there have been shifts in demand for various areas.

Where the world's economies are headed in general over the next few years seems depressingly clear even if there is debate about just how bad things will get. However, I do not see this as an inevitable indication of individual fates. If you are standing in the middle of the road watching a bus hurtle toward you, it might seem inevitable that you will be hit by the bus. Or you might just get out of the road. Change your approach. Find new ways to do things. Or don't. If times get really hard, some people may depend on road kill for protein.

Feb 5, 2009

The importance of using machine translation

It's been a hard winter in the Berlin area these past few weeks. It was bitterly cold, and the accumulated snow and ice on the forest paths made walking the dog more than a little hazardous. As the weather turned warmer, a new hazard arose: ice on the roof began to fall off in large, heavy clumps. This morning as I was about to walk my dog, I was struck on the head by a large chunk. Fortunately, the blow wasn't too bad, and I've fully recovered my senses.

After carefully observing the increasing cost pressures on markets worldwide, considering the Great Economic Crisis that now has us all in its death grip, the steady improvement of machine translation over the years and the level of quality offered by most translators, I can now authoritatively state that machine translation is the right option for those who understand the importance of speed and cost-savings up front and don't mind spending a little or a lot afterward on the occasional lawsuit for failure to comply with various domestic laws on product documentation and safety. I think that MT could have especially interesting application for public signage to discourage things such as unnecessary travel in these hard times.

And, of course, editing a machine translation is far more gratifying than editing the work of a human! Really! One often sees the same stupid mistakes (though mistakes by the computer tend to be more consistent, thus easier to correct), but human translators get upset and still insist on getting paid for their shoddy work. A machine has far less ego (Hal excepted), and takes such correction in stride. Some in fact, such as Google Translate, will take your feedback and try to do better in the future. Now how many translators can you say that of?

Another good translator's site: foxdocs

I really need to look at the web sites for some of my business partners more often. In recent weeks I have found that a number of them have done complete makeovers of their online presentations, all of them major improvements. While I was transferring data to my new administration system (TO3000 for now, though it's looking like we may upgrade to Projetex for multi-client access on our network), I had occasion to look at the site for a lovely lady in New Zealand, Jayne Fox, with whom we have enjoyed a very pleasant business relationship for several years. My partner deals with her most of the time, because the texts she offers as an outsourcer are exactly what Monique likes translating most. I'm just the poor sucker who puts together the complex quotes, proofreads and writes the bills. Some girls have all the luck.

Jayne and her team are specialists for medical translations. I sort of knew this, but I didn't actually know how focused her business really is in this area. Well, the company's site makes this very clear. The design and navigation are clean and good, and the information is well presented, but the reason I wanted to highlight the sight is that it is rather unique for a small team of freelancers to be this obviously, publicly focused. Even my favorite "competitor" for chemistry translations does other things (and does them very well). I think Jayne's focus is bold and good and most likely contributes to her success. This is an excellent example of the kind of specialization that is often encouraged in our profession. And at least from what I have seen from her, this really is where the business is focused. The aesthetics aren't bad either, though Jayne tells me she cobbled it together herself with her own minimal HTML skills. Hey, she did a better job that I did, and I used to have a day job developing web applications and interfaces!

But all the pretty presentations and focus mean nothing if you don't deliver what you advertise. And she comes through very well in that regard.

The Wealthy Freelancer

It's been another one of those weeks where I've had too much to do translating and writing bills as well as frittering my time away arguing with frivolous Frenchmen in public forums. (One of these days I'll let the prophets of doom drown in their own self-pity, but I dislike the fact that they distract innocent novices from focusing on necessary skills to survive as freelance translators.)

However, I have had a bit of time to explore, and while doing so I discovered a real gem: "The Wealthy Freelancer", a blog for advice on successful freelance careers. I hate the title of the blog, and it really doesn't seem to have much to do with the actual content. The title sounds like some sleazy "get rich quick" promotion or maybe something creepy and Amway-like, but the posts have a lot of sound advice. The comments are very good too, at least those I've seen are. Check it out! (It will go into my list of recommended blogs visible here.)