Jun 30, 2009

D-Day for a fellow linguist

Today Lt. Dan Choi, a West Point graduate and Iraq War veteran, will face a military court martial to decide whether he will be given a dishonorable discharge for "moral and professional dereliction" under the US military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.

Lt. Choi is an interpreter whose service has been critical to the safety of fellow soldiers as well as of the civilians with whom they interact. I find it amazing that a government which is so short of the skills he has continues to kick men and women out of the military services simply because they live honorable lives which differ from the majority.

Many of my fellow citizens are proud of the opportunities and protection that the US offers to persecuted peoples from around the world, unaware that these are often matched or exceeded elsewhere. However, in many respects there is an openness which cannot always be found in places offering greater legal protection or material support.

Nonetheless, while it is now considered unacceptable to discriminate based on skin color or religion, discrimination based on sexual orientation is still anchored in US statutes, policies and practice. This is no longer acceptable in a modern society. It never should have been accepted, but we live in the present, and now is the time to stop the nonsense.

I should have posted this earlier. Please support Dan Choi by adding your name to this petition now and send a message to the cowards in the US administration that change cannot wait. With more than 75% of US voters in support of gays in the military, what are they waiting for?

Jun 26, 2009

Belarc Advisor

Shortly after I started this blog I reviewed Jost Zetzsche's Tool Kit newsletter. I subscribed to the premium edition for USD 15 per year, and every two weeks or so a copy of it shows up in my e-mail inbox. There's always at least one item - sometimes in the "premium" content, sometimes in the "regular" stuff - which in my mind pays for the whole subscription. Good tips aren't all that easy to come by, and I consider Jost to be a high quality "filter".

Today's 143rd Tool Kit edition had a lot of interesting commentary and one hot tip that is extremely useful to me. Check out the free Belarc Advisor, a tool which does an excellent job of profiling your PC's configuration. I won't give a long explanation of what it does - Jost covers that in his newsletter and the Belarc site gives the rest of the details you might want.

Every two weeks I get useful advice like this. It's a bit like Christmas when the newsletter arrives. Except that Christmas hits my bank account a lot harder and isn't nearly as helpful. (Call me Grinch, but I'll take good tips on TEnT tools over a second helping of turkey and stuffing any day.)

Jun 21, 2009

"Translators being treated like cattle"

The blog has been quiet for a while, because life and work have been very, very busy, but there is an accumulation of topics which will most likely find extensive expression as soon as I am well enough rested to form coherent sentences and structure them in logical paragraphs. Until then I suppose I'll tweet or twit or whatever it's called.

I've also not been in the habit of reposting or referencing the many discussions with which I am involved elsewhere. Mostly because the translation community is fairly small, and the bunch participating in translation blogs and online forums even smaller, and we often read the same stuff and understand the references without making them explicit. All rather incestuous and probably confusing to others.

I'll make an exception this time, not so much because this thread is in any way exceptional - it's really just another typical whine/rant about rates - but because I'm vain and want to re-emphasize my point. That's what blogs are often about, right? No one with a notion of free expression imprinted by a youth spent under junta rule can censor me here.

The title of the thread on ProZ is "Translators being treated like cattle". Like many such threads, the lines of discussion crossed the map as a kindergartner with a crayon would, so I got out my blue crayon and scribbled along.

Referring to extremely cheap translation work of deficient quality, a Canadian colleague made the following probably valid point:
There may be a market segment for this, but it is unsustainable. If you can get a gist translation at no cost through Google, why on Earth would somebody pay for a human gist translation?
I expanded on this in my usual peripatetic way as follows:
Indeed. You make a good point.

I'm not very impressed with the results of MT, but they are indeed not much worse and sometimes better than what I have seen from some persons who attach the label "translator" to themselves. Regardless of the person's formal qualifications or lack thereof, in the end what really matters is quality if the customer needs more than a dicey gist translation. And quality is a concept that is simply beyond the reach of many, including some who utter the word often. I must inevitably think of cases like an agency I know that is registered as compliant with EN 15038 but does not in fact document its processes and despite multiple passes of editing/proofreading (by non-native speakers of English) usually delivers translations with significant defects that have disastrous implications for a patent filing. Same old, same old - just another job. As long as the client doesn't notice and pays on time, everything is right with this picture, isn't it?

I don't often gloat. It's a nasty habit, and I think it's personally demeaning, even if one does have enough self-control not to let it show. However, I must admit that I am having a hard time at the moment not crowing a particularly delicious victory for quality and holding the line on rates... As I have mentioned a number of time before, my preferred business model involves a very large portion of work through agencies. I do this by choice, because good project management saves me time that I can devote to other things, and the chaos of some end customers tries my rather short temper. However, all agencies are not created equal, nor are all of them blessed with equal foresight and negotiation skill. Whenever I hear a statement like "you're our most expensive translator", I worry. I don't worry about me, because if they go elsewhere to get a bit more margin, they are free to do so, and their place will be taken by someone paying a higher rate overnight. I work with my set of agencies because I like the relationships; the price is usually secondary, and for the ones who grumble the most often not high at all. No, I worry about the future of that agency which is otherwise supplied with cheaper translators. You see, I'm really not that expensive, and my colleagues who deliver equivalent quality are usually priced far higher. There are exceptions to this, and I recommend these exceptions whenever I can, because I want my customers to have a bargain, even if that bargain is elsewhere.

But this continual focus on price, price, price by agencies is a form of suicide that many do not yet fully recognize and probably will not until the noose is tight and their feet are dangling without purchase. There is a particular category of translation which I do only a little of but which I particularly love because of my good memories of a small farm I once owned in Oregon. When something agricultural comes my way, I can hardly wipe the grin off my face, even if the text itself is a technical bitch. If it is marketing, I can often tap reserves of creativity that I forget about when I do other work like patents. I simply love the stuff. So I was happy to do it at my lowest rate from one of these companies that tells me I'm their "last resort" because I am "so expensive". What, pray tell, is cost really? Over the years I saw less and less of this work though my rate remained unchanged to this agency. Of course they used cheaper translators, but all English translations were rigorously reviewed by a native German speaker who often tried to correct my English. After I while I saw no more of this work, which rather saddened me. But I refused to budge on price. Why should I? My other clients generally paid much more.

Well, after seeing nothing from this end client for over three years and doing no business with this agency for something like two (mostly because we're busy, though also because they call us only as a "last resort" due to our "high rates"), I was approached by the end customer through an intermediary consultant. At first I thought it was a joke, and I admit I was quite rude and dismissive. (A neighbor boy recently came in to my office to ask if I wanted to walk the dogs with him and caught me in the middle of a telephone tirade to someone who wanted a short deadline and a discount. When I hung up I had the deadline I wanted and a punitive rush surcharge, and he went back to his mother - a fellow DE>EN translator - afterward and said "Mummy, your problem is that you're too nice. You need to be rude like Kevin and your customers will pay you more." I was rather embarrassed, though the boy was right.) This intermediary asked a lot of things that usually cause me to tell people to go to Hell, including free sample translations, a particular pet peeve of mine. I gave him four years worth of work for the client and offered my personal glossary for that company instead. No dice... he still wanted the freebie, which did *not* improve my mood. In the end I submitted the sample and came out on top of a field of carefully pre-screened candidates, screened by a man who actually knows what he is doing and does it at one of Germany's largest corporations. Now I'm looking at as much work as I want directly from a client whose products make me feel like a five-year-old at Disneyland, and I wish I weren't too fat and old to do a backflip.

What about the agency? Well, I called them, because at first I thought someone was trying to poach their client, and I thought they should know and have a chance to take active measures to keep the business. The problem though - as I was told by the end customer's consultant - is that they simply could not deliver the quality required for top-quality products. I liked that line. I'll remember it the next time I'm asked to translate for the Maybach line

The herd says that all the markets are price-driven. Tell that to the folks who produce Kobe beef. The herd says that the only way to stay competitive is to keep prices low. The herd is getting hungrier but still insists on this self-destructive principle. And the market takes no pity. Cattle are indeed for slaughter.

Jun 5, 2009

Clearing the air

This morning I came down to the office and made the same unpleasant discovery as the day before: my sick dog Ajax, who sleeps in a box next to my desk, had fouled the box again. After reminding myself that it's time to write some invoices so I can afford to set up a proper kennel for such times in the back yard, I went about the unhappy task of cleaning his sleeping quarters, a task which fortunately went quickly. However, there was still a rather foul stench in the air, which was not conducive to rescue.

That's where my Pro-Aqua PA03 came to the rescue again. It's a vacuum/blower system that uses water instead of filters and produces an entirely different atmosphere while cleaning. I won't go into all the details, because I'm a scientist and a translator, not a vacuum cleaner salesman, but after discovering this piece of equipment at a dog show last year, I decided that it would be a good addition to our office cleaning arsenal.

No filters or bags may sound like a convenient selling point, but my experience tells me something different. It's important to clean the water chamber in the device after use (the next day you'll have a very nasty brew in it if you don't!), and dumping it into the toilet once or twice a day (we vacuum a lot, because I haven't put grass in the yard yet and a lot of dreck gets tracked in) is a nuisance where I wonder how my pipes will deal with all the sand. Swapping bags in the old Miele vacuum cleaner is a breeze by comparison. So why do I put up with the nuisance? Because it gives me a cleaner, more pleasant working environment and improves the room humidity on dry days (which counteracts the static electricity). As a vacuum cleaner, the system cleans well, and it blows humidified air out its exhaust which is free of the particulate I get from the other vacuum cleaners in the house. (A white paper towel over the exhaust grid is revealing.) It's quiet - the material being cleaned up does not pass directly through rotors, so mechanical wear is limited. But the best part for me is that the room smells nice: the air is exchanged, and most odors remain bound in the awful soup in the water chamber. In the time it has taken to write this, my office smells good again without opening the windows more than a crack. On days when the dogs are afraid to approach us, because they'll get a static shock (days that are possibly a hazard to the sensitive electronic equipment most of us depend on), we run it to humidify the air and eliminate the shocks.

A room humidifier and ionizing air filter would probably do a lot of what I like about this machine and do it more quietly, but I haven't gotten around to getting one of the former and we can't get replacements for the filters for the latter device, which was bought in Oxford a number of years ago to help my partner survive her hay fever. If the German market offers small units of this type I haven't been able to find them in nearly a decade of searching. One occasionally finds "XINJI" brand ionizers advertised through eBay pages or reads woolly-headed articles in crackpot health pages that babble on about negative ions, yin and yang, energy balancing and other questionable stuff, but none of them point me to a shop where I can walk in and plop down 50 euros for a device to get rid of the dust, pollen and pet flatulence in my office. In England I could do just that. My great-aunt had one of the things in California in the 1980's, and I could sit at the same table with her while she smoked, and I experienced no discomfort. So why can't I find one of these here in Germany? No idea. All I have found is arguments about how they are unnecessary or unheard of. Like they say here, "gut Ding braucht Weil".