Mar 30, 2010

Alex Eames & tranfree are back!

When I first started translating commercially ten years ago, I had two primary sources of inspiration. One was my old college friend and present partner, Monique Simmer, who had served my medical device consulting clients with excellent translations for many years and who made the difficult transition from my beloved farm in Oregon to the urban Hell of North Rhine-Westphalia (Haan near Düsseldorf) much easier to bear. When I decided to translate in addition to my day job as a systems consultant (which was mandatory for visa reasons), I learned a lot of practical business details related to the German authorities and how to deal with them.

The other great source of inspiration and practical advice was Alex Eames, the author of the well-known title How to Earn $80,000+ Per Year as a Freelance Translator (and yes you can BTW). This cornball e-book full of goofy pictures, interesting anecdotes and first-rate advice on getting started in the translation business or adding life to a dead business is still one of my favorite references, though as Alex admits it's time for an update. The world changes, and we develop further as people and professionals. Nonetheless, most of the things and all of the basic principles Alex wrote about in that book are still valid, especially the advice on how to stand out from the crowd and earn the respect and love of your customers. It's more or less the same advice you find in any business book that is really worth reading: in our business, Oleg Rudavin and Corinne McKay say many of the same useful things in their own voices, filtered by their own cultures and lives.

Alex also published a newsletter called transfree, which was also loaded with great advice for freelance translators. The very suddenly, this source of information was silent. I knew there had been some changes in Alex's life; I remembered the birth of his child and something about building a house. Having been through all of that myself ten years earlier, I could understand all too well how he was probably too busy to write. But still I missed the advice from someone I considered a mentor of sorts, though our communication had seldom been direct. So when after registering on the new translators' networking site langmates I received a message from Alex, I was pleased to see that he was still involved in the profession. And I was even more pleased to hear that the issues which kept him busy are now resolved and that he will once again contribute actively to professional development for translators. I invited him to share a guest post with the readers of Translation Tribulations, and this morning I received a contribution from him, which I would like to share with you. Alex, you now have the podium...

tranfree Relaunch

Having been silent for the last two years, why relaunch now?

Simple answer. I’ve now got something to say – something worthwhile I hope. For the last few years, we’ve been having a fairly tough time and I’ve not been in an ideal place to be inspiring to others. One of the things I used to love about the emails I would get from tranfree readers was that they said they found it inspiring and helpful. It’s hard to be inspiring when you feel distinctly uninspired yourself.

Any idea why you felt like that?

Good question. It was a combination of things really. The life-changing impact of having a child, a building project, the cumulative effect of a few years of working too hard, the need to uproot and care for a dying family member for a couple of years, coping with the Polish health system, dealing with the consequences when my father-in-law died. Basically – life got in the way. It happens. If I had to sum it up I’d say burnout coupled with family crisis.

So are you inspired again now?

Actually yes. I started updating “How to Earn” a few weeks ago and, although it took me some time to get into it, the process kick-started me again. Often in life you read something you wrote last year or a few years ago and you think “that’s rubbish – I could do it so much better now”, but I really liked a lot of what I was reading and it’s still true (but then, good, sound business practice doesn’t change much year on year). OK, the technology and software bits all needed radically overhauling, but most of the rest of it is still very sound.

Anyway, the whole process has been very therapeutic. It’s good to look further afield than one’s own personal issues and do something to help others. That’s something which is all too easy to forget when times get hard and you switch to survival mode.

I’m not quite done yet, but in researching for the ebook update, I came across all sorts of issues that are facing translators today and felt inspired to write an article called “How to Kill Your Translation Business”. A rather negative title, but the content is designed to show mistakes that I feel freelance translators should try to avoid. And although the title is negative (it’s a headline designed to grab attention after all) the article is meant to be helpful.

I was amazed to see Wendell Ricketts’ article last week – a good few days after I’d written but not yet published mine – some of the sentiments expressed are very similar. I really enjoyed his article. I like articles that entertain and educate at the same time. It’s what I try to achieve. I think we can be too serious sometimes. Your blog sometimes makes me giggle, Kevin, so you’re not guilty of being overly serious.

So how can we access tranfree these days?

Anyway – the traditional email edition of tranfree goes out tonight (30 March 2010) to all those who are subscribed ( There’s about 25,600 on the list but I suspect maybe up to 30% of those may have changed email address in the last two years. But it’s not all about email any more. There’s an HTML version (, a PDF version and even a podcast now – and the obligatory RSS feed too – and I almost forgot – I’m blogging it as well (

What’s next for

Easy answer. A total overhaul of the entire operation. Reviewing and updating products, web site, relocating server. But it all starts the way it originally started way back in 1998 – with the original ebook 
Anyone purchasing now will automatically get the new edition when it comes out, hopefully in a few weeks. I’ll probably roll that offer back to any 2009 purchases as well. We’ll see.

I also wanted to thank you Kevin for your encouraging emails a couple of years ago. They made a difference. Sometimes the encouragers need encouraging too, when life gets in the way.

Mar 23, 2010

The state of OmegaT

Some time ago I asked Marc Prior, the head of the OmegaT project, if he would like to share some information on developments with this popular freeware translation environment tool, and he has now kindly obliged. Although I need a bit more for my commercial work, this tool has some interesting aces up its sleeve. I seem to recall it working last year for Amharic, for example, where leading commercial tools bit the dust. Now I yield the virtual stage to Marc....

Those of you who follow this blog will know that one of Kevin's interests is CAT tools and translation memory. In particular, he has gone to some lengths in the past to facilitate compatibility between the various tools available (particularly where Déjà Vu is involved), and he and I have had some long discussions concerning OmegaT's compatibility. I recently pointed out to him that OmegaT had seen quite considerable development over the last year or so, and invited him to take another look at it. Instead, he suggested that I summarize the changes here for readers' benefit. So here I am.

Most (but not all) of the programming work on OmegaT over the last year has been done by Alex Buloichik. A huge number of changes have been made; many are minor but may be very important to some people, such as the addition of a LaTeX filter or support for three-digit ISO language codes. The description below is limited to the most significant changes in terms of new functions.

Some of the features may not yet be available in the “stable” version (which is offered for download by default). Users are encouraged to try what the OmegaT team describes as the “beta version”; the development team takes great care to ensure that the code in this version is also stable (some of the commercial competition could learn some lessons from OmegaT in this regard), and the “beta” status refers primarily to the fact that the accompanying documentation is not up to date.

Notable new features:

·        TransTips: when a term in the current segment is found in the glossary, the term is underlined in the editor pane to draw the translator's attention to it. Right-clicking on the underlined term calls up the available target terms, and clicking on a selected term inserts it into the translation.

·        Selecting text in the glossary pane and right-clicking on it also causes it to to be inserted.

·        Automatic update: changes made “on the fly” to the glossary take effect immediately; it is no longer necessary to reload the project in order to see them.

·        CSV format: the glossary function now accepts files in .csv format, making it easier (among other things) to use Excel to manage glossaries.

·        Stemming: “stemming” refers to the process whereby words (in the source text) are reduced to their stems. This enhances fuzzy matching, and also means that glossary terms are displayed even if an inflected form is encountered. The stemming feature (termed “tokenizers”) requires installation of a separate plug-in.

·        Machine translation: if the relevant option is selected, OmegaT sends the current segment to Google Translate and displays the resulting translation in a separate window. Translators can then make of that what they will. For those who love MT, it provides an “instant translation”. For those who think that MT is a waste of time, it provides ammunition!

·        Tags: we all hate them, especially when they don't have any useful function. Where a segment contains numerous superfluous tags, a shortcut now enables them all to be inserted at once (for example at the end of the segment).

·        Dictionaries: a window is now provided in which content can be displayed from external, third-party dictionaries such as StarDict and Lingvo DSL.

·        Translation units: these now contain information on the author and the change date, and can be searched for using this information.

·        Interface for scripting languages: the source and target texts of the current segment are now exported to plain-text files, enabling people with programming skills (even if only rudimentary) to add new features of their own.

·        Performance: various performance enhancements have been made. In particular, data for matching is now computed on demand, rather than during project loading, making project loading much faster.

·        Spelling checker: mis-spelled words are underlined.

Incidentally: the OmegaT project is run by volunteers, and welcomes offers of support, particularly from translators willing to help translate the program, the documentation or the website into their own languages.

Mar 16, 2010

The truth about translation agencies?

My colleague Wendell Ricketts, a translator working from Italian to English, has compiled a list of ten reasons for those in need of translation services to avoid agencies and contact translators directly. I don't agree with all of them, and some apply more to his language pair than mine, but I think they are worth reading and considering. If you represent an agency, consider to what extent these statements apply to your operation or do not. Translators can use them as part of a presentation of their services. End users of translations should consider these points very carefully and determine if they apply to their situation. I will take the liberty of requoting or summarizing each of these points and putting my own spin on them, but I encourage everyone to read Mr. Ricketts' original argument.

I myself enjoy excellent relations with a large number of agency clients. I do not share the hostility that many translators feel toward agencies, and I consider my agency partners to be a vital part of my business strategy. They provide project management and other services for which I do not always have a great deal of time. They are, for the most part, honest and transparent in their dealings with me. And it is very seldom that I feel abused in these relationships, quite the contrary. However, my agency partners are the kernels of wheat that are left after a lot of chaff has been blown away over the past ten years. Considering all that chaff, I must agree with a lot of what Mr. Ricketts writes.

1.          Don’t be fooled into thinking that working with an agency means guaranteed access to qualified translators.
This one really depends a lot on the individual agency. I believe this is certainly true for the major players like Lionbridge, TransPerfect and Tek as well as many others. There is so much trickle-down subcontracting going on there that one never knows what Lower Elbonian will end up doing a translation or review with the help of a ouija board. Cattle calls for translators on ProZ and other portals make it clear that many of these organizations are incapable of recruiting and retaining good translators. It is often instructive to view the posting history of an agency or other outsourcer on various job portals to get a feel for how often they need to look outside the presumed pool of regular translators for new blood or additional help. In general, a large number of postings should be grounds to exercise caution. Not always, but careful examination of the data often reveals disturbing patterns.

2.         Agencies may not use native-speakers of the “target” language.
Absolutely true. But once again, this depends on the agency. I have seen cases of agencies with no competence for English in-house using native speakers of Romanian or Russian to translate from German to English. The results are not always cause for rejoicing if you care about quality. Other agencies I know would never dream of pulling such a stunt. But how is the owner of a machine parts business in some German backwater to tell which agency is lying and which is telling the truth when the claim is made that only a highly skilled native speaker of the target language with an engineering background will translate his technical manuals? If I were that business owner, I would reduce my risk and consult the BDÜ, ITI, ATA or other professional directories and find a suitable candidate myself.

3.         Can you trust the person who edits your project?
Here it is important to question an agencies workflow. Or a translator's for that matter. Over the years I have found that an editing process which does not involve the translator in the final version is seldom worthwhile. Here I am less concerned than Mr. Ricketts about the damage that non-native speakers of the target language can do to the text; I have seen enough idiocy from native speakers to last me for a lifetime. Some of the best reviewers I know for my English texts are native speakers of German, but these people would never dare to alter more than obvious typographical errors without checking proposed changes with me. And I often find their suggestions useful; if not directly usable, they often inspire better solutions. What works here for me is a combination of the right people and the right process. I think this can be difficult in some cases regardless of whether one deals with an agency or an individual translator. However, the chances of a real expert translator's work getting screwed screwed up are greater when an agency is involved. I dropped one of my agency clients after the company hired an idiot German geologist to edit a laboratory report I had translated from German to English. I used to work in a laboratory in California that performed such analyses daily, and as a research chemist I ordered such work often or performed it myself. And that dumb cookie not only thought she knew the science better than I did, she also tried to correct my grammar so that subjects and verbs would no longer agree. And other linguistic horrors, which I have thankfully suppressed.

4.         Why pay more for less quality?
Indeed. Why pay at all? If cutting costs trumps quality, try Otherwise, consider how to get the most for your money. Mr. Ricketts' point about the possibility of saving money by working directly with a translator isn't necessarily correct; I charge most of my direct clients and many of my agencies more than many agencies charge direct clients. However, this buys a level of service that they probably could not receive at the same rate from an agency. Face it: the best talent is seldom available at the rates the discounter agencies are willing to pay. If this isn't apparent to you from the results, then you probably don't know the target language as well as you think you do. If you don't care, bully for you. Your competitor will sooner or later.

5.         Do you really want a “use-and-discard” translator?
Wham, bam, thank you.... Looking at some of the recurring agency postings on ProZ, one cannot help but sense a certain promiscuity and hope that the customers of these lexical whorehouses use appropriate protection. Most of the agencies I deal with do not work this way and emphasize long-term relationships with their specialist translators, but as noted above, it's a good idea to investigate any agency you consider using to see how often they are looking for translators for the same type of project. Ask yourself why this happens so often if the agency really finds "appropriate" candidates.

6 & 7.   Can you contact your translator directly if you need to?
Go read the original post for these points. All I can add is that some translators may prefer a buffer (=agency) if you are not efficient or reasonable in your dealings with them. I usually enjoy dealing with end clients, but when these do not understand that I am not a translation agency, do not outsource and cannot deal with their French, Chinese or Japanese documents, I get a bit put out. Especially when I made the same point the week before to the same person. In most cases, I love being able to deal directly with authors when something is unclear or decisions need to be made. Very few agency project managers function efficiently as intermediates. I am blessed to work with a number of notable exceptions who give me direct access to their clients when I ask for it. If we can't trust each other, there's no point in working together at all as far as I am concerned.

8.        “A little bit of everything” means an agency with no real focus.
A totally valid point that also applies to individual translators. I really love "boutique" agencies like my friends at Translators International in the Netherlands who specialize in just a few areas and build international teams to handle these areas very well. They don't do fashion, and they won't deliver a pizza with your translation.

9.         You can get pizza delivered quickly, too. 
If you find an agency that promises to deliver your 50,000 word job by tomorrow at noon - at any price - be sure to stop by the pharmacy on your way home and buy a big jar of Vaseline. You'll need it to cope with the result. I generally work with honest agencies who aren't afraid to say no and make it clear to prospects that nothing good can come of such scenarios. They care about results and don't feel the need to use red illumination at the entrance to their places of business. But there are many others.... 

10.    Most of what you’ve been told about the advantages of translation agencies simply isn’t true.
Mr. Ricketts is spot on here. Most translation jobs definitely do not benefit from the presence of a middleman, even if some busy translators do (to allow more time for an activity they love and less for administration). Agencies are best used in cases involving the management of complex processes involving multiple languages and complex production work flows. If your company does not have these skills in-house, then your best bet is to find a good small to medium-sized agency. Why not a big one? Because these generally care less about results and often promiscuously subcontract to the lowest bidders in Lower Slobovia and other remote parts of the Earth noted for expertise in major languages like German, French, and English. Even on an international scale, small companies such as the Dutch one I mentioned above or a number of other partners of mine of similar size around the world do a great job with big projects for major corporations. And they care about quality more than the big boys ever will.

However, quite honestly, much of what I see from my agency clients really does not actually require the agent's role. However, in the cases where those agents work with a limited pool of translators whom I know and trust, I am grateful for their intermediate role in taking the pressure off and shifting a job to another well-qualified colleague when I am booked out and stressed. What I don't tolerate is agencies (or direct clients) that like to juggle translations like bananas with clumsy monkeys and then expect me to clean up the squishy mess.

For those who are uncertain how best to use the services of translation agencies or individual translators, the ATA's guide to "getting it right" provides very valuable advice. 

Mar 10, 2010

Life beyond Mordor

One Site to rule them all, One Site to find them,
One Site to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
On the Portal of PrADs where the Shadows lie.
Let's get one thing straight: Henry Dotterer is not the Dark Lord however much some of his staff and a few incompetent moderators like to play Nazgûl. And however much weak-willed translators feel that He holds sway over their lives. But when yesterday it seemed that my business web site and e-mail had disappeared into the Mines of Moria and been eaten by a balrog, I realized that the time has come perhaps to cast the last boat off to other shores. The fact that ProZ apparently had no emergency plan to respond to a failure of its hosting servers and that it took many hours after the initial posts in the ProZ forums indicated that there was a problem is somewhat disturbing. For several years now, I have experienced intermittent problems with mail service on my domain hosted by ProZ, and although this often resulted in the loss of service for specific e-mail addresses which could last up to days (while other addresses on the same domain worked fine), my generally busy life and inertia have conspired to keep my business hosted there. This obviously cannot continue given the further weaknesses now revealed in the system. My brother experienced a similar mail issue recently on another domain I own which is handled by Hosting Matters, and the matter was resolved within an hour. I suppose that's the difference between pros and amateurZ.

Still, there is economically redeeming value for some at The Translation Workhouse, even if the moderator purges and overzealous hypermoderation in the past year have diminished the socially redeeming value somewhat. Community is where you find it, and these days, the community of translators which developed over a decade at ProZ is mostly found elsewhere. The site retains considerable entertainment value if you are fond of historical philosophy and economics as I am (particularly Hobbes and Malthus and their relevance to the "translation industry"), and I still get contacted by the occasional really cool client via my profile. Now that the troublemakers have moved on to other pastures, I am comforted by the predictable litany of complaints about low rates, trouble with SDL Trados Studio 2009, difficulties understanding PDF and even greater difficulties understanding basic business issues like how to write an invoice. Which you can do, of course, with the handy-dandy invoicing tool on the site ("Trust in me, just in me...."). There are some who don't have an issue with waking up in a snake's belly some day. I'll stick to Translation Office 3000 or other solutions, thank you.

Today I got a call from a friend in another country who has relied on PrADs up to now for nearly all her marketing, and she is one of the crowd who have long bought into the KudoZ game to position themselves in the search engine rankings. Her language pair is now beginning to experience the same politics and discord that I have heard of with Chinese and other languages, she's being virtually "stalked" by some nutcase who compulsively disagrees with her answers, she has been reprimanded for being "aggressive" by answering with a smiley, etc. Like many others, she was worried about how to work within that system, "fix" it, make it more "fair" and so on. Ain't gonna happen. Life's unfair, and you're even more unfair to yourself if you rely on a single platform for your livelihood. That's just as stupid, really, as relying on a single client. Spread your risk!

My advice was to move beyond Mordor, let the orcs squabble among themselves and create your own platform for expression and advertising. If you are a Latvian legal translator, for example, frustrated with idiotic KudoZ answers that are chosen over your correct ones, don't eat yourself up with frustration. Rejoice at the opportunity. Start a blog about legal terminology in Latvian, and highlight correct solutions, warn of possible mistranslations, publish brief reviews of special vocabulary for various legal sub-areas, etc. Show that you are an expert in a public forum that is well indexed by search engines, and a better class of clients will find you. Your bank manager will love you for it even if your psychiatrist will miss those weekly sessions. Other translators will love you. One guy did something like this for Swiss legal German and its English equivalents, and although I'm not gay, I'm tempted to kiss him. Swiss German can be a real challenge at times, and there are few good references. Can you say the same about specialties of yours in your language pairs? Yes? Then be the standard for reference!

Mar 7, 2010

Bravo, SDL!

For quite a while now I have criticized SDL Trados for not making a test version of the company's translation tools available for pre-purchase evaluationby potential users. Respectable companies like Atril and Kilgray have done so for years. Even Wordfast does this ;-) Now SDL has re-joined the ranks of companies who make it possible for users to make informed buying decisions based on their own experiences. That's a good thing. With my own limited testing on my cranky old laptop, I still prefer other solutions (for performance reasons among other things), but there has indeed been progress with the SDL Trados product line. And on a new machine some of the things that bug me now might not. I'll save a detailed review for a time when I am more familiar with features and can compare then with other products more reliably, but in the meanwhile y'all can do your own tests with the download available here.

Let 1000 mushrooms sprout

As incompetent hypermoderation and other difficulties such as security breaches and Google advertising display policies at PrADs (which even led to the opening of the Ukrainian office being linked to mail order brides) have continued to put the squeeze on the translator community, sites for peer support and professional exchange among translators have been sprouting like mushrooms after a warm summer rain. It is interesting to note that unlike other translator sites which have been around a while (such as Aquarius, Translators Café and Go Translators), these new sites place little or no emphasis on project opportunities which for many too often mean a race to the bottom on rates. (Personally, I see this differently, but that is a common perception. I find the recent call for a ProZ boycott because of the fact that some are unhappy with posters suggesting rates to be more than a little ludicrous. If I don't like a rate, I'm not shy about proposing a better one. I will admit, however, that when someone asks for my "best rate" and I respond with € 2.50 per line there might be a fundamental failure to communicate somewhere.)

I've mentioned one of these sites already: Watercooler, which is organized by Andrew Bell in Australia. The rate at which this site has been growing is phenomenal, and I've really enjoyed the developments at that site in recent months. Discussions are uncensored but respectful and there is a great community of experienced colleagues there. The Watercooler is not indexed by search engines, and it includes a personal blog feature where the scope of readership can be set by the poster. The site uses Ning as its basis.

Stridonium is another very interesting private site. It's a rather quiet paid site (somewhere between 50 and 100 members at present) with an interesting twist on terminology. I joined about a month ago and am not yet fully familiar with the environment; what attracts me most to it is the caliber of the people there and the fact that it is completely cut off from the search engines.

Then there's the new L10NCafé for the localization crowd. My eyes tend to glaze over when numbers and letters get mixed up without spaces in the same block of text, but if you're into that, it's there. Given some of the people involved with this new site I think it will develop in an interesting direction.

Last but not least in the list of recent social network sites for translators is, launched four days ago by AIT after a brief beta period. It seems to be picking up members at a rapid pace. While I'm sure that there is some commercial interest linked to the launch, I don't see that as a bad thing; I like the beginnings I see. The company makes a nice range of affordable tools for various important tasks that translators face. Although our two-person office has outgrown Translation Office 3000 (because we need online access for two or three persons), I still think it's probably the best all-round, affordable solution for project management, customer records, billing and business analysis for freelancers who don't outsource. So I like the company and I like what they have started with the new network.

There are also good networks for translators that have started recently in South America and probably elsewhere; I'm not yet personally familiar with any of these, so I hope those who are can share some information for others in the comments. In my own part of the world, the BDÜ launched a members-only site that has developed into a very good platform for information exchange over the past few years. The ITI and ATA and others also have good private sites for members.

All of these different forums and portals take rather different approaches which may match the needs of different individuals to very different degrees. And that's a good thing. Translation is a very individual, personal business, and while most of us share particular concerns, there really is no single set of tools or one environment that will meet the needs of everyone. As much as some colleagues like to throw stones at ProZ (and I'll include myself there on the right occasions), it's a platform that helped me a lot in the past and continues to help many others today. Ditto for some of the other "job sites" I mentioned. But there's a lot more, different and often better value out there for those who are ready for it.