Time to slow down

There is a lot of talk suggesting a growing demand for almost instant translations lately. Translators are being advised to adapt their skills and keep up with evolving technologies in order to provide an increasingly speedy service. It is not very clear, however, where this demand actually comes from, or who will benefit from this new approach. So what’s behind the hype?

First of all: I am not against technology in translation. I use a CAT tool to help me provide consistent translations. Fuzzy matches are indeed welcome time savers as I don’t have to look up how I have translated a similar sentence earlier. So I am all for the development of tools to improve my work.

There is a difference, however, between using a tool to provide better translations and post-editing an automatically generated pre-translation. What is the purpose behind the latter: is it to provide a better translation or to provide a quicker translation? And is a quicker translation a better translation for the client?

Back to basics: what exactly is a translation?

There is a clear consensus that a translation is more than a transfer of words from one language into the framework of another. Translation is not only about vocabulary, grammar and syntax (“the mechanics”) but also about voice, purpose and style (“the spirit”). There are cultural aspects, target readerships and customer specifics to take into account.

When translating a text, we carefully assess the register and writing style of the source text in order to create a translation that reads like a genuine text in the target language while reflecting the style and evoking the same effect as the original. We make a myriad of decisions and choices based on our knowledge of and feel for a language – something a machine is not yet able to do, and probably never will. Translation is an intricate creative process, not an off-the-shelf commodity.

Do we really need to reinvent the wheel?

A machine translation transfers words, sentences and structures from one language into another using ever more clever algorithms. The mechanics may be there, but the spirit is missing. Therefore it is, strictly speaking, not even a translation. Of course, machine translations have their place. For someone who just wants to quickly get the gist of things, they can be useful indeed. But with regard to the process of a true translation, the key question is: why replace something that works perfectly well – the skills and expertise of professional translators – with something that cannot reproduce the same quality and thus needs editing?

Especially at a time where we still have to educate potential clients and the wider world that a translation involves more than just copying words from one language into another, I fear that we are not doing ourselves and our profession a favour if we jump onto the bandwagon of producing ever quicker auto-suggested post-edited machine translations.

Who says quicker is better, anyway?

Good-quality products take time, so how can it be different for services? No one would throw some pre-formulated sentences at copywriters to produce advertising copy quicker. No one would suggest a few diseases to doctors upfront in order to speed up the process of diagnosis. Why not? Because prompts can actually hinder creative and analytical processes instead of speeding them up, and the end result may not be desirable for the client. It seems to me that the only ones profiting from this new trend in translation are organisations that supply technologies that are not helping translators to do a better job but taking the actual job out of their capable hands, albeit with an inferior result.

The future of translation is in our hands

We should ask ourselves what we as professionals actually want to produce and what we want to be seen as. Do we want to produce translations or become machine editors? Do we want to be seen as enablers of good communication, or do we want to give in to pressures of an industry that dismantles the core element of our work and become mere sidekicks?

I think we should embrace technologies we can use as a tool to improve – even speed up – our work because our clients deserve the best possible service. Speed alone, however, is not the solution. Slowing down and taking great care is usually what improves a translation. So perhaps we should focus more on honing our translation skills than learning yet another software programme. And until machines can actually match the quality of the translations we humans already provide, we should take charge of the beautiful craft that is our business.

Proofreading or editing – that is the question

The line between proofreading and editing can seem a little blurred sometimes. However, there are a couple of clear indicators to straighten it out. If you are not sure whether your text needs proofreading or editing, here are some pointers to help you decide.

One way to make a distinction between the two services is to look at what stage of the process the task is performed. Proofreading is generally carried out once the text has been edited and the final version is complete. So it’s editing first, proofreading last.

Another way is to look at what the task actually includes. A proofreader looks for and corrects errors and inconsistencies in grammar, punctuation, spelling and layout and does not otherwise interfere with the text. If there is a need for clarification, the proofreader merely raises a query so that the author or editor can take the final decision. Proofreading generally does not include changing the style or content of a text.

Editing a text (also called copy-editing) involves working on the text to enhance its quality. An editor specifies the overall style in view of the intended readership and alters the text (in collaboration with the author) when he or she thinks that a change is necessary, either for consistency, accuracy or to improve the flow. The editor also corrects spelling and grammatical errors, but – provided there is a separate proofreading process afterwards – the main focus is on the style and content of the text.

With these two indicators at hand – the stage of the process and the actual activity involved – it becomes easy to distinguish between editing and proofreading.

Proofreading and editing translations

Just like any other text, regardless of the language, a translation should be proofread at the end (unless it is for information only) to ensure that the translated text is error-free and consistent. Many translators proofread the text themselves once it is finished or ask a colleague to do so. Being familiar with the techniques of a proofreader is essential here, especially when checking your own text. You can read more on that subject here. For translations that are going to be printed or published it is advisable to employ a second (and preferably professional) proofreader in the target language to double-check the final version.

A translation may be reviewed by another translator with the same language combination, particularly on specialised subject matters. This can be regarded as editing, as it involves checking and, if required, changing the content of the translation itself to maintain accuracy or improve the overall quality of it. Again, this should be done before the final proofreading.

Treat a translation like any other text and you will know if and when it requires editing (reviewing) or proofreading.

It pays to know what you need

To illustrate all of the above in practice, I will conclude with an example that involves all three services: translating, editing and proofreading.

With the rise of machine translations, both translators and proofreaders (indeed sometimes confused in the process) often get asked to “proofread” a text which, on closer inspection, turns out to be a machine translation. The idea to run a free machine translation and ask someone to proofread it in order to use the text as a translation seems to become increasingly popular, but it usually backfires as it can lead to time-consuming and costly consequences.

As we have established earlier, in order to proofread you need a finished text. Depending on the subject and length of the text, this may not be the case with machine translations. More often than not the result of a machine translation is an incoherent and hardly comprehensible text that is difficult to read. What is required here is in fact either a substantial editing service to turn it into a readable and attractive text or a completely new and adequate translation of the original text – the latter often being the more efficient and less expensive alternative. Only then can we think about proofreading the text.

In the end, if you are unsure about the right service for your text, speak to a proofreader or copy-editor – or indeed a translator if you need it in a different language – and ask them for guidance. It is better to establish the true requirements to start with than to end up having to pay for extra services or to rectify a job that wasn’t necessary in the first place. It is quicker too.

The gist of it

Would you buy a product or service from someone you don’t know if you only roughly understand what is being offered?

The answer might be yes if you are on holiday in a foreign country, presented with a variety of desserts you have never heard of in a language you don’t speak fluently. You probably take the risk and try something new. After all, it is not going to cost much and you could get something delicious.

The answer is more likely to be no if what’s on offer is more complex or a serious investment, such as a piece of equipment or a valuable service. In this case we usually like to understand – rather than just get the gist of – what it is before we purchase it.

It is astonishing how often you find companies offering great services or products on their website with a machine translation for people who speak a different language. They clearly intend to look after clients in other language markets. However, would you be attracted to a text which is incoherent and gibberish?

A poor translation can easily put readers off your website altogether. It might even be safer to have no translation instead and rely on the assumption that people understand your language well enough to make a purchase decision. As good as they are for translating single words, machine translations are no match for the human brain when it comes to context and sense.

If you really want to attract customers and get a foothold in a different language market, do it properly and get a translation that works for you, done by a professional translator who knows how to convey your message in the target language and culture. This way you help potential customers understand who you are and what you can do for them. They will thank you for it.