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 review? Two often confused terms in translation

Whenever I get asked to ‘proofread’ something that involves a translation, I make sure to ask what the client actually wants me to do. Should I check the translation against the source text to make sure the translation is correct? Or should I check the text for spelling and grammar errors?

The former would be a review (or revision), the latter a proofreading task. These two terms often get mixed up in the context of translation. Confusing these two terms can have unwanted consequences, however, both for the client and the proofreader. So let’s clarify the meaning of both terms to avoid misunderstandings.

Fortunately, it is very easy to distinguish between the two. Just ask yourself how many texts and how many languages are involved in the task:

Reviewing a translation involves 2 texts in 2 languages (source and target)
Proofreading a translation involves 1 text in 1 language (target)

It is important to make this distinction, because reviewing and proofreading are indeed two separate tasks for which two different skill sets – and often two different people – are needed:

Reviewing (2 texts – 2 languages)
Reviewing a translation requires a skilled translator with the appropriate language combination who is able to compare a translation against the source text in order to check if the translation is accurate and adequate for the purpose and edit or correct it where necessary.

Proofreading (1 text – 1 language)
Proofreading a translation (or indeed any other text) requires a trained proofreader who works in the target language, who is not only experienced in spotting grammar and spelling errors, ambiguities and inconsistencies, but who is also trained in the techniques that enable her or him to do a professional job.

What if the client wants both?

Often the client expects the ‘proofreading’ job to include both: review and proofreading. This is entirely reasonable. As a client, you want an excellent translation which is also free of errors and inconsistencies. But to avoid misunderstandings, it helps to clarify what exactly it is you require: review, proofreading or both.

Equally, if you are the supplier of the service, it pays to double-check what your client actually wants from you, as you might not deliver the required service otherwise. And if the client wants both review and proofreading, you either need a translator who is also a trained proofreader or you need to separate the two tasks and employ a translator for the review and a proofreader for the proofreading.

Why is that necessary? For the same reason that not everyone who speaks two languages is a translator – not everyone who knows a thing or two about spelling and grammar is a proofreader. Trust me, I thought I was a pretty good proofreader before I did my formal training, but it opened my eyes. There is a lot more to the work of a proofreader than meets the eye.

Often translators are expected to do both the review and the proofreading task, even if they are not trained proofreaders. As a trained proofreader, I think that’s a risky thing to do, both for the untrained proofreader and the client. So if you are a translator dealing with proofreading as part of your work, be it proofreading your own translation or someone else’s, it makes perfect sense to diversify and train as a proofreader in order to be able to offer both services – reviewing and proofreading – professionally.

If you are a translator interested in some formal proofreading training, or if you would like to refresh your proofreading skills, check out organisations such as the Publishing Training Centre London or the Society for Editors and Proofreaders for their proofreading courses.