The "slot wrench" - Translating outside the comfort zone
Thread poster: José Henrique Lamensdorf

José Henrique Lamensdorf  Identity Verified
Brazil
Local time: 02:57
English to Portuguese
+ ...
Apr 18, 2009

I was recently asked to proofread a technical translation, and its key feature was that whoever did it was outside their translating comfort zone. This dawned upon me when I saw that a flat head screw driver had been translated into PT as chave de fenda de cabeça chata.

The rationale is not so obvious, especially if you don't speak Portuguese, but I'll try to explain.

The universal standard translation for EN screwdriver is PT chave de fenda. The worst of all bilingual dictionaries won't say anything otherwise. However PT chave de fenda literally means EN slot wrench. Okay, it is a fairly good description of the tool, it performs as a wrench, and the screw must have a slot for it to work properly. But nobody in the English-speaking world would ever call a screwdriver a slot wrench!

So far, that translator has made no mistake, so why all the fuss?

The problem is in the flat head. A screw driver may be flat, Phillips, Allen, hex, Torx, plus whatever they may come up with to foil attempted use of the wrong tool. The only screwdriver that will fit a slot is the flat one. As the slot is already described in the PT tool name, it's useless to specify it. Were it an EN hex head screw driver, it would be PT chave sextavada (EN hex wrench).

All this rather circumvolutory reasoning led me to envisage my early attempts to translate medical texts, of course, on clients' requests, and not on my own volition. As a complete outlander to medicine, I would probably use many terms as good as slot wrenches, that would require the reader to take my circumvolutory route back to something that makes sense. This was what made me step out of medical translations (and accounting too) before getting really started.

All competent translators have a comfort zone, where they will work normally. Many subjects, the simpler ones, will always fall within this area for any translator deemed competent. Most experienced translators will have, inside this zone, their specialty focus, in which their skill will be difficult to match for a peer whose focus is elsewhere.

However this comfort zone should have a clearly defined borderline, mostly to keep out what does not belong in there. Of course, you don't know what you don't know, but as soon as you detect something you don't know squat about, there is a good place to keep that: outside the translation comfort zone.

Most outsourcers ask me about my specialty areas. Indeed, it makes sense. Some of them ask about my comfort zone areas, quite fair. But none of them has so far asked me what are my off-limits areas, things I know for sure that I shouldn't be translating with a ten-foot pole.

So some people who have tried and failed translating specific subjects, and even failed to admit they failed (pun intended), go on bravely trying to service any request in these, instead of setting their minds to "either learn it or drop it for good".

Medicine is tricky. Some clients and outsourcers tend to oversimplify the issue, and lure translators into taking such jobs. All right, everyone should try everything once, to discover a new, unknown talent to develop, or else to find a total lack thereof, and drop it forever.

I made up my mind. Let's say it's a text on business management (my #1 specialty), dealing with problem solving and decision making. The case study involves a tough problem, which gives the manager a headache. So far, so good. However if the manager shifts the problem to his headache, and then starts weighing the arguments of taking acetaminophen (aka Tylenol) versus acetylsalicylic acid (aka Aspirin) to make a decision, I'm deliberately off the case!


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Laurent KRAULAND  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 05:57
French to German
+ ...
Perfect! Apr 18, 2009

José Henrique Lamensdorf wrote:

I made up my mind. Let's say it's a text on business management (my #1 specialty), dealing with problem solving and decision making. The case study involves a tough problem, which gives the manager a headache. So far, so good. However if the manager shifts the problem to his headache, and then starts weighing the arguments of taking acetaminophen (aka Tylenol) versus acetylsalicylic acid (aka Aspirin) to make a decision, I'm deliberately off the case!


... especially if this decision involves trying to fit square pegs into round holes (or vice versa)!

Laurent K.


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Astrid Elke Witte  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 05:57
Member (2002)
German to English
+ ...
Yes, we ought not to translate outside our specialities, but... Apr 18, 2009

Good evening José,

I see your point, and totally agree with you. However, some of us do in fact work in fields where we have not much option but to take on all kinds of assignments.

Just to give you an example, I have patents listed among my specialities. This has emerged through the fact that I have been translating for most of the past decade for patent and trademark lawyers.

Initially, I was naturally more inclined to favour translating about trademarks, which is largely a linguistic topic. A few years later I was then enticed into starting on the patent translations.

It began with litigation about patents, and I was provided with the patent itself by way of reference - with the claims already translated, giving me the key terminology.

Then one day came when I was asked to translate a patent itself. Because of the client in question not being an agency, I had no option, so I did. This became my entry into the field of technical translation. More patents followed.

In the meantime I have learnt quite a large number of the regular technical words that occur across many fields, and made Multiterm termbases of them. The particular narrow technical field in question can sometimes still pose problems, especially where a brand new invention is concerned, and where the German invention does not yet have a corresponding parallel invention in an English-speaking country. I have to make up words.

One particular agency that I work with has an in-house proofreader with a very large dictionary, who always checks my words - just to see if they exist in the dictionary! I am politely informed if they are not in that dictionary.

Anyhow, I have over the past few years derived a great deal of amusement from taking up these technical translations. However, I would rather not look back to see what the early ones were like. It was, nonetheless, really not my fault when I accepted the first one; and so I beg you to give the translator whose work you had to proofread the benefit of the doubt as well.

Have a good evening - what is left of it (5 minutes in this time zone). You have entertained me with your screwdrivers, anyway.

Astrid


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Textklick  Identity Verified
Local time: 04:57
German to English
+ ...
Comfort zone? Apr 18, 2009

José Henrique Lamensdorf wrote:

I was recently asked to proofread a technical translation, and its key feature was that whoever did it was outside their translating comfort zone.


Mine is to avoid 'proofreading/review'. O.K. - my problem is that I tend to rewrite, even although it may not always be necessary. Therefore, it's essentially a waste of time.

Comfort zone in translation? Files that I see, that I am happy with and accept. They can be (very) diverse.

Have a good Sunday!

Cheers,
Chris


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Heinrich Pesch  Identity Verified
Finland
Local time: 06:57
Member (2003)
Finnish to German
+ ...
Working relations Apr 19, 2009

This screwdriver example is typical for a case where the translator wants to make sure that every word is translated
But the reason why many take translations out of their "comfort zone" is the relation to small agencies. Such agencies have only one or two trusted translators for each language combination. When the opportunity arrives and the translator turns the offer down the agency is in trouble. It either loses the job, even the customer, or finds a new translator for this special job. But then the price may go up, which requires new negotiations. That's why is can be tempting to take also jobs that are not comfortable. And there should always be a second translator checking the final version. Nobody is perfect.
Regards
Heinrich


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autor  Identity Verified
Portugal
Local time: 04:57
Member
Portuguese to English
+ ...
The moveable comfort zone.. Apr 19, 2009

Hi José, I think I work in similar comfort zones to you - engineering, business etc. Having worked as an engineer and a manger in the aerospace, power generation, oil refining, IT, publishing and telecommunications businesses, in posts from instrument artificer up to business and strategy manager, I think I've got a few comfort zones covered off.

Like you, I laugh at some technical translations I see - eg "hole in the voltage" for "voltage gap", and web page for website etc. Another thing that often makes me laugh, is the attempts by someone who has never attended a business meeting in their life to translate a formal set of minutes

However, as the time increases between the period when I worked in these industries and the present, I find the language - the jargon - starts to change - and ever so gently begins to nibble away at my comfort zone.

The other factor which erodes it for me, is when "US English" is called for. In the UK, we were always encouraged at school, and at work to avoid "Americanisms", especially the rather elaborate consultancy-speak. So, although I am in a comfort zone in terms of technical or business knowledge, I can be out of it from a US perspective.

I have one or two very professional clients who invest time and effort to help me correct any problems in this area, but I have to say, far too many don't even give these issues a thought.

Cheers,

Keith


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Heike Behl, Ph.D.  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 20:57
Member (2003)
English to German
+ ...
lack of research Apr 19, 2009

I think the problem more often is that many translators

1. don't do the necessary research when they encounter unknown terms (those can of course also pop up in texts from within your comfort zone) and simply make up terms

2. and/or too happily just accept whatever first translation they find online or in their dictionaries

3. a) have their brains switched off when translating and don't think logically, so they don't notice the sometimes obvious problems caused by #1 and #2 above, OR
3. b) don't even care.

And I have seen the above problems many times in translations by translators working within their "comfort zones".

I, too, usually reject texts from areas I'm not familiar with, but more often than not it's because translating unfamiliar areas doesn't make a lot of business sense due to the additional amount of time necessarily spent on terminology research. Once in a while, I "indulge" when I find a topic so interesting I cannot resist, but I'm confident I can research the terminology.

You still need to be self-critical enough in order not to bite off more than you can chew.


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FarkasAndras
Local time: 05:57
English to Hungarian
+ ...
Seconded Apr 20, 2009

Heike Behl, Ph.D. wrote:

I think the problem more often is that many translators

1. don't do the necessary research when they encounter unknown terms


There is absolutely no excuse for getting "flathead screwdriver" wrong in any text, in any language combination, ever. Even if it came up by chance in a philosophical text done by a translator who only does philosophy. Any translator who isn't utterly useless can and must look it up in a minute or so.


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Buck
Netherlands
Local time: 05:57
Dutch to English
seconded again Apr 20, 2009

Heike Behl, Ph.D. wrote:

I think the problem more often is that many translators

1. don't do the necessary research when they encounter unknown terms (those can of course also pop up in texts from within your comfort zone) and simply make up terms

2. and/or too happily just accept whatever first translation they find online or in their dictionaries

3. a) have their brains switched off when translating and don't think logically, so they don't notice the sometimes obvious problems caused by #1 and #2 above, OR
3. b) don't even care.



I agree. I personally know a rather inexperienced translator, who is a fast learner. In a recent text he had to translate a very simple term and looked it up and used the dictionary translation which, although technically not incorrect, looked very out of place in the translation. I also think some people who call themselves translators are not at all aware of how much work is involved. There's certainly more to it than opening up a dictionary and copying the translation.


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Noe Tessmann  Identity Verified
Local time: 05:57
English to German
+ ...
THE screw driver expert Apr 20, 2009

Heinrich Pesch wrote:
But the reason why many take translations out of their "comfort zone" is the relation to small agencies. Such agencies have only one or two trusted translators for each language combination. When the opportunity arrives and the translator turns the offer down the agency is in trouble. It either loses the job, even the customer, or finds a new translator for this special job.


I totally agree on that. There are a lot of things I never do but I do have to jump from business texts to railway stuff, military history, etc. when sticking to a couple of agencies. Being really specialized in just a few areas means working with a lot of different agencies and how do they find you? As you said agencies have trusted translators they don't look for THE screw driver expert.

Regards

Noe


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Susanna Garcia  Identity Verified
Local time: 04:57
Italian to English
+ ...
Outside comfort zone Apr 21, 2009

Heike Behl, Ph.D. wrote:

I think the problem more often is that many translators

1. don't do the necessary research when they encounter unknown terms (those can of course also pop up in texts from within your comfort zone) and simply make up terms

2. and/or too happily just accept whatever first translation they find online or in their dictionaries

3. a) have their brains switched off when translating and don't think logically, so they don't notice the sometimes obvious problems caused by #1 and #2 above, OR
3. b) don't even care.



Don't they just! You only need to look at the usual suspects on Kudoz questions who have no scruples about accepting work outside their comfort zones. Judging from the number of questions they ask too, they have no trouble getting the work either (hint of green eye)!


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