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Technical translations: falling quality of French source texts
Thread poster: Michael GREEN

Michael GREEN  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 00:45
English to French
Dec 31, 2010

A very happy new year to all of you for whom the year begins on 1st January ... and warm greetings to all other members.

Is it just me, or is the quality of French technical texts falling through the floor?

Being at a loose end between Christmas and New Year, I have accepted an urgent translation (FR-EN) to help an agency with whom I have often worked in the past. It is a proposal for a technical facility for a leading French car manufacturer, and comprises three documents totally 35000 words. The translation is required because the facility will be set up in an English-speaking country, but the actual proposal is of course in French.

I am used to French engineers' tortuous language style and pompous phrasing, but here I am both irritated and surprised (though should I be?!) to find that the source document is full of stupid grammatical and spelling errors: there are several on every page (two examples from the page now on my screen: "Le dimensionnement énergétique des armoires tiendra compte d’une majoration de 20% de la puissance installée - protection de l’armoire, ses câbles d’alimentation, sont jeu de barre..." / "La caisse en cours d’enter sur la tables est identifié par...").

Normally I merely advise my client that "I recommend running a spell/grammatical check before issuing the source document" (a standard phrase that I seem to use with each job), but here I intend to tell the agency to inform its client that these documents are so bad that if I were the car manufacturer I would refuse the offer.

The problem is not new - I have never known an engineer capable of writing his mother tongue correctly (unless he became a translator ...), but it seems to me that it is getting worse.

What is the experience of other translators?


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SBlack
French to English
+ ...
Looks like a first draft Dec 31, 2010

you were given. I sympathize with you. There is another tendency I have noticed: the overuse of fragments, bullets, ellipses...(I couldn't resist), apparently used to convey the "exhaustiveness" of lists, but which in my mind denotes a lack of thorough preparation of the text. Bon courage!

[Edited at 2010-12-31 10:06 GMT]


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Bernard Lieber  Identity Verified
Local time: 00:45
English to French
+ ...
Not only in French unfortunately Dec 31, 2010

I could give you similar examples in English (UK and US) and German. I've been translating user manuals for a company based in the UK for quite a number of years. I'd say that at first I found around 1-2 typos or grammatical mistakes in manuals of about 350 pages, nowadays it's more like 2-3 per page.

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Stephen Fennell  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 23:45
Member (2010)
French to English
+ ...
Authors not given time; and our own increasing awareness Dec 31, 2010

I have been translating patents for 19 years and I too have become increasingly aware of errors in the French and Italian I translate. I suspect two reasons: (1) as one gets older one simply gets more familiar with the rules and is quicker at spotting broken rules, and (2) the increasing automation of our tasks leading to greater speed at doing them and therefore less time for writers to notice errors.
I believe that when I was younger I was less sure of the correct form and it would have taken me longer to work out which form was correct, so I simply wouldn't have noticed the error. For example, I now know there should be an apostrophe in phrases such as "I have 19 years' experience doing ..." and through often thinking about it I notice it when people don't insert the apostrophe, but I'm not sure that I would have noticed the need for it aged 22 straight after finishing my French degree.
But it may also be true that there are actually more errors in our writing. This could be due to the fact that so many things that we used to have to do by hand (like writing) are now done extremely fast with computer assistance (typing is far faster than handwriting). This speed leaves us less time to check our output and therefore more errors can slip through unnoticed.
I am amazed at the extremely high quality of some things from the past, when things were made or written much slower. There is a multivolume series of multilingual dictionaries on textiles originally published in I think the 1920s. Ordinarily I have a horror of multilingual dictionaries, because in my experience the more languages a dictionary boasts the less useful it is. But this series of textile dictionaries contains a staggering amount of information, all of it correctly laid out and (apparently) correctly spelt, and EVERY SINGLE PAGE contains something like ten detailed drawings of parts of textile machinery. It is inconceivable that any such dictionary could be produced in our age. The amount of time and the number of staff required to produce it is simply staggering.
I do not mean to suggest that everything we do today is shoddy. Consider the quality of electronic goods. In the past, electronic goods had to be handled gently. Nowadays we can drop a mobile phone on the pavement and it will still work perfectly. Even the finish of electronic goods is far better than in the past. Compare a Sinclair calculator from the 1970s with almost any mobile phone of today. But printed matter can be produced and copied and edited so quickly that the silliest and most childish of mistakes get through.
Stephen Fennell

[Edited at 2010-12-31 12:44 GMT]


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xxxNMR
France
Local time: 00:45
French to Dutch
+ ...
Reasons Dec 31, 2010

One of the reasons is probably that technicians, engineers and sales people now have laptops and are entitled to create and to write their own documents. The whole chain (technical writer - secretary - thorough check by staff) is disrupted. Not only in techical writing: sales documents are worse and worse too. And they don't take an old document to have it transformed into a new one, or consult technical documentation - no, they write directly, as they think it should be. Even in English. And we all know that technicians, engineers and sales people are about the contrary of linguists.

Thank you for bringing this up. I'm suffering too, and glad when they have a commercial campaign subcontracted to an advertising company.


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Michael GREEN  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 00:45
English to French
TOPIC STARTER
Yes, but ... Dec 31, 2010

Thank you Stephen, but in the case of the errors that I'm facing, time is not the problem: if the author had made these grammatical clangers when sitting the Baccalaureat he would have failed. They reveal a woeful ignorance of French grammar.

"sont jeu de barre" instead of "son jeu de barres" is not a typing error - it's crass ignorance. So are, to take a few examples, "une association des codes est réalisé ", "installation d’amené des caisse", or "Des vehicules ou skid vides peuvent egallement etres entrées ou sortie".

There is no excuse for this kind of rubbish. We all make typing mistakes when we're in a hurry - but that does not explain the kind of errors in my source text. The author is a highly-qualified engineer: he should at least have a grasp of the basics of French grammar. Since this is not a draft, but a document intended to be submitted to a major industrial group, I am bound to conclude that he checked it and is under the impression that his text is up to scratch.

My point was that although this is an extreme case of Engineer Illiteracy, it is not isolated and I am encountering the problem more frequently.

Pauvre France....


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Laurent KRAULAND  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 00:45
French to German
+ ...
Reasons #2 Dec 31, 2010

I would go with NMR as per the reasons of Engineer Illiteracy, but I also remember that aspiring sales(wo)men, attorneys at law and engineers I met while studying had serious problems with correct writing... and that was some 25 years ago. This is the toll taken by hyper-specialisation, together with the abandonment of basic learnings.

A typical French way of thinking, as for example a craftsman cannot be or become a cultivated person - how would Germans think about this?

I also remember my Terminale year for the baccalauréat A2 (philosophy and languages). Someone wrote the following sentence in an essay: "X s'exprime en des thermes très chaleureux" - those who translate from and into French will appreciate the unintended pun, as it would not even come up as a mistake when running a spellcheck.

[Modifié le 2010-12-31 14:32 GMT]


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Aude Sylvain  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 00:45
English to French
+ ...
no proofreading Dec 31, 2010

NMR wrote:

The whole chain (technical writer - secretary - thorough check by staff) is disrupted. Not only in techical writing: sales documents are worse and worse too.


I share that feeling.

I see more and more typos everywhere, be it in French or English (my 2 working languages).
The worse situation is in the press I think. While journalists are supposed to master spelling in their own language (!), newspapers' websites are full of typos, and it is not unusual to catch some in printed newspapers. Most of these newspapers don't use typists/proofreaders any more, journalists simply put their articles online.

Michael, I agree though that the errors you spot are not typos, they are blatant mistakes - that make me wonder if the author even understood what s/he was writing.




[Edited at 2010-12-31 16:27 GMT]


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Richard Bartholomew  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 00:45
Member (2007)
German to English
"Four years ago I couldn't even spell engenier. Dec 31, 2010

Now I are one." -- Alfred E. Newman

"Documentation is the castor oil of programming. Managers know it must be good because the programmers hate it so much." -- http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Programming

I knew deep down that I was doomed the day I started to edit internal technical documents—on my own time. It was probably the low point of my thirty-odd career as a software engineer. I was working a gig in QA on an air force warfare-simulation project. The associated documentation was so poorly written that no one even bothered trying to use it.

To my horror, my colleagues' and managers' reactions to my efforts made it clear to me that documentation was written for only one purpose: to meet the requirement that there be documentation. Everybody knew the documentation was a mess, but nobody cared. It was enough that there were wads of paper titled "Users Guide," or "Preliminary Design Document," or "Maintenance Manual". Those assigned to generating these wads were (and probably still are) looked down upon with distain.

On rare occassons, I'd encounter a well written document. However, I can count the number of times that happened on the fingers of one hand. So it's not that technically trained people can't produce good prose; it's just that they don't want to dedicate the time and effort to doing so.

You and I, dear colleagues, are among the recipients of this attitude. All I can say in my own defence is that I tried my best to write good documentation during my engineering career.


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Rolf Kern  Identity Verified
Switzerland
Local time: 00:45
English to German
+ ...
Phonetic French Dec 31, 2010

I have a list of 60 errors that I call "phonetic French" recorded in 1 year between Feb. 23, 2002 and March 25, 2003, but in my case, they have become less in the meantime. I consider this a coincidence. Examples are:
- la maison XY a maintenant la capacité de laminé des profiles
- pièce pour eclérage
- de part notre qualification ISO 9001
- consommation (moyenne pendante 20 secondes)
- surplace nous avons mesurer cette distance
- XY conclu notre discussion
- et que vous avez appréciez la soirée
- entre le conducteur PEN et la barres de terre générale
- etc.

Happy New Year
Rolf Kern, Zurich/Switzerland


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polyglot45
English to French
+ ...
@Michael- - specific problem and general problem Dec 31, 2010

In the particular case described, it is highly likely that nobody cares about the French. It was probably a text cobbled up at the last minute, racing against the clock so that a professional translator could then produce a viable English version for the English-speaking target. They probably cut and paste liberally, often forgetting to adapt or ensure that all parts of speech agreed.

This has happened to me, too, and when I've told the client the French is a mess and highlighted the errors they have been less grateful than they should have been for the above type of reasons. It is not very considerate to the translator but since when have the punters been big on consideration ?

More generally, when I first started translating we had teams of people to check texts at all different stages. The authors had similar teams to perfect the originals. Now everybody is expected to type their own stuff, do their own layouts and take responsibility from A to Z. The problem is that there are too many authors who are barely literate, however good their technical skills. That's modern education for you (I could on but I'll spare you...). Whereas in the days of secretaries, few errors slipped through the net, today "l'artiste travaille sans filet". If you fall, you fall long and hard.

One final anecdote - a friend of mine used to work in a company where he, English-mother tongue - had to check his native French colleagues' French prose. He was the only one to have learned the rules the old-fashioned way and he was therefore a hell of a lot more reliable in French than they were. That says it all in my book !


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philgoddard
United States
Member (2009)
German to English
+ ...
To be fair Dec 31, 2010

These people are paid primarily for their technical skills, not their ability to write. I think the chances of someone being brilliant both at software engineering and at expressing themselves on the printed page are pretty small.

I don't think it's getting any better or worse - I'm sure people were decrying others' inability to write proper English in Chaucer's time.

What does infuriate me is meaningless verbiage, where the author has nothing to say but is still going to say it. Trouble is, if people stopped writing that, we'd be out of a job.


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Michael GREEN  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 00:45
English to French
TOPIC STARTER
@ philgoddard Dec 31, 2010

I'm not asking them to write Proust ... simply to write correct grammatical French.
If others can, why can't they?!

I don't see that it is an excuse to say, "the chances of someone being brilliant both at software engineering and at expressing themselves on the printed page are pretty small," because I know several people brilliant in their fields who write excellent French... some of them have even been educated at Grandes Ecoles...and even énarques can spell, whatever there other failings may be.

In Chaucer's time, most people (including the ruling classes) were illiterate... perhaps we have come full circle?!

But I entirely agree about unneccesary verbiage - I'm even guilty of it myself - see some of my forum posts...

Happy new year, anyway!


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Michael GREEN  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 00:45
English to French
TOPIC STARTER
Thank you all... Dec 31, 2010

For so many constructive comments - I shall post a detailed response next year (ie tomorrow), if my hangover will allow me to.
It's comforting (up to a point) to learn that I am not alone with this problem - not sure whether much can be done about it though.

Enjoy your New Year's celebrations, wherever you may be!


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Michael GREEN  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 00:45
English to French
TOPIC STARTER
To summarise... Jan 2, 2011

Thank you all, once again, for your comments.

Particular thanks to the colleague who gently reminded me in a private e-mail that I too can commit typos : "... and even énarques can spell, whatever there other failings may be." It would be dishonest of me to edit that particular clanger, which will perhaps put my criticism in perspective.

That being said, I think Aude makes a very good point (echoed by other contributors) when she says that many authors - be they journalists, engineers or marketing people - no longer filter their copy through spell checks (or secretaries) and post or circulate it exactly as it came out of their fingertips. Newspapers are increasingly guilty of this, but so too are TV sub-titles (especially during the JT, where perhaps speed is of the essence and can excuse one or two glitches).

However, that merely explains why the errors don't get corrected before publication - it doesn't excuse them per se. It saddens me (but then I'm a sensitive soul) to see how little importance is placed these days on good grammar and spelling, except by old codgers like me and professional translators who have to maintain high standards.

"Being paid for their technical skills, not for their ability to write?" Shouldn't their ability to write be part of their job description? There is little point in having a skill if illiteracy prevents it being expressed in writing.

It doesn't say much for standards of education - let alone social values - when quite highly-qualified people are incapable of writing their own mother tongue correctly.

Ho, hum....


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