On the Internet as a research tool for translators
Thread poster: Macarena Perez Corrales

Macarena Perez Corrales
Local time: 06:15
English to Spanish
+ ...
Jul 7, 2015

I am doing a paper for one of classes on how the Internet has changed the research process for translators.

Seeing as I have always had access to it, I don't have any practical experience to compare having it to not having it. I can guess some of its advantages, but I could really use some examples, or ideas from Translators who have worked both before and after the Internet was available.


Oliver Walter  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 09:15
Member (2005)
German to English
+ ...
Good question Jul 8, 2015

I have often thought to myself over the past few years, since I did my master's degree in translation (2001-2) that the Internet is such an amazing resource, it must have been very difficult to do some kinds of translation before it was available to most people.

I did some translation in 1990 in the course of my employment as an engineer. I used a computer, but as a better typewriter and I don't remember whether I knew that the Internet existed then. Luckily, the texts were in a technical field with which I was familiar and my existing knowledge and paper dictionaries were enough.

It was the translation degree course, the huge amount of information available on the Internet and the availability of easy-to-use search engines (Alta Vista, Yahoo, Google etc.) that have made it possible to undertake translations that previously would have been impossible or, at best, would have required very much more time. I remember, when I did a test translation in 2001 in my application for the degree course (a few hundred words, something to do with architecture or building) I went to the local reference library to find help with the terminology, not realising that I could have done this much faster by using the Internet.

To get an idea of the value of the Internet as a translator's resource imagine, when you are doing a non-trivial translation, how you would cope with it if the only help available to you outside your existing knowledge were your printed reference materials, your local library and perhaps people whom you know who have relevant knowledge. A small example: I am currently doing a translation from German that refers to a number of EU Directives. With a relatively simple Internet search I can find out exactly what their official titles are in English, the meanings of the abbreviations used (e.g. CLP, REACH, SVHC - to do with chemicals).

And, of course, there are also the living translators' resources in the Internet, including this one (ProZ). That gives us a world-wide community of friends and helpers - impossible without the Internet.

Possible conclusion: I don't know how translation was possible before the Internet! - no I don't mean that literally, but during the whole history of mankind until late in the 20th century, I guess that translators could mainly only work with rather general texts or texts in fields where they had the relevant specialist knowledge. I am very grateful that my translation activity is at a time in history when so much can be found by use of the Internet, using skills that can be acquired relatively easily by practice and people's suggestions.



LegalTransform  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 04:15
Member (2002)
Spanish to English
+ ...
I started translating in 1993 before the internet Jul 8, 2015

The Cons:
1) First of all, you had to be very, very careful about what kinds of jobs you accepted because there was no on-line help. Secondly, you often had to make this decision based on very limited information because you were very often only sent a few sample pages to decide. Documents had to be faxed (which was very slow (it sometimes took HOURS just to get the full document) and very expensive for paper and ink) or mailed to you (which took 2-3 days). Agencies had to call each translator individually on the phone, so you had to make a decision relatively quickly. If there was something you didn't understand at first reading, you turned the project down.

2) I had a ton of paper dictionaries (over 300) and I would sit at a table with all of the appropriate dictionaries open (business, legal, etc.). If the word or phrase wasn't in any of your paper dictionaries, you were in big trouble. You had to spend hours and hours looking things up. You really had to know your source and target back then. I also had a book full of paper glossaries, clippings of word lists from magazines, the ATA Chronicle, terms on index cards. You had to be incredibly resourceful. I remember even using Spanish language dictionaries to translate Portuguese documents. I would also have to make frequent trips to the university library and make telephone calls to experts in order to ask questions. (As an aside, I wrote an article for the ATA Chronicle - in 1994 I think - about this wonderful new invention called a bilingual dictionary on CD-Rom).

3) You often had to invent translations and you had no idea what the standard was, unlike today where you can do a Google search (as a made-up example: is the proper translation "National Institute of Linguistic Sovereignty, the National Association of Linguistic Autonomy, The Independent Linguistic League, The National Linguistic Authority...." You just had to pick one and go with it.

4) You could not just deliver the translation whenever you wanted. You had to return it by phone modem which required making the call during business hours so that another person at the agency could be on the other end of the phone to make the computer connection. Many times you had to wait until the agency's modem was available and the transfer of one single document file could take 30 to 45 minutes.

5) There was no way to determine an agency's payment status. I was lucky and only one agency filed bankruptcy on me.

6) Agencies and customers had way higher standards than they do today. I remember in 1995 when I made one typo in a minor footnote in a 200-page document (I forgot to spell check the footnotes - something that was not as easy to do with the word processor at that time) and they fired me.

7) People were not at all kind to "newbies" entering the profession and looked upon them with great suspicion and disdain. Anyone with less than 10 years of experience had no business writing or saying anything about the translation industry because they had not yet "earned their stripes".

8) The general public were not at all familiar with "freelance" work and you often had to explain why you didn't have "a job". No one understood and people were constantly telling me about job openings, etc. People looked upon you with great suspicion because you "worked" at home.

The Pros:
1) You had lots and lots of time to complete a project and could juggle multiple projects at the same time. You often had weeks to translate a 2,000-word project. You had time to think about a proper translation and consider different alternatives and word choices. You could even mail difficult terms to the ATA Chronicle, wait until the next issue and get your response before the deadline. People were not in such a hurry.

2) We got paid a lot more money (twice as much as some of the rates today) and we were paid in full for everything including repetitions, matches, etc. It used to be possible for a translator to be the sole breadwinner of the family and bring in a six-figure income, have evenings and weekends off, go on vacations, build a retirement package. There were very few people translating just to buy a new smart phone or to pay the rent to live in their mother's basement.

3) You had frequent telephone calls with project managers and got to know them really well and felt more involved with the day-to-day business of running a translation company. You felt like a valuable partner and not a disposable "vendor".

4) The vast majority of agencies were owned and operated by translators who could answer questions and understood the issues involved in translation.

Pros and Cons (depending on your status):
1) Because of the harder working conditions, it was very, very difficult to break into the business. I was told repeatedly that they did not even consider anyone without at least 10 years of experience. I had to mail out hundreds of resumes to agencies and wait for a response. There was no way for anyone to know about your existence. It was not like today where you just fill out an on-line profile.

2) Today you can write books about translation and create translation seminars even if you have less than a decade of experience.

I've thought about writing a book called Translation Through the Decades where a translator who started working in the 50s, one who started in the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, 2000s and 2010s describe the working conditions of translation when they started.

Macarena Perez wrote:

I am doing a paper for one of classes on how the Internet has changed the research process for translators.

Seeing as I have always had access to it, I don't have any practical experience to compare having it to not having it. I can guess some of its advantages, but I could really use some examples, or ideas from Translators who have worked both before and after the Internet was available.

[Edited at 2015-07-09 00:12 GMT]


Andy Watkinson
Local time: 10:15
Catalan to English
+ ...
Prehistory Jul 9, 2015

Hola Macarena,

Going back a few years from Jeff's description, research was simply mustering all the information available.

Libraries were not really useful for many subjects I covered when I first started translating in the late seventies, so it was largely down to ingenuity/luck/general knowledge.

As Jeff also mentioned, the average turnaround time was much longer, in my case usually 4 days, because you had to physically go to the client to collect/deliver the translation - so you had at least 2 days to do a typical 150-word business doc., e.g. order of goods and price/delivery terms.

Unlike Jeff, I always saw the entire text before accepting it as faxes didn't exist - I would physically go to the client and look over the original, though it was often impractical to read the entire text so the odd surprise wasn't unusual. (It should also be remembered that wordcounts were not available with a couple of clicks and a client couldn't wait around for 3 hours while you counted the words in a lengthy manual - so you developed a quick estimation technique to provide a quote and prayed you hadn't made a serious miscalculation).

Two of my main sources at that time were an old lady who lived nearby and a wholesale supplier of numerous types of timber/furniture, pretty much anything that involved wood.
One client I was working for was a women's magazine, translating stock international agency pieces that needed adapting to Spain (mostly from the UK).

Many of these articles were knitting patterns, meaning that I'd drop in on her and say "Look, if you did this, that and the other, what's that called in Spanish? "Punto al revés." OK, thanks.
It also covered furniture in great detail which is where the experts in wood/different kinds of join came in handy.

(This process now goes under the fancy name of "localisation").

In the early eighties, when PCs were starting to make an appearance, I decided to focus on this subject. Mostly from English into Spanish. (yes, I know, mortal sin and all that, but I was the chief translator into Spanish for a large American agency in Barcelona for over three years and nobody seemed to notice).
The reason for choosing "informática" as a specialization was due to the abundance of new magazines/print courses for beginners, intermediate and advanced which all contained ES-EN glossaries, all readily available at any newsstand. Much of the terminology research was therefore already done.

Decent dictionaries were almost prohibitively expensive so sharing them was also an option, as was teaming up with other, more experienced translators.

The pre-, post-Internet scenarios are night and day, in that order.

(OT - this also explains my frustration with certain "translators" who are apparently unable to make the effort to find the required terminology with a couple of clicks.
En mis tiempos, ¡ojalá!)icon_smile.gif


LegalTransform  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 04:15
Member (2002)
Spanish to English
+ ...
On the Internet as a research tool for translators Jul 9, 2015

Yes, in order to start translating, I had to invest about $6,000.00 in paper dictionaries (they were very expensive back then - there even used to be a company that would rent bilingual technical dictionaries to translators if and when you had specific projects - there was an option to purchase at the end of the rental period) and a new computer cost around $1500.00.

Today, you can become a translator for free and the world will instantly know you exist.

Back then, you had to invest thousands of dollars and no one knew you were alive.

I also forgot all about manual word counts. Boy, were you mad when you miscalculated, especially when you gave an estimate based on a couple of large-font double-spaced pages and then the rest of the document came in as small font, single-spaced...

Andy Watkinson wrote:

Decent dictionaries were almost prohibitively expensive so sharing them was also an option, as was teaming up with other, more experienced translators.

[Edited at 2015-07-09 14:39 GMT]


LegalTransform  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 04:15
Member (2002)
Spanish to English
+ ...
I just remembered also... Jul 9, 2015

... that we did not have cell phones, so if you had to leave the house for a few hours to get groceries, go to the bank, the doctor's office, government offices or do other errands that had to be done during the day, you missed calls.

It used to be a running joke that if you wanted to get a good project, all you had to do was leave the house (because inevitably that's when they would call).


Chris S  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Swedish to English
+ ...
those were the days... Jul 9, 2015

Apart from having to go to the library I used to buy specialist books on everything from microbiology to forestry, which were very expensive.

In the early days the internet was useful but limited in terms of what was there, and slow. But being able to search in CompuServe rather than flick through endless books was great at the time.

One downside of the net,and proz, is that all my "secret" translations (like those accounting terms everyone else always got wrong) are now instantly available for others to copy. Luckily most translators are still too lazy to look...


MK2010  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 02:15
French to English
+ ...
Mobility Jul 9, 2015

Because most or all of a translator's tools are now online, that means all we need is a laptop and WiFi and we're good to go. How incredible is it to be able to do what you do for living in a coffee shop, in the terminal waiting for your plane to board, or on an outside patio in any city in the world? Not to mention that you can work with clients on several different continents all with just a few clicks on the keyboard. The Internet has made not just research quicker and easier, it has also increased a million-fold the opportunities for telecommuting, and I salute the freedom that comes with all that. I wouldn't have it any other way and I feel incredibly lucky to be doing what I'm doing in this day and age.

[Edited at 2015-07-09 18:10 GMT]


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