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The fun and sadness of a context free source text
Thread poster: Vito Smolej

Vito Smolej
Germany
Local time: 09:13
Member (2004)
English to Slovenian
+ ...
Apr 18, 2007

I got a feedback from the agency, complaining about an incorrect translation of the word "characteristic".

The text consisted predominantly of single words (Excel spreadsheet, two columns, pretty common for some kind of jobs), which put me into a real quandary - then as well as now:

The fact is the target language - Slovenian - knows declension, genera, singular, DUAL, plural, noun vs adjective - you name it, we got it. Thus I had minimum one decision to make - is the word characteristic meant as "the dominant ~" or as a "the ~ odor". I just happened to decide wrong - i.e. for the noun "karakteristika" instead of the adjective "karakteristično, tipično, značilno". Without a context, it was (admittedly) a flip of the coin.

I explained the issue to the agent and am waiting for their answer. But in my mind I see columns and columns of single words, used in a wrong context, when some software starts to put them together into the final MSDS sentence. Example:

green - can be zelen, zelena, zeleno (genera), zelena, zeleni (plural) not to mention casi (zelenega, zelenemu, zelenim ...)

Long time ago I have decided to stick in such cases to nominativ, neutrum (at least it is consistent, even if consistently wrong). What I did not do, is ask / clamor / make noise for contexts. I see the client also partly responsible for providing the background context. Plus, to be honest, they should have a little more linguistic background and know that there's very few languages, where one can just string words together into a sentence like they do it more or less successfully in English.

Comments, experiences, suggestions much appreciated.

[Edited at 2007-04-18 06:32]


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Mats Wiman  Identity Verified
Sweden
Local time: 09:13
Member (2000)
German to Swedish
+ ...

MODERATOR
The folly of the translation world Apr 18, 2007

Good of you Vito to bring this up.

Many, many corporations and end clients and (aquiescently) quite a lot of outsourcers are subject to the folly that translation is the exchange of words.

They do not understand/fail to realise/refuse to accept the fact that words are engineering parts of something called sentences, that try to convey meaning.

Few words are unambiguous, as you so clearly explained.

We have been fretting through the years, shily-shallying between saying an outright NO and doing it, grinding our teeth, but always explaining that the result would definitely have limited linguistic value, all along the golden principle "The customer is king".

It is really a professional dilemma because you either get zero pay by not taking the job (leaving it maybe to someone who might do a worse job) or you earn good money by doing the job with the risk of being scolded months later because the translation - which was done by a non native using your Excel vocabulary with disastrous result - was "bad".

For vocabulary jobs the ProZ.com rule "Do not accept jobs you do not feel qualified for" is really important. There are so many language pitfalls that you should not burden the list with terminology errors.

There is a clear need to somehow push the corporate world up the learning curve, so that many would stop this folly and hire TEXT translators instead of WORD translators.

ProZ.com action Group?
UNESCO?
Oxford/Duden/Hachette?

Mats Wiman


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Jan Willem van Dormolen  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 09:13
English to Dutch
+ ...
Loose strings Apr 18, 2007

That IS indeed the fun with 'loose strings', isolated (groups of) words in a long list.
One of my first jobs was software for a mobile phone, which contained the word 'phone'. By itself, no context whatsoever. Did they mean the verb or the noun? Of course, I gambled wrong...

That will happen with this kind of workflow.

And the customers will complain about a 'stupid translation'...


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PAS  Identity Verified
Local time: 09:13
English to Polish
+ ...
Disclaimer Apr 18, 2007

Just write a disclaimer or comment beside the problematic word. It's great to see someone upset because we are not clairvoyants...

On another note, in Polish (and presumably in other Slavic languages) it is sometimes difficult to determine the meaning of a word in a complete sentence in the midle of a longer text.

for example, "strategii" can be the genetive singular and plural ("of the strategy" or "of the strategies"). It is not always obvious from the surrounding text which the author had in mind.

All in a day's work!

Cheers,
Pawel Skalinski


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Ritu Bhanot  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 09:13
Member (2006)
French to Hindi
+ ...
I don't do such translations Apr 18, 2007

Somehow, there are too many such files going around. And evidently people do it. I don't. At times, I do feel that maybe I should but there are so many words that can cause a problem.

And of course, you can't charge a uniform rate for such files. I mean it's difficult to define the difficulty level of these files because there are words... and WORDS.

I did one or two such files but then I realised it was too time consuming and not really worth the effort. And asking for the source text (for reference) does not help because evidently no one has it (now that's strange).

I know it's not much help but that's what I do. I refuse to translate excel sheets like that (one or two exceptions).

Regards,

Ritu


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Lawyer-Linguist  Identity Verified
Portugal
Local time: 08:13
Dutch to English
+ ...
Same here Apr 18, 2007

Ritu Bhanot wrote:

Somehow, there are too many such files going around. And evidently people do it. I don't. At times, I do feel that maybe I should but there are so many words that can cause a problem.

And of course, you can't charge a uniform rate for such files. I mean it's difficult to define the difficulty level of these files because there are words... and WORDS.

I did one or two such files but then I realised it was too time consuming and not really worth the effort. And asking for the source text (for reference) does not help because evidently no one has it (now that's strange).

I know it's not much help but that's what I do. I refuse to translate excel sheets like that (one or two exceptions).

Regards,

Ritu


I suppose someone has got to do them, but the beauty of freelancing is that someone doesn't have to be me.

I work on the principle: "you're only as good as your last translation" and am at the stage where a job has to be (1) doable, (2) interesting and (3) well paid (all as far as I'm concerned)

Excel projects like these don't meet any of these criteria for me, so I turn them down.

Like Ritu said, not much help, but that's my take on them. They're generally far more trouble than they're worth.



[Edited at 2007-04-18 08:40]


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Heinrich Pesch  Identity Verified
Finland
Local time: 10:13
Member (2003)
Finnish to German
+ ...
Zei Apr 18, 2007

The other week I lost a very long customer (the translation manager had changed two months ago).
I had translated their manuals and software strings since 2003.
This new person sent me an Excel file with menu-strings for a digital tv-reciever. Some technician had decided, that some of the strings had to be shortened. At one or two instances he had written "6 surplus characters".
The file had all the languages. I saw the entry was in English "Timetable", in German "Zeitplan" and in Finnisch "Aikataulu".
So I had to shorten Aikataulu to "Aik" or "At.".
I explained to her, that there must be a mistake, would she buy a reciever which showed "Zei" instead of "Zeitplan"?
I explained further, that the Finnish market is full of devices with first class on-screen menus, and the ease of use is the most important issue for the consumer.
She said she understood my concern but that there was nothing she could do about it.
I declined to shorten the strings. She announced that our cooperation was terminated.

Well, was I stupid? It had been easy work, but they were switching to the use of Trados, so prices were about to drop in any case soon. New customers contact every day.

Cheers
Heinrich


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Heike Behl, Ph.D.  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 00:13
Member (2003)
English to German
+ ...
Hopeless cases Apr 18, 2007

Even full sentences can be rather enigmatic...

Just the other day, I got: "If you stretch the XYZs [plural], it flowers."

Subtitles for a presentation of a medical product. No video, just the incomplete and ungrammatical sentences uttered by somebody trying to do several things and comment them at the same time. But I'm pretty sure there was no vegetation involved at any time. No idea what "it" might refer to and what "it" could do that could be described as "flowers".

I'm still waiting for some illuminating feedback from the end client...

But then, esteemed colleagues, why do we always complain that nobody appreciates translators when our clients so obviously think that we possess "divine" qualities such as clairvoyance and omniscience? Their trust in our abilities is infinite and they believe we can perform miracles.
And we let them down, again and again and again...


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Vito Smolej
Germany
Local time: 09:13
Member (2004)
English to Slovenian
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
"6 surplus characters" Apr 18, 2007

Heinrich ... you nearly made me howl at the moon - my Mr Hyde coming out under the broad daylight -.

It is a different topic from the one I started but it is the same story. Context: a production facility, supervised by several layers of software.

Example: what are you supposed to do, when the segment to be translated is simply "Hand" (in German)? Well because it is a capital Hand, you stick to hand (not the arm, the hand). And after a month or two you realize it is

a) inscription on the push button
b) meaning "Man" - for manually

The terror of it all is, this machine is a killer - in mechanical, chemical, hydraulic, you name it, way. What if my slovenian "hand" instead of "man" will just trigger of a succession of wrong decisions and a cosmic shower of accidents... And, to come back to the 6 surplus characters, I have a serious problem now and then - despite my disclaimers - thinking about sentences, where I had to "cut away 6 surplus characters".

Sigh...

smo


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Claudia Krysztofiak  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 09:13
English to German
+ ...
If you accept such translations Apr 18, 2007

I think the professional thing to do is to comment on the translation, so the client will be informed of the problem.

The first thing I'd do is to ask the client in writing how they wish to have this problem handled. Often there is an exchange of query lists for ambiguous terms (which are most of the terms in such Excel lists). This is extra work and the rates you offer should cover this.

At minimum I would send the translation with an extra column that contains comments and explain this to the client right from the start and once again when sending the "translated" file. The minimum info in this column could be the word ambiguous, or you could explain what else this term could mean in the target language.

It is tedious work and often there is no solution if the originator of the text does not assist. But this is not my but their problem. If they assist we can find a fitting translation together. If they do not assist I will complete my work and comment on the terms that are no translations but suggestions. And I would insist on getting paid fully, since I fulfilled my part of the job.


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Vito Smolej
Germany
Local time: 09:13
Member (2004)
English to Slovenian
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
"At minimum I would send the translation with an extra column" Apr 18, 2007

Actually it would be easier to send complete entries, copied from the vocabulary, like

characteristic 1 [kaerikt*ristik] noun značaj, značilnost, posebnost; karakteristika (logaritma)
characteristic 2 [k*rikt*ristik] adjective (~ally adverb) (of za) značilen

But then (sigh) they would probably come back saying "you need to shorten the translation to 23 characters". Not that they would complain about the bloat - they would still pay just one single word.

Regarding the warnings and disclaimers - I did my share of them, but I think they were just swept under the table by the agency. Nobody likes whistle blowers. And rocking the boat will not get our invoices paid.

The last conflict with the agency had absolutely hilarious moments: I indicated in color the entries, that I could not shorten any more if I wanted to avoid burning in translational hell. Guess what: panic cries."Cant you see (you dodo)!! The entries in red!? They're still too long!" From a person who of course had no idea of the target language and the mutilations going on.

A word in favor of the agency: this kind of translations amount to 5% of the workload they give me....

Regards and thanks to everybody

Vito

PS: to avoid making a stupid impression: I don't do Excel Sheets that are a cheat to get MultiTerm corpus. Paid for my education by doing it once and never again.

[Edited at 2007-04-18 19:11]


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ViktoriaG  Identity Verified
Canada
Local time: 03:13
English to French
+ ...
My conditions Apr 19, 2007

I would not touch such work with a 40-foot pole, unless it paid really well and then again only if it was paid by the hour.

We, just like any ordinary citizen, all see the results of translations done in such a way (most of the time in Excel) everywhere - labels on clothing, flyers, instructions, etc. The problem is, nobody complains about it, except for us translators, who are viewed precisely as the ones responsible for these crooked translations.

In an ideal word, people who will actually read and will need to understand these translations would complain about them. An ideal world ours is not...


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Vito Smolej
Germany
Local time: 09:13
Member (2004)
English to Slovenian
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
"I would not touch..." Apr 19, 2007

Hi Victoria:

There's a gradual transition from real to ridiculous in these cases, so the length of your / our pole may be shorter sometimes.

Example (from the same agency / customer / project) : it started 18 months ago with a translation of ancillary files and extracts of terms from the files to be translated - eventually Id say over 100k words -. If I had a chance to decide, this would exactly be the way to proceed: build up first a database of terms and expressions, so that you stay consistent later on during the translation.

Of course - back to the original gripe - all this must be accompanied by the context, and it was not. But the context came later and so did the changes - which I could propagate through the material already translated.


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Anne Wosnitza  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 09:13
English to German
+ ...
Just what I do Apr 19, 2007

Claudia Krysztofiak wrote:

I think the professional thing to do is to comment on the translation, so the client will be informed of the problem.


At minimum I would send the translation with an extra column that contains comments and explain this to the client right from the start and once again when sending the "translated" file. The minimum info in this column could be the word ambiguous, or you could explain what else this term could mean in the target language.

It is tedious work and often there is no solution if the originator of the text does not assist. But this is not my but their problem. If they assist we can find a fitting translation together. If they do not assist I will complete my work and comment on the terms that are no translations but suggestions. And I would insist on getting paid fully, since I fulfilled my part of the job. [/quote]

Hello Claudia, hello everybody!

Now, this is just what I do, to produce an extra column with all my coments, suggestions etc. in it. I happen to be working on an excel project and will be busy with it until tomorrow - but I already know by now that there will be problems with my translation due to missing additional information. I contacted the agency several times but they didn't really react so they will have to read through a loooong email and an additional .doc which is a lot of extra work, of course, but I want to be on the save side (although I think that as a translator one never really is).

I don't think I will do any more such files in future - they're just not worth all the work.

Anne


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TranslateThis  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 02:13
Spanish to English
+ ...
software localization Apr 19, 2007

Software localization can be a lot like this. I guess the key is to let the client know, in advance, that it is impossible to guess what the author had in mind when you deal with a list of single words and expressions that might be used to form sentences. You just can't be guessing what goes where and what the intended meaning of words is, whether it is a verb, a noun, etc. I do my best and translate the list but I always ask for the opportunity to review the program in its almost final form so that it can be tested and corrected before it is released. So far all of my clients understood why it needed to be done. Sometimes they send me the original version of the program in the source language along with a list of strings and this is very helpful, although quite time-consuming when you have to go back and forth between the files trying to find the right reference. Still, I like this type of work because it is sort of like solving a crossword puzzle

All in all, if the client doesn't care, there isn't too much you can do. We are translators, not magicians.


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