Linguistic myths – how do they survive?

July 24, 2012

This really is an “oldie but a goody”. I am talking about a classic dictionary error (in my opinion) that still turns up on translation forums, let alone in dictionaries – even very well known online ones (I checked today before writing this).

A rolling stone gathers no moss.

Wer rastet, der rostet.

Well, I suppose they look as if they should be similar – you keep on the move, you don’t have a lot of extraneous ballast (English), you keep still, you “rust” or become inactive. It isn’t unknown for two languages to say the same thing by opposites, one country’s health insurance is another’s sickness insurance.


A rolling stone gathers no moss: most definitions and explanations say it means people who keep moving on do not collect responsibilities and ties, or even many possessions – often, though by no means always, it is construed as negative, i.e. it is presumably a mature thing to gather responsibilities as you grow committed to a place.

Wer rastet, der rostet: generally defined as meaning that if you “rest” too much, i.e. don’t move physically and/or mentally, you will seize up (literally: rust) and be unable to run, skip, hop or use your brain.

Interestingly, one or two of the English definitions do take the German meaning, specifically in the sense of keeping mentally alert. However, generally speaking, anyone who knows German and English well must know that the ideas conveyed in the two phrases are not equivalent, so how do the dictionary entries survive? The two phrases “fit where they touch”, like loose clothing – and they don’t seem to touch in many places.

The translation as a vegetable

September 21, 2011

A few months ago, I was somewhat stirred up when a client informed me “I buy translations locally in the same way as I buy my vegetable box.”

It took me a long time to work out why that riled me so much. After all, vegetable growers are skilled people.

In the end it boiled down to two things:
1. Few translations are commodities in the sense that local vegetables are. If I want to “buy” a certain language pair or specialist subject I wouldn’t necessarily even be able to procure it locally or even on the same continent.

2. I felt the person in question was in a position to be more aware of that, which is why I am posting it here – another small contribution to making buyers aware of the nature of the product and the care that is needed in sourcing translation and interpreting.

I was translating this client’s non-English qualifications for a job application in another country where English was spoken. Try the above sentence with a few telling substitutes: “I buy scientific research/nuclear physics/Emerging Economy investment advice locally in the same way as I buy my vegetable box.” See? Not essentially local businesses. They’re purchased on quality and expertise, you would be proud to find a local provider, but would you really make it the primary criterion? Think about it.

On a lighter note, I have two puzzles to share with you, one linguistic and the other not:

1. Why do people who come from hot climates hate the British weather, but dive under cover into air-conditioned houses as soon as they get home?

2. Why is the football team FC Bayern München known in English as FC Bayern Munich and not FC Bavaria Munich?

Old dog, new tricks?

June 7, 2011

I attended the ITI ScotNet Workshop on 4 June. Energetic and convincing speaker Judy Jenner was enthusiastic about Twitter – me, I signed up for an account probably years ago and have never once used it. I listened to that part of her speech with what I thought was just academic interest.

So why have I just tweeted for the first time, against all expectation on my part?

Simple answer – Judy’s information that blogs could be linked to other social networking sites  (which I suppose I knew, but somehow personal info is so much more effective for me than website info) gave me an easy way in. So after struggling somewhat to find the right tab, I linked with twitter on WordPress, which redirected me to my twitter account, I tweeted and here I am back to tell the tale.

The moral of the story? Let’s see. I don’t think it is “never attend ScotNet workshops”. But there are others:

1) Energetic positive persuasion works wonders

2) An oldie but a very, very important goodie – it helps to look at apparent barriers from a new angle

3) It feels good to keep up with the times.

And maybe, just maybe, it will help me to keep my blog up to date. I can’t believe my last post was in February, I’ve been doing a lot of things worth talking about (IMOH).

Proud new title – webinar speaker!

February 24, 2011

I had a truly brand new experience yesterday. I had been asked to speak on a webinar for a small company called eCPD. I was really nervous, it was such a new experience. My subject: “Working with direct clients”.

Normally when I speak I see the audience, rely on questions and the odd joke to warm them up, I know whether they are warmed up or not etc. I can ask or answer questions as I go along. Here, I was talking only to my own microphone – and occasionally to Lucy and Sarah, the organisers – and had to rely on polls (i.e. survey-type questions that are passed on to the audience for them to key in multiple-choice answers) and, at the end, questions relayed by Sarah and Lucy.

And yet at the end the questions did feel as if they reflected real people, real personalities – real listeners!

Apart from the physical reality being so different from any ordinary presentation, I wanted to share a couple of presentation tips that other webinaristas have probably already noticed anyway:

– Jazzy slides with pictures are helpful (an organiser told me, but I’d already worked it out for myself). Normally I make very plain visuals so that the talk is the main focus, not the graphics. This is partly due to one absolute debacle when I imported some beautiful Asterix the Gaul scenes into my charts from the web into a presentation I prepared on my desktop computer – only to find when I presented it from my laptop in a non-web-linked environment that the pictures had vanished, taking most of the point of some visuals away! But when the slides are all the audience sees, they do need eye candy. Possibly not an issue for most presenters, who in any case make better slides than I do! Yesterday a coloured background, tomorrow …… animations!

– It helps to remember that you don’t have to “look at the audience”. I kept looking at the main screen and completely forgot that it was okay to keep my eyes on my notes, because on this occasion that didn’t make me that awful woman who talked to her notebook, was barely audible and never made eye contact. By gazing raptly at the screen as audience, I missed at least one cue for a poll.

– I found myself being more disciplined than usual in trying to make the charts very clear and unambiguous – again because you can’t see the bewildered faces if you have written something a little strange.

Though for one scary moment it seemed the – remarkably simple – technology might not play ball, all went well in the end and I enjoyed it. Roll on next time, a few months or a year or so down the track.

Step 2: how to admit an error

January 20, 2011

Last time I wrote a post, I was talking about the importance of being able to change tack. You may have noticed one famous Bill Gates quote I didn’t use:

”64kb ought to be enough for anybody”

And why? Because Gates denies he ever said it. I have no comment on that, I certainly wasn’t there at the time.

It makes you think, though: is there some sort of hierarchy of ways to change direction? Like (1) I made a mistake [could lead to trouble] or (2) I’ve changed my mind [much nicer, mature reflection on display] or (3) I’ve thought of something even better [hmmm, could look like a disguised “made a mistake”, but if true very positive, improving on ideas] and lastly (4) I never said it, I never did it [controversial maybe, but very good way of avoiding all discussion unless contested by witnesses!].

Perhaps a useful hierarchy to bear in mind, depending on who you’re talking to and what kind of press coverage you might get.

In case you’re wondering why I got onto this topic, I was translating something about error culture (not containing the material in this and my last post) so it was in my mind. These jottings are not a more subtle, twisty and deluxe way of admitting a specific mistake than those described above, just a bit of fun.

Acknowledging mistakes could win you millions

October 2, 2010

There is a wealth of management literature about mistakes. Tolerating mistakes, so that employees’ creativity isn’t stifled by fear of sanctions. Managing mistakes, so that companies know how to avoid them in future, and also learn about how to do things better.

One of the biggest issues, of course, is the difficulty individuals and corporations can have in admitting errors – possibly because of ensuing trouble, but also perhaps through a fear of losing their own or others’ esteem.

This is particularly dangerous if it prevents a crucial change of course.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates seems to be a world champion of business-saving U-turns. Most of us are familiar with the juicy quotes:

 “There’s nobody getting rich writing software that I know of.”

 “We [Microsoft] will never make a 32-bit operating system.”

 “The Internet? We are not interested in it.”

 Actions speak louder than words, so maybe there is no need to ask how he handled the retractions. But just imagine what could have happened to him and to Microsoft if he had stuck obstinately by his original stated opinions.

Where should you buy translation/interpreting?

August 23, 2010

I have had a few calls recently from potential customers who were worried by price issues. When that happens, as an “intermediary” I often give the name of a translator whom they can contact direct, who may not be VAT registered and who will not add the management (and finder’s) fee the intermediary needs to charge (think wholesale v. retail, though a direct translator bearing all the responsibility for a job rather than relying on an intermediary to read proof etc. will probably pitch prices somewhere in between these extremes).

I have a foot in several camps: around 85% of my living comes from the translation I do myself, the remaining 15% from intermediary work. In my “own” work, I serve both direct clients (a growing market for me) and translation companies. Sounds like more feet than any human being is entitled to! The question therefore arises for both myself and my clients: when should you go through an intermediary (translation company/agency), and when should you go direct?

Some simple rules:
– one-off jobs can often be handled by a translator/interpreter directly.
– if you are dealing with a limited number of languages and maybe not placing T&I work every day, you could be well advised to go directly to the translator
– especially if you are dealing with the kind of work where direct contact with an individual is useful, such as promotional or sensitive material where discussion with the author can be crucial.
In some ways the individual then deals with opposite poles – material where consistency and client knowledge does not matter so much, or where they are really particularly important.

But be careful where you shop: especially if you are not familiar with the T&I field, useful resources are (my own personal affiliation) and which are specialist professional associations with lists of qualified and tested individual professionals. Expert users “shop” there too! Members are listed by specialisation as well as language, so you can find the closest possible fit with your needs. The “letters after your name” which they provide are also particularly useful if you need to have the translation certified for court use, for example. And by the way, these are UK institutes, there are of course equivalents in other countries.

However, there are cases where the individual T&I professional cannot meet all your needs. If you are a busy person placing:
– a wide range of languages
– long jobs which a single person may not be able to handle within a specific deadline
– regular projects, particularly if (as above) they are long or in a wide range of languages
– you need the translation to be read by an additional external proof reader (a service some individuals provide and some do not, but most can do on request)
– you don’t have time to handle the phone calls, individual queries, general and particular management work involved
– you may want complex technical handling to give consistency over immense projects or have several languages handled in technically complex formats
– if, as a rare translation user, you really want someone else with expertise to choose your T&I professional, negotiate, know who to go to and what questions to expect etc.
If, in other words, you need a one-stop shop or a professional project manager for any number of reasons, then the additional fee normally incurred for a large in-house T&I/communications department or – more and more frequently – paid to a T&I company is more than worth while. ITI (web address above) has corporate members, there are also specialist professional associations for translation companies such as the ATC (Association of Translation Companies), EATC (European Association of Translation Companies) etc.

Either way, it makes sense to identify the best supplier to suit your needs.

Only words – or is it?

July 13, 2010

Just recently I translated a presentation that had been extracted from its visual PowerPoint background. Possibly because of the size of the file, maybe the visuals weren’t ready, I don’t know. Whatever the reason, I felt really lost, though when I finally received the finished product for proof reading it looked fine. And fortunately the client was happy for me to see the whole thing and didn’t take the view that if I had done my job properly the words would be okay and therefore the whole thing should look right.

In this case there were no puns or any other traps, my main concern was whether the text length would fit in with the visuals. However, I can think of two past cases where the pictures were crucial.

Case 1: Many years ago, I and my then team translated a book of animal fables from Dutch. In the last story, a group of birds  emigrated to find a better world. The black-headed gull was the cook among them. After reading the English about three times this struck me as odd – no rhyme or reason to it. Further consultation of the Dutch text explained it: the Dutch word for a black-headed gull is “kokmeeuw”, the Dutch word for a cook is “kok”. Nice pun, but I had missed it entirely. So I rejigged the staffing assignments and made the kookaburra the cook. Good thinking, eh? One small snag: some time after delivering the text I realised there were visuals I had never seen – I only hope they didn’t depict a black-headed gull happily making poffertjes.

Case 2: A more recent promotional text had as the main instruction that each sentence in the source language was focused on a specific strong noun, and that the corresponding word in English also had to be a noun and mean the same (yes, I know it sounds obvious, but there are times when a necessary change of metaphor can throw wordplays in the original text into dire confusion, see case 1 above). So the original brief was tough enough to start with, given the English-language predilection for verb constructions. When I looked at the visuals – which the client had been thoughtful enough to provide – I realised there was an added complication: each sentence went over a two-page spread, and the graphics “bled” into the text space. So in addition to the requirement to copy the source sentence structure without violating English/US sensibilities, the key word also had to be in roughly the same  position in the sentence so that it was in a prominent position, on the left-hand side of the page and not buried in swathes of colour or falling down the fold in the middle. It must have been very difficult in the source language, but even more so in the translation where the normal syntax would be different.

Clients, remember to mention visuals if they are available. Translators, if there are clear signs there should be graphics (fig. references or giveaways like “as you can see from the graph above…), ask for them. You could save yourselves anything from time to embarrassment.

Visiting Cologne

May 24, 2010

At the end of April, I spent just under a week visiting my old boss  in Cologne, Germany. What a wonderful city she showed me, from old familiar sights like the Cathedral to a cologne (the perfume kind) museum, art museums including the very wonderful Wallraf-Richartz Museum and Insel Hombroich, a visit to the Zeche Zollverein in Essen, parks, the river bank. Not least of the sights was the railway bridge, “decorated” with what looked from a distance like bunting but turned out to be throngs of padlocks celebrating marriages. It was a week with triple benefits: renewing friendship, sight-seeing and – “last not least”, as the Germans love to say, a chance to polish up my spoken German.

The problem with a German conversation

January 14, 2010

Life as a translator is difficult. There are some words you just can’t quite pin down.

One of my recent favourites is Gespräch. It can mean an informal conversation. It can mean a telephone call. It can mean an interview: a job interview, appraisal interview etc. etc. It can also, however, mean a group discussion. I recently came across an example which had been (correctly enough) translated as “moderated interview” (“moderated” being another problem – more commonly “facilitated” in English, but “moderated” is used in the same meaning, and in a multilingual environment using the cognate has its charms) – followed later in the same project by two files which used the same word to describe a situation where a manager talked to all of his/her staff. You do get panel interviews in English, but the description made it clear it was a multi-party discussion, not necessarily a group on one side, an individual on the other.

The trouble is, though, it is best to use one term if people may be looking for the topic on an intranet or whatever. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with “interview/discussion” in that context, though.

Is there a cover-all word in English? Dialogue also implies only two sides. Discussion can be two people or more, but in a formal situation you would never use it – “I went to company X for a job discussion last week”? I don’t think so.

Should we invent one? Multilogue? Verbal interaction? – “I went to company X for a job verbal interaction last week”??? Naaa.

The fun begins for the translator when Gespräch is translated one way for the one-on-one meeting, then pops up its head again weeks or months later as the group version – but term 1 is already established in the company, and if there is no distinction in the source language it is often hard to convince people that there has to be a distinction in the target. And in cases like the above the words have to fit into systems, so you can’t dismiss it by doing it differently on a case-by-case basis.

Even back in my days as a student 30 years ago some translation theory was about things that are understood or perceived differently in different cultures – one nation’s red is another’s orange, our black grapes are the Germans’ blue grapes etc. I remember once, many years ago, spending much time and sweat trying to get a development engineer to tell me whether the word “Achse” in a technical text was an “axle” or an “axis”. A colleague apparently had the same experience quite recently. In German, there is no distinction between the words – but it took me years to get my head round the fact that there is also no difference between the concepts. All languages and nations have examples of this, as in the familiar one that to the Anglo-Saxons “snow” is only one word, whereas to the Inuit there are many distinctions, each with its own term. Since the days of high-speed rail, of course, the UK is naturally familiar with the notion that there are different kinds of snow, in particular the wrong kind.

As in my last blog entry, it all adds to the richness of the job and of operating in a multi-lingual, multi-cultural context. There are times when easy answers would be nice, though.