Pity the poor translator

One doesn’t work in the translation industry for decades without having some strong feelings about seeing bad translations.

Once when I was in an oriental market, I picked up a packet of dried squid for snacking on.

I already know what you’re thinking. Shut up. 

I think it’s a product of Taiwan, but I’m not sure, because it looks like it’s destined for both the US and Japan.

On the package, it says (spelling errors are transcribed as found):

“This product is under strict ouality control with perfect packing and quality when leaving the factory. Please keep away from damp, high temp or sun expose. If found any defectives when purchasing please retrn the product by airmail to our Administration section and inform the purchase for our improvement we shall give you a satisfactory reply. Thanks for your Patronage and welcome your comments.”

If “ouality” is such a priority, why don’t such asian exporters ever run their documentation or packaging under the eyes of a native English speaker? I could think of a number of reasons:

  1. They’re cheap
  2. Their own estimation of their English ability exceeds actuality
  3. They know the product will sell just as well even with lousy translations
  4. They don’t give a rat’s ass
  5. All of the above

Me, I’d be embarrassed to sell a product in a foreign market with errors like this – but it’s a problem of long, long standing. Translation is often given short shrift in business plans. Too many managers think, “Oh, my secretary Miss Yin speaks English, she can do the translation and I’ll save money.” With the concept of “face” so prominent in Asian cultures, it surprises me that they don’t understand this sort of cost-cutting makes their enterprise look bad. On the other hand, perhaps the average American consumer doesn’t care either.

I’ve mentioned this elsewhere when writing about translation, but I wish I had kept a copy of an ad that appeared on our bulletin board in the early 80’s when I was working for a now-defunct translation software firm. It showed a manager reaming out some poor drone, and the caption was “Because you let your brother-in-law do the translation, our ad says that our new camera exposes itself automatically!

People in the translation industry are certainly aware of the problem, and resolving it would certainly create a lot of work for a lot of people… but would also deduct from the bottom line of the manufacturers, and that has always seemed to be the driving factor.

Automation has affected a lot of industries for good and for ill. Plumbers, electricians, carpenters, many trades have been relatively untouched except for better tools and a proliferation of codes and regulations. But thanks to CAT tools* and the Internet, the translation industry has been radically transformed from a field where educated professionals could seek out high-quality clients and agencies vied to find high-quality translators into an absolute circus where millions of people in third-world countries offer abysmal services for 3¢ per word and agencies expect the lifelong journeymen and journeywomen to meet these kinds of prices (with concomitant reductions for repeated text, of course.)

The professional translators who have been willing to buy the tools and deal with the agencies to stay in their field have my undying respect; I got out of the circus years ago as a way to make a living.

The Old Wolf has spoken.


*Computer-Assisted Translation tools. This is the only CAT tool I still have:

20161209 Sensei Helping.jpg

And, frankly, he’s not much help in the work arena, but he does a world of good for my heart.

Make a Translator Mad in Four Words

From a recent Facebook post. Having worked as a freelance translator, these responses spoke to my soul. Yes, a few of them are more than four words, but they’re all good – and they’re all real. I have seen many of these myself.

For what it’s worth, I no longer do this sort of work. The reasons will become obvious. I’ve included a bit of commentary here and there.

Cheap bastards

Agencies make money by charging high rates to clients and paying low rates to translators, reviewers, and proofreaders. They’re always jockeying for a better deal. That’s the nature of business, but when you’re an independent contractor, and your standard rate (calculated to earn you a living) is always being undercut, it’s frightfully annoying. The global access of the Internet means that professional, trained, educated translators must now compete with millions of people in India, China, and elsewhere who “speak a little English” and who are willing to work for 1¢ per word or less.

  • Best lowest rate required.
  • What’s your best rate?
  • Make your best rate.
  • Make me (a) good price.
  • Send your best rate.
  • We pay in visibility. (Visibility and $7.95 will get you a coffee at Starbucks.)
  • Our budget is limited. (So I’m supposed to subsidize your profit, right?)
  • Special rates apply to this client. (He’s paying us less, so we’re going to pay you less.)
  • A discount for volume. (We’re paying less because there’s a lot of work).
  • It’s the market rate. (Take it or leave it.)
  • 5¢ is not bad. (5¢ per word is shit.)
  • The others charge less. (Good, feel free to use them.)
  • Someone charges way less.
  • Our budget is only …
  • National Agreement Rate Please.
  • Could you proofread instead? (Read: Your rate is too high).

Cheaper bastards

Machine translation used to be cumbersome, expensive, and not very effective. Now it’s quick, easy, free, and only a bit more effective. While statistical translation models have made some exciting progress, people who don’t understand the intricacies of language assume that online translation is both free and reliable. Similarly, your neighbor may speak a bit of German, but don’t expect your translation to do well in the commercial arena. In the translation world, you still get what you pay for, and if you go cheap, you’re likely to get crap.

  •  Google Translate is cheaper.
  • We will Google translate.
  • I’ll do it myself.
  • I can do it myself.
  • Neighbour can do it.
  • Will it cost anything?
  • Is it for free?
  • That much? No way!
  • The font was wrong. (Followed by “Will you accept 50%?”)
  • I could do it, but…
  • Could do it myself, but…
  • You’re overpaid.

Cheapest bastards

It’s not uncommon for an unethical agency to get a job, break it up into 20 segments, offer the job to 20 translators and have them each do part of the work as a “test,” then award the bid to nobody.

  • Please do this test.
  • Please complete test assignment.
  • We require (a) free test.
  • Test translation without charge.
  • Download the test translation.
  • It’s for a tender. (We need your free translation to make the bid.)

Scheduling headaches

Contractors spend a lot of time juggling their resources against customer needs. Agencies don’t care.

  • We’d like it for tomorrow.
  • Have you begun yet?
  • Great, don’t proceed yet.
  • Client brought deadlines forward.
  • The client sent changes.
  • The client made changes.
  • 6000 words for tomorrow.
  • 20,000 words of light postediting.
  • We need it yesterday.
  • Can you deliver early?
  • Sorry, client cancelled assignment.
  • End client just cancelled.
  • Please send your invoice (then we’re going to have minor changes).
  • File should arrive midnight. (Deadline in 8:00 AM, of course.)
  • We have a glossary (10 minutes before deadline).
  • That didn’t need translating… (After you’ve spent a day and a half on “that.”)
  • Please use US English. (Halfway through a huge project meant to be in UK English!).
  • Please deliver tomorrow morning.
  • Translate in real time! (What does this even mean?)
  • Client isn’t in a hurry (Followed, 2 months later, by “Client needs it ASAP”).
  • The project is cancelled (in the morning of due date!).

Your skills are worthless!

Anyone can translate. It’s just typing in another language.

  • (It doesn’t need to be translated,) just type this in Portuguese
  • Everyone can do it!
  • So you teach English?
  • You’re a translator? Then why don’t you give English courses?
  • What is your work?
  • Please do the shopping.
  • Go get the kids.
  • Don’t think, just translate!
  • What’s your real job?
  • Do you also teach?
  • You have done nothing.

Technical Headaches

“You need to use our tools, yours are garbage.”

  • Trados is a must.
  • TRANSIT is a must.
  • Across is a must.
  • [Insert CAT tool name of choice] is a must.
  • Use our online TM-tool.
  • We only use Excel. (Translating in Excel is a nightmare, if you were wondering.)
  • Please translate into Excel.
  • Your file doesn’t open.

Not only that, in the world of translation, these CAT (Computer-assisted translation tools) are de rigeur. They can be useful in speeding up translation and improving terminological consistency, but agencies routinely take advantage of this and pay less than the full rate for things that the software has translated for you. This ignores the fact that the translator is responsible for the coherence of the entire job and must read and evaluate every bit and piece of the work for accuracy. This alone is the major reason I stepped out of the freelance translation world. My rate per target word is X¢, period. Pay it or go somewhere else. Translators who survive in the industry pretty much have to suck it up, but I wasn’t willing.

  • We don’t pay repetitions.
  • Pro-rated for fuzzy match.
  • 100% matches for free.
  • Discount for fuzzies applied.
  • Fractional Payment for Repetitions.

Payment Headaches

In the US, standard terms are 30 days net. Around the world, it’s not uncommon for translation agencies to expect translators to wait 60, 90, or even up to 180 days for payment of invoices (they usually claim that they’re waiting for their clients to pay them.) This is unethical in the extreme, but not an uncommon strategy in the business world.

dt080613dt080614

There’s one more I can’t find, where the vendor says, “But if you pay us late we’ll go bankrupt, and then you won’t ever have to… pay… I’ve said too much, haven’t I?” The Pointy-Haired Boss just sits there with a sick grin on his face.

  • We forgot your payment.
  • Did you send your invoice? (Yes, I did, 60 days ago.)
  • Net forty-five days.
  • The payment will delay.
  • Thanks for your patience. (After payment was delayed for a month).
  • Check’s in the mail. (Yes, people still use this one.)
  • Our accountant on vacation.

We know better than you.

Never mind your skills, the next person is always smarter.

  • Reviewer says you failed.
  • Is “the” necessary here?
  • Let me correct that.
  • I speak two languages.
  • (S)he knows better.
  • (S)he is a [language] teacher.
  • Proofreader does not agree. (Proofreaders know bupkis about translation.)
  • Changes made by proofreader.
  • My secretary edited it.
  • This translation is bad.
  • But Google translate says…

Creepy Clients

There is always one.

  • What are you wearing?

General Lies

“I have read and agree to the terms of service”

  • It’s a straightforward text.
  • It’s a piece of cake.
  • It’s short and easy.
  • It is not technical.
  • It’s not very technical.
  • Help me, it’s quick.
  • It only needs editing.
  • Just a quick question.

Translation Requirements, and Stupid Questions

Things that don’t fall into easily-defined categories.

  • Do you translate books?
  • Is Brexit affecting business?
  • Source text is JPG. (This means you can’t use your CAT tools for the job.)
  • It’s a PDF – handwritten.
  • Translate in sticky notes.
  • It’s mainly doctors’ handwriting.
  • Please check additional references.
  • (We know you’re busy but) we’re really shorthanded.
  • Here’s an XBench report.
  • It was machine translated.
  • Added to our database. (Don’t call us, we’ll call you.)
  • Read 50 pages of instructions (for a 100-word job)
  • Keep the original format.
  • You have to cook.
  • It’s a doctor’s prescription.
  • Don’t go into details.
  • Thanks for sharing.
  • Are you still translating?
  • Complete our six forms.
  • There’s no source text. (When proofreading a translation, you need to see the original text. If it’s not there, you’re just basically making wild guesses in the dark.)

About 30 years ago, an ad appeared on the bulletin board of the translation software company I was working at. It probably came from one of the trade publications, and showed a boss ripping an employee a new one. The text read, “Because you had your brother-in-law do the translation, our  ad says that our new camera exposes itself automatically!”

I’ve dealt with the risks of translation on the cheap before, and in this one thing has not changed: If you want good translations for your business, use a professional and pay them well – otherwise your product may just bite the wax tadpole.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

A good laugh from a bad translation

I’ve always been a word person, since my earliest memories. I’ve always enjoyed playing with language, Odd that I hated my 7th-grade linguistics class… clearly I was not emotionally or intellectually ready for it. Or else my teacher was a dried-up, boring old pedant. Whatever.

I remember about 20 years ago I was sitting in my office while recovering from a fall in the which I had cracked three ribs. Things were quite uncomfortable, when I happened to run across the following sniglets:

ARACHNOLEPTIC FIT (n.) The frantic dance performed just after you’ve accidentally walked through a spider web.

ECNALUBMA (ek na lub’ ma) n. A rescue vehicle which can only be seen in the rearview mirror.

LACTOMANGULATION (lak’ to man gyu lay’ shun) n. Manhandling the “open here” spout on a milk container so badly that one has to resort to the ‘illegal’ side.

These, along with a few others, struck me as so funny at the moment that I was overcome by paroxysmic fits of giggling, punctuated with “Ow! Ow! Ow!” from the rib injuries. The episode must have lasted more than 15 minutes, and the tears streaming down my face were a mixture of mirth and pain.

So yesterday I stumbled across the following sign over at reddit, seen somewhere in Taiwan:

Hell All Your Family

I fear that this sophomoric bit of humor affected me in the same way; “hell all your family” strikes me as excruciatingly funny. This time I was not suffering from broken ribs so the laughter only resulted in odd looks from my wife as I thrashed helplessly on the couch.

I note with interest that hella has become, in recent days, an acceptable adverb, as in “that movie was hella good;” I am pleased to see that Hell has now become a verb. As Calvin remarked to Hobbes, “Verbing weirds language,” and the weirder language is, the better I like it.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

How to Fit-up Your Computer (aka Translation Troubles)

octopus

Translation has always been more or less an afterthought for most companies, and overseas firms that manufacture goods for the USA often (obviously!) cut corners by saying things like “Oh, give it to Miss Chen, she speaks some English.”

The results were predictably bad.  Nowadays things have improved a little, but it was not uncommon in the latter part of the 20th Century to see things like the following:


How To Fit-up Your Computer

Clear the area on which you are to put back together the divorced parts. Make sure the room is all there. Popping out of the boxes should be:

  • An attractive monitor giving enlivening displays.
  • An efficient keyboard for the tipping of. (A mouse can be put on the second hand if that’s your turn-on.)
  • A fortified central processing unit where all types of characters can be juggled with.
  • And last, strict instruction on hand in either floppy or hard appearance.

Look within now to see if you have any surprises. If you are unfortunate enough to have something missing, or there is an unexpected presence, your local dealer will be willing to examine.

IMPORTANT!! Before you can plug it, you must ensure that the virgin monitor is fitted with a proper adapter in order to cope with your man’s supply.

To start assembly, pray central processing unit is in room provided. Have compartment ready for stuffed batteries. Repeat once a year. Check monitor not being supplied, then carefully drip onto unit. Now marry the tarts by inserting dangling cables. Finally, ready position for coupling behind keyboard.

You should now be ready to switch on to many hours of trouble-free commuting.


Naturally, “Engrish” is still a thing. The translation industry worldwide has undergone a sea change as the internet has opened markets to people living in third-world countries who might never have had access; and agencies take advantage of CAT tools to pay translators fractions of a cent per word based on how many times words or phrases are repeated. This is a scandal and a crime, and the main reason I got out of the freelance translation business, but that’s a subject for another rant.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

There’s bad translation, and then there’s this.

Battery

Found this abomination at the “Selling It” section of the May 2014 Consumer Reports. Engrish.com is full of such things, but this example is so egregious I felt as though it deserved its own shout-out.

The accompanying text said,

“Bang Indeed. The buyer who inserted this battery in his new “pay as you go” phone needn’t have worried about the warnings. “Sure enough,” he writes, “the phone did not work.”

I’ve talked about products made in China before, but it’s also worth remembering that the appetite for cheap Chinese goods is not driven by the Chinese exporters and manufacturers, but rather by American importers who buy their junk, exerting such downward price pressure on their suppliers that the quality goes from the toilet into the septic tank. It’s difficult to walk through Wal-Mart or Dollar Tree, to name two examples, without finding “Made in China” stamped on the goods. While getting American families up to living wage standards would help, it would take a miracle to break people of the habit of buying cheap trash just to save a dime. Frankly, I don’t have an answer, but I know that the current situation is doing nobody any good, except for those who manufacture and sell this type of garbage, balancing their bankbook on the backs of low-wage workers and low-wage consumers.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

Bite the Wax Tadpole: The Risky Business of Translation

Cross-posted from LiveJournal.

Before you jump down my throat with both feet, let me assure you that I’m fully aware Coca-Cola™ never used the title of this essay as the name of their product in China. That little legend arose as eager shopkeepers devised phonetic representations for a new product without regard to meaning, and before Coke™ had settled on an official translation. “Bite the Wax Tadpole” was only one of many such renderings that arose.

Having disposed of that matter, translators and interpreters walk a fine line.

A success can mean acclaim and bringing pleasure to thousands of people, in the case of a well-received literary translation, such as Howard Scott’s translation of The Euguelion.

A mis-step can result in anything from simple pwnage to an international incident.

For no reason other than feeling contrary today, I thought I’d pull together some of the more notable failures in the world of translation – some traditional, others inspired by the ease of access to quick (and very often, dirty, in the classical sense) translation via the web.

First, the urban legend category.

  • The Chevrolet Nova sold quite well in its target markets, Mexico and Venezuela, despite being able to wring the meaning “doesn’t run” (no va) out of the name.
  • American Airlines never had a “Fly in Leather” campaign, which reputedly was translated to “vuela en cuero”, which is only one letter away from “fly naked” (en cueros).
  • I suspect that most of the lists of supposed translation bloopers from hotels and shops around the world have some basis in fact, but the large body of them are unverifiable, and these are forwarded with so many reputed sources that they have long since passed into the realm of probable fiction. A couple of classics: “The flattening of underwear with pleasure is the job of the chambermaid. To get it done, turn her on.” “The lift is being fixed for the next day. During that time we regret that you will be unbearable.”

Some real examples

55312_600

I love this one.

The Chinese characters say “Restaurant”, but what they really wanted to call it is unknown. Whoever was assigned to do the translation turned to an online translator which failed, and served up what you see here. Not knowing English, the translator blithely copied what he or she assumed meant “Garden of Delights” or whatever, and the world was given something else to laugh at.

The Chinese, however, are not the only ones to suffer from this syndrome

55597_600

The picture is self-explanatory. Once again, some bureaucrat assumed that what showed up in his or her inbox was the requested translation, and having no knowledge whatever of Welsh, this was the result. This sign, however, was quickly removed.

Alas, the sword has two edges. Have a look at a cartoon published a year ago by a dear friend of mine – with no disrespect intended!:

CarryOn20080820[1]

Instead of an anatomical impossibility, what the irate Kuchiku is screaming at her monitor is “Information Not Found!”; as the artist couldn’t read Chinese, she assumed that her Google Translate search was returning an actual value rather than an error message. A more detailed writeup of this particular incident is here.

Here’s an unsettling one, found recently at Failblog.org

lightswitch-fail[1]

By the sacred skull of Mogg’s grandmother, turn it off!

Before even perusing the comments at that entry, I began following the logic that led to this strange error. Surprisingly, it’s not as counter-intuitive as you might suppose, given the complexities of the Chinese language.

“Nightlight” is correctly translated as 夜灯:

夜 ye4 “night”
灯 deng1 “light”

Some translations add 小 xiao3 “small”.

I figured the other switch, beginning as it did with 天 tian1 “heavenly”, was supposed to be the overhead light, and it turns out I was correct. The Chinese word for “ceiling” is 天花板, or “overhead flower plank”.

Ceiling
天 tian1 Heavenly (by extension, overhead)
花 hua1 Flower
板 ban3 Plank

Now, the word for “lantern” is a delightful 花灯 “flower light”, which makes perfect sense.

Lantern
花 hua1 flower
灯 deng1 light

Thus by extension, a ceiling light, or overhead light, becomes 天花灯 “overhead lantern”

Ceiling (overhead) light
天 tian1 heavenly, above, overhead
花 hua1 flower
灯 deng1 light

The problem arose because for some unknown reason, “Smallpox” was designated as 天花 or “heavenly flower”

Smallpox
天 tian1 heavenly
花 hua1 flower

From here it’s easy to see how someone using either an online translator or even a regular dictionary, and without a good knowledge of english, could parse the word incorrectly and come up with “Smallpox light”

The net is full of such delights:

Endless other examples can be seen at Engrish.com.

Translation and interpretation are true art forms. While the modern tools available to us have their use, there is no danger that the language professionals who dedicate a great deal of time to receiving the necessary education and experience for their craft will be out of a job any time soon – at least not as long as there are those who care about getting it right.

As for me, I don’t think I’ll be staying at the smallpox hotel anytime soon.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

Translation Party

I was led to this site via a post at Glaserei, Frankfurter Zeitung’s intriguing blog about cats, the universe and everything.

Much like the old game of “telephone,” played with Bing translator (which isn’t as good as Google Translate, for what it’s worth) – but the results can be amusing.

If you need something translated, hire a professional instead of your brother-in-law. Otherwise your next ad might say that your new camera exposes itself automatically.

Frog Applause here.

Translation party here

The Old Wolf has spoken.