Consistency, More Than Meets The Eye

Every translator knows, or learns soon, that consistency is of paramount importance. And not just in translation, but in any kind of technical document. I remember reading a revealing comment on this regard by Don Bush in his well-regarded column “The Friendly Editor” on Intercom, the magazine of the Society of Technical Communication. (Unfortunately the column has ended, after several years. It had always good insights into technical communication writing.) At a conference, Bush recounted, a technical writer had stated that it was preferably to have a consistent error in a document rather that having an inconsistency only half of the time for the same error. And we can guess the reasoning behind such preference.

Continue reading “Consistency, More Than Meets The Eye”

“Utility” Vs. “Eloquence” for measures of quality

This is a reprint of an October/2012 article I published in IMIA Viewpoints Online Newsletter (

I recently read that “utility is valued over eloquence as a measure of translation quality”(1) by some of the big TECH companies entering the translation and interpreting field, including Intel, Microsoft, Asia Online and Spoken Translation. The Taus report that talked about that was specifically referring to the “coming of age” of “real-time multilingual chat”, which is part of an entirely new array of products that are already being offered by high-tech translation automation companies; these new products are changing the landscape of bilingual and multilingual output (and translation/interpreting) in the Global Village of the 21st Century.

If this is the new industry trend, “quality” will become a “value added” –not a core requirement– sought by “some” (read “few”) companies. Thus, the new industry concept of “utility” is becoming more important than “eloquence” –which to date has been our measure of quality— and this paradigm shift will totally change the roles of the players in this industry, including us, professional translators and interpreters.

I will not discuss here the “good or evil” nature of the recent automation developments in the translation industry, as there are fervent supporters of one and the other position. My view is that the 21st Century has arrived and many translators and interpreters seem to be at odds with that simple fact. So, in my opinion, fighting technology will not serve the cause of the industry. Unless we become part – and an active part – of the conversation, we will not have a say in its development.

We need to start participating in the technological revolution by voicing our stand (other than mere “opposition”, which will just delay the inevitable), and making POSITIVE contributions so that we make ourselves indispensable to and remain part of the industry…. otherwise, the geeks will try –and probably succeed in time — in replicating what we do (remember quality is no longer the driver for a large portion of the users of the outputs of our industry).

I believe the tech industry has been rather successful at creating algorithms and software and have been pretty good at the basics of language transfer. They have not figured out how to transfer content yet, but they are getting there. As I see it, the fact that most of the software still outputs low-quality products is just a matter of “infancy”. This child will “mature” faster than you think. Few people at the height of the industrial revolution believed that automation would cause the displacement of millions of manufacturing jobs. So we, standing at the beginning of the digital/mobile communication revolution, must learn from history and anticipate the changes that will most probably happen, and participate in them today, so that we may partake in their advancements and help drive and shape their future.

The paradigm shift comes about from the fact that the truths we held sacred in translation and interpreting may be on the verge of disappearing. Mainstream needs, the advent of mobile technologies, the incursion of the TECH industry in the world of translation and interpreting is changing the basic parameters of the entire translation and interpreting industry. The basic assumptions we hold dear and which are comfortably embedded in our way of doing things are starting to fade away. Winners of battles write the history of those battles. I certainly would like to be part of those who write the history of translation and interpreting in the 21st century.

Just as the debate in the translation industry centers around the use of TM and MT, the debate in the interpreting industry is around the use of phone-interpreting, video-interpreting, web-based-interpreting, and interpreting for mobile digital users, among others. I believe the discussion cannot continue being “if” but must shift to “how” we will participate (i.e., not if we should use these technologies, but how can we use them and what do we need as an industry for consistency). We have to be aware of the changes occurring in the industry if we want to remain relevant. Any change we wish for (or wish to avoid) is ours to fight for.

So, in this fast-pace world of the 21st Century, “instant” is the concept of choice in service provision, and based on this, the larger companies coming from the software and hardware industries, from the video and gaming industries, are penetrating the language industries. They are having initial success as the newcomer competitors of traditional translators and interpreters. Their final products are years away from the “Eloquence” by which we have measured our products during thousands of years but rather, they are now striving to achieve “Utility” — the usefulness of instant access that these automated services are providing.

The silver lining is that, although these providers of technical solutions are slowly but surely gaining wider margins of market share, in doing so they have expanded the actual market size to levels unimaginable just a few years ago. So, although they are taking more and more of the market as a percentage, their own presence has multiplied the marketplace several times in size (and will continue doing so). In this way, translators and interpreters are in higher demand than they have ever been in history and our services are being recognized by mainstream as “vital” to the functioning of this new multilingual and multicultural world.

The crumbling down of geographic barriers allows for the provision of services in ways we could never have anticipated. The downside: we are no longer an elite group of intellectuals or artists but are now part of a larger group of artisans. As always in history, there is room for those who wish to remain being artists and intellectuals, to continue rendering high-quality services to the few buyers who will continue to exist. The rest of us will now be a mainstream trade, maybe at the level of law or medicine (i.e., there is the Judge and there is the paralegal, there is the surgeon and there is the home health attendant…. and everything in between).

The future is here. There is no such thing as “it will not happen”. It is happening. Translators are being replaced by machine translation at an alarming speed. Those translators who fail to see the trend will be left without a job in a matter of a decade. Post-MT editing is strongly becoming the trend in the “normal” industry and now, with this latest concept –changing eloquence for utility– the trend will change faster than ever as machine translation becomes more and more common, easier to access and “acceptable” in terms of its output. What I am reading here is that the end-users of translation products are accepting a mediocre product provided it is cheap, fast (machine-translation produced) and relatively accurate (the last hurdle yet to be achieved by new technologies, but fast on the way to getting there).

Now then, Interpreting still may hold a couple of decades more of life “as we know it” because it is a bit more complex… or is it? I have lately seen text to voice produce some amazing results… yes, one language only, but once they figure out the “magic” element – and they will (the question is When) – then development will go ballistic….

So, it is predictable that in the future (which in many places is today), people will not care about construction of the sentences or grammar or inherent meaning of the source language, or even nuances. They will just want to get the “general idea” and that is all they want. Well, at least the larger portion of buyers of translation and interpreting services. Of course there will be many others out there that will still strive for quality. Moreover, for which quality becomes even MORE important than before (thankfully, the healthcare industry seems to be one of them…. the question is… until when? Market forces drive industries, whether we like it or not).

So, for me, the issue is, how are we, the professional interpreters and translators, helping to shape the industry we will be working in? Other than complaining, what are we doing? Other than opposing progress, what positive contributions are we presenting? What levels of “association with” the developers of the new world are we engaging? Where is our strength as part of the “knowledge” pool of services in the world? How can we harness that power?

As I see it, the extraordinary growth of machine translation resources is evidence of the exponential improvement in quality in the past decade. I do not use the term exponential lightly. Growth and improvements in our industry are being exponential. So, I believe that quality translation might be achieved in one or two decades with machine translation. Quality interpreting might take a little longer, but not too much.

Yes, I know this is blasphemy. But believe me, it is reality. Once upon a time, about 15 years ago I thought Translation Memories were garbage and would go nowhere. I thought this day, when TMs are almost a requirement for the job, would never
come. Well, it is here. So, let’s face reality. There are some robots in Japan that are already capable of basic interpreting. Yes, very basic. Just as TM was so basic 10 years ago.

The future of the translation industry is being taken over by the big software companies that are creating software capable of penetrating the “magic” of translation. Once they get there, it will be like any other industry of the 19th century. Replicate, replicate, replicate.

Therefore, here is my proposal: We, the original translators and interpreters, who understand and drive “Eloquence” and not just “Utility” – we – must become very active in designing the strategies of our own future. We have to unite to create international infrastructures that support the “Eloquence” and not just the “Utility” — but not fighting with the software giants, that is a lost cause, rather providing alternatives to improve their products. Common infrastructure and common protocols should be our mantra now as an industry. A dispersed group of individuals will not achieve much.

What is the profession going to look like in 20 years? We have to start answering that question from a perspective of the current reality (mobile millenials) and not from the perspective of what we would “ideally” believe “should” be. Should does not work any more. Could is here to stay. We need to wake up to our new reality as a profession and set out to design the future that could be for us in this new Global Village of the 21st Century.

First public beta version of the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek is launched

For all who are interested in German culture and science, the beta version of the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek (German digital library), the central German portal for culture and science was initiated on Nov. 28, 2012.  It provides Internet access to Germany’s cultural heritage.  Digital objects from all sectors and media (text, sound, images, moving images) will be offered via a simple search function.

Demand for translating, interpreting services is growing

Kansas City Star, The (MO) – Tuesday, September 28, 2010
Author: MARK DAVIS, The Kansas City Star

Translation and Interpreter service is increasing in demand
Translation and Interpreting services are increasing in demand

Try this but wait until you are alone; it could seem odd to onlookers.

Turn on the radio and find the news or a talk show.

Listen carefully to every word you hear, then repeat them out loud.

If you can keep up with the broadcast, you’ll have a sense of Isabelle Olesen’s job.

She’s a simultaneous interpreter, which means everything that she hears in English comes out in French, her native language.

French Conference Interpreter and Translator at Accent French Translation, Inc.
French Conference Interpreter and Translator at Accent French Translation, Inc.

Olesen, a Kansas City resident, doesn’t work at the United Nations. She interprets business seminars, sales meetings, training sessions and similar events.

It means sitting in a booth at the back of the room, broadcasting the French version of what’s happening in English. Her audience — those in the room who need a French interpretation of the presentation — wears headphones.

Language has become big business in the world of business. The recession has only slowed its growth.

And as sales-hungry businesses increasingly turn to foreign markets for new customers, their need for help with new languages and cultures will mean more business. President Barack Obama’s pledge to double U.S. exports in five years will further expand the need.

“The more combines that are being sold, the more cars that are being sold, the more electronics, computers and the like — all this drives demand for more information in what we call local language,” said Don DePalma, founder of Common Sense Advisory.

His firm estimated that companies, individuals and governments globally will spend $26 billion this year to change their words — spoken and written — into the native tongues of their target audiences.

The total does not include the work that companies rely on their own employees to do. For example, Cerner Corp. has 22 translators and interpreters on staff, including seven in Kansas City and others in Ireland, Germany and France.

Most of the industry’s work involves translation, the industry’s term for changing written material into another language. Interpretation involves spoken words.

Doris Ganser has been doing both in Kansas City for 35 years. Her company, Transimpex , earns two-thirds of its revenue from translation work and one-third from interpretation.

Doris Ganser from Transimpex
Doris Ganser from Transimpex

Most of the translation is for business clients. Her company’s name combines the words “translate,” “import” and “export.”

Translators can work directly with companies or through the advertising agencies or printing companies that the companies use. Translators also often find work through translation agencies, such as Transimpex , that serve as a project manager for the client and hire from the available pool of freelance language workers.

A translation service’s access to freelancers gives it the ability to work in any direction. For example, Exact Words is helping a French company translate material from its plant in Hungary into French and English, said Shenon Bone, president of the Olathe-based firm.

“There’s no limit to the language directions we can work with,” Bone said.

Sets of eyes

instruction-manualThe effort to convert a user manual, assembly instructions, contract or other document into a second language follows a path of checks and rechecks to ensure accuracy.

First, the preference is to find a translator whose native language is the same as the target language, what the final document will be in. That means the translator is familiar with slang and other informal usage, as well as cultural meanings and habits of those who’ll read what’s produced.

The same is true for interpretation of spoken words. For example, the English phrase “soap and water” is reversed in Spanish, as “water and soap.”

Ideally, the translator also has lived with the language and within the culture of the document’s original language to understand its subtler meanings and practices.

Most of the time, however, being fluently bilingual is not enough.

Translations of medical, legal, engineering and other documents require a technical knowledge of the subject. Technical accuracy can even become the overriding factor in choosing a translator.

Lenexa-based Icop Digital Inc. sells its mobile video equipment to law enforcement buyers overseas. It stopped using translation services, President Laura Owen said, because the few mistakes they made were too many. The equipment generates evidence used in court proceedings, allowing no room for any errors, Owen said.

Now the firm searches first for technical expertise and then for the language match.

For example, a Florida professor with whom the company works handles some of Icop’s translation work for markets in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. He was raised in the Middle East, so he meets the preference for being a native speaker of the target language.

Finally, Icop sends its translated materials to its dealers in the target markets as a final step.

Owen said the company wanted to be sure the translation was acceptable in all markets that would use that material. That means balancing formality and familiarity so that each market can easily understand the translation but that neither regards it as dipping into unacceptable slang or other language.

“The way Spanish is spoken in Mexico is 180 degrees from Spanish in Colombia,” she said.

Translation services routinely use editors in addition to translators on a project. The editor meets the same standards as the translator but provides a check on the words. Editor and translator, however, usually work independently of each other and deal directly with the service’s project manager.

Ganser said she was the third set of eyes at Transimpex .

“I sign off on everything,” she said. “I put a lot of hours in.”

Medical meaning

Understanding technical terms is critical with medical interpretations. It is why even bilingual doctors rely on interpreters.

Truman Medical Center employs 17 Spanish interpreters who have gone through rigorous screenings, said Shane Kovac at the Kansas City area hospital. They receive more than 180 hours of classroom and clinical training to become health care interpreters. Part of the reason is that medical terminology is difficult to express in a second language. Speaking the language isn’t enough.

“Look at us. We speak English, and we can’t pronounce all the medical terminology and explain things,” Kovac said.

Cecilia Abbey, head of interpretation and translation at the University of Kansas Hospital, said even knowing the right words didn’t mean the patient would understand them. Abbey has to be able to explain the words, too.

Sometimes she encounters a medical term new to her. She tells the patient that the doctor or nurse used a word she doesn’t understand and will ask for an explanation. Abbey then interprets that explanation.

Abbey said a few providers at KU Hospital could work without an interpreter but only after proving their mettle as interpreters. Their skills are tested the same way any other interpreter’s would be. They also shadow interpreters as part of the process.

Kansas City’s medical community is a big consumer of language services. KU Hospital handled 31,749 interpretations in the past year, an average of 87 a day. About 80 percent of that helped Spanish-speaking patients understand hospital staff and vice versa.

Most of that work is handled by three interpreters on staff, including Abbey, and a half dozen contract interpreters. One interpreter handles American sign language.

Truman Medical Center employs not only 17 Spanish interpreters but also two who interpret Arabic, two who interpret Somali, and one who does both.

Kovac said the mix reflected the patient language needs that the hospital runs into most frequently. Of 51,000 interpretations in 2009, he said, 10 percent were in Somali and 12 percent in Arabic.

But the array of language needs is much broader than either hospital’s staff can handle.

“We have had a request here for British sign language,” Abbey said.

Whenever interpreters can’t handle a patient’s spoken language needs, they’ll call an interpretation phone service. Both hospitals have specially adapted phones with two handsets, one for the patient and one for the medical staff, so both can hear and talk with the interpreter at the other end.

In the first half of September, Abbey said, she dealt with Russian, Arabic, Nepalese, Somali, Burmese, Vietnamese, Swahili, Hmong, Karen, Laotian, Italian, Mandarin, Chuukese, Korean, Kirundi, Portuguese and Cantonese interpreters for patients.

Personal needs

Although governments and businesses are the big users of translation and interpretation services, individuals may need them, too.

Bone, who owns Exact Words with her husband, said a child adopted from a foreign country might bring along school records and other papers that need to be translated for use in America. Marrying a foreign national also can trigger translation needs, she said.

The Mid-America Chapter of the American Translators Association has nine corporate members who are based in the Kansas City area. Two others are based in St. Louis. Its 118 individual members include several locally and others from Spain and elsewhere.

The national association also provides contact and detailed professional information about its members online at www.atanet .org. Users can search for providers based on their own ZIP codes. A recent check found 20 interpreters and 29 translators, many of them the same individuals, within 50 miles of downtown Kansas City.

For most work, however, distance isn’t an issue.

The local list included Olesen, who recently moved to this area from Chicago but normally travels to the conferences where she provides simultaneous interpretation.

By the way, that radio trick really is a way to test your skills at the difficult work Olesen does. Don’t feel bad if you fall behind the broadcast fairly quickly.

Even professionals have to work in tandem with another simultaneous interpreter.

“Typically an interpreter will not interpret more than a half-hour at a time,” Olesen said. “It’s extremely exhausting.”

Language services glossary

  • Translation: Changing written information from one language to another
  • Interpretation: Changing spoken messages from one language to another.
  • Simultaneous interpretation: Repeating a live presentation for listeners in a different language.
  • Consecutive interpretation: Assisting a running conversation between speakers who don’t share a common language.

Where to find translation and interpretation help

  • The American Translators Association at
  • Mid-America Chapter of the American Translators Association at

Plenty to sort out Interpreters helped patients and staff at the University of Kansas Hospital handle language barriers 31,749 times over the last 12 months. That’s an average of 87 patients a day. Most patients needed someone who understood Spanish, but interpreters handled many other languages, too.

Patient’s language Percent of total interpretations Spanish 80.0% American sign language 3.0% Russian 3.0% Vietnamese 2.6% Burmese 2.0% Somali 1.3% Mandarin 1.3% Arabic 1.0% Nepalese 0.8% Swahili 0.7%

Source: University of Kansas Hospital
Section: News
Page: D1
Provided By: The McClatchy Company
Index Terms: Cerner Corp.; Icop Digital Inc.; Truman Medical Center; KU Hospital; American Translators Association
Location(s): Kansas City; Ireland; Germany; France; Hungary; Florida; Egypt; Saudi Arabia; Middle East; Mexico; St. Louis; Spain; Chicago
Personal Name(s): Don DePalma; Doris Ganser; Laura Owen; Shane Kovac; Cecilia Abbey
Record Number: f8ca39ad0d7ecc0075eb996fe9c9e72b
Copyright (c) 2010 The Kansas City Star