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.

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Just change one letter…

Following were the winners of a New  York magazine contest in which contestants were to take a well‑known  expression in a foreign language, change a single letter, and provide a  definition for the new expression.

HARLEZ‑VOUS  FRANCAIS
Can you drive a French motorcycle?

EX POST FUCTO
Lost in the mail.

IDIOS AMIGOS
We’re wild and crazy  guys!

VENI, VIPI, VICI
I came,  I’m a very important person, I conquered.

COGITO  EGGO SUM
I think; therefore I waffle.

RIGOR MORRIS
The cat is dead.

RESPONDEZ S’IL VOUS PLAID
Honk if  you’re Scottish.

QUE SERA SERF
Life is feudal.

LE ROI EST MORT. JIVE LE  ROI
The king is dead. No kidding.

POSH MORTEM
Death styles of the rich  and famous.

PRO BOZO PUBLICO
Support your local clown (or politician, your call)

MONAGE A TROIS
I am three years old.

FELIX NAVIDAD
Our cat has a  boat.

HASTE CUISINE
Fast French  food.

VENI, VIDI, VICE
I came,  I saw, I partied.

QUIP PRO QUOA
Fast retort.

ALOHA OY
Love;  greetings; farewell; from such a pain you would never know.

MAZEL TON
Tons of luck

VISA LA FRANCE
Don’t leave your chateau  without it.

AMICUS PURIAE
Platonic friend.

L’ETAT, C’EST  MOO
I’m bossy around here.

 

ZITGEIST
The  clearasil doesn’t quite cover it up.

E PLURIBUS  ANUM
Out of any group, there’s always one asshole.

NOMO ARIGATO
No thanks to you.

VIVE LE DUFFERENCE
Long live  golfing.

Note: The next two violate the “one letter” rule, but they’re here anyway.

COGITO, ERGO SPUD
I think, therefore I Yam.

VENI, VIDI, VELCRO
I came, I saw, I  stuck around.

The Deseret Alphabet remembered

I have written about the Deseret Alphabet before, in a somewhat unusual context – today I came across a nostalgic article at the Deseret News commemorating this bit of linguistic whimsy. It appears to have begun development as early as 1847, which would make it closer to 170 years old.

lark is up

The poem above, from the Deseret Second Book (page 31), reads as follows:

The lark is up to meet the sun,
The bee is on the wing;
The ant its labor has begun,
The woods with music ring.

And shall I sleep while beams of morn
Their light and glory shed?
For thinking beings were not born
To waste their time in bed.

Clearly the authors of these primers were not above a bit of plagiarism; the first stanza of this poem is by William Holmes McGuffey (1800–73)

The original second stanza reads,

Shall birds, and bees, and ants, be wise,
While I my moments waste?
O let me with the morning rise,
And to my duty haste.

McGuffey’s Eclectic Primer, newly rev., lesson 81, p. 54 (1849).

The transliteration of the Deseret Alphabet:

Deseret Alphabet

In the course of a study of Deseret as part of my MA in linguistics, I discovered that it had an added and unplanned benefit; reading the journals of Brigham Young, some of which had been transcribed into Deseret Alphabet during the days of enthusiasm for the project, I discovered that these manuscripts served as a window into the dialect and pronunciation of the scribes of the day. Since people transcribed the English they way they pronounced it, one could not only determine that various volumes were transcribed by different people, but also have a fair idea of what they sounded like when they spoke.

𐐜 𐐄𐐢𐐔 𐐚𐐃𐐢𐐙 𐐐𐐈𐐞 𐐝𐐑𐐄𐐗𐐤.

An Essay for Mrs. Malaprop

“A malapropism (also called a malaprop or Dogberryism) is the use of an incorrect word in place of a word with a similar sound, resulting in a nonsensical, often humorous utterance… The word “malapropism” (and its earlier variant “malaprop”) comes from a character named “Mrs. Malaprop” in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 play The Rivals.” (Wikipedia)

Some examples of malapropisms are:

  • “illiterate him quite from your memory” (instead of “obliterate”)
  • “she’s as headstrong as an allegory” (instead of alligator).

A friend of mine recently posted this gem on Facebook; I had seen it before, but yesterday it rang a bell and I thought I’d just get it out here with its corrected version for future reference.

TRIGGER WARNING: If bad English offends you, look away now!

16683908_1280992588632773_450508375705471017_n.jpg

Ow! Ow! Ow!

In text format, the monstrosity reads:

Acyrologia is the incorrect use of words – particularly replacing one word with another word that sounds similar but has a diffident meaning – possibly fueled by a deep-seeded desire to sound more educated, witch results in an attempt to pawn off an incorrect word in place of a correct one. In academia, such flaunting of common social morays is seen as almost sorted and might result in the offender becoming a piranha, in the Monday world, after all is set and done, such a miner era will often leave normal people unphased. This is just as well sense people of that elk are unlikely to tow the line irregardless of any attempt to better educate them. A small percentage, however, suffer from severe acryrologiaphobia, and it is their upmost desire to see English used properly. Exposure may cause them symptoms that may resemble post-dramatic stress disorder and, eventually, descend into whole-scale outrage as they go star-craving mad. Eventually, they will succumb to the stings and arrows of such barrage, and suffer a complete metal breakdown , leaving them curled up in a feeble position.

The only way to stop the pain is to read the paragraph in its proper form:

Acyrologia is the incorrect use of words – particularly replacing one word with another word that sounds similar but has a different meaning – possibly fueled by a deep-seated desire to sound more educated, which results in an attempt to pawn off an incorrect word in place of a correct one. In academia, such flaunting of common social mores is seen as almost sordid and might result in the offender becoming a pariah; in the mundane world, after all is said and done, such a minor error will often leave normal people unfazed. This is just as well since people of that ilk are unlikely to toe the line, regardless of any attempt to better educate them. A small percentage, however, suffer from severe acryrologiaphobia, and it is their utmost desire to see English used properly. Exposure may cause them symptoms that may resemble post-traumatic stress disorder and, eventually, descend into full-scale outrage as they go stark-raving mad. Eventually, they will succumb to the slings and arrows of such barrage, and suffer a complete mental breakdown , leaving them curled up in a fetal position.

I’ve written before about “Word Crimes” – one of Weird Al’s best efforts ever, and that’s saying something because just about everything he does is delightful.

The Wold Floof has Broken.

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.

Fun with Linguistic Symposia

Academic symposia are great fun if you don’t have a reputation to defend. Listening to a presentation can be informative, but the true entertainment value arises when you watch numerous ivory-tower types begin to shred one another’s theories.

This bit of doggerel has been floating around in my humor files since the 70s (first pulled off a chain printer), and deserves to be appreciated by a new generation of linguists.

With no further ado, I present to you a collection of (allegedly) real interactions documented at early gatherings of linguists. First up:

A Taxonomy of Argument Schemata in Metatheoretic Discussions of Syntax
or
Name That Tune

I. Logical Argumentation

  1. If A = ¬A, then my position is true.
    Therefore, since A = ¬A, …
  2. A: ¬p.
    B: Since you agree that p, …
  3. P is absurd, therefore q.

II. Now you see it, now...

  1. Your argument supports my position.
  2. I’m aware of these putative counter-arguments, but…
  3. Let me rephrase that so that it agrees with my position…
  4. I think that is true, but I’m not sure it means anything.

III. The Reasoned Response

  1. I don’t see the argument.
  2. I don’t like your example.
  3. That’s not a problem in my theory.
  4. It’s my opinion, and it’s very true.
  5. I still say that…

IV. Papa Knows Best

  1. You say that, but you don’t believe it.
  2. You believe this, but you won’t say it.
  3. What you really believe is ____, and I agree with you.
  4. Our disagreement is merely semantic.
  5. Don’t be misled by the similarity between A and A. It’s merely a superficial identity.

V. Audience Participation: Let’s take a vote!

VI. The Pre-emption

  1. You’re right, but I said it first!
  2. What you say is wrong, and I said it first!

VII. The Putdown

  1. You can’t do it either
  2. That’s true, but uninteresting in the ____ sense!

VIII. Advancing to the rear

  1. I knew that analysis was wrong before I proposed it.
  2. Of course my analysis is wrong in detail – *all* analyses are wrong in detail.

IX. The Principled Argument

A: Shut up!
B: No, *you* shut up!
A: No, *YOU* shut up!


 

But wait, there’s more!

An Ancillary Guide To Understanding a Syntax Conference

 What the Speaker Says  What the Speaker Means
These examples are from Dyirbal, a widely discussed language, so I will assume familiarity. I don’t know the language well enough to answer questions, so don’t ask any.
When you stop to think about what you said, it doesn’t say anything.  I don’t understand it.
Some examples are vague; the others are simply wrong. I can’t quite put an argument together, but I still want to attack yours.
No one has ever studied “X”. I haven’t studied it, and neither have my friends.
I may have to retreat (there is a possibility), which is a wise thing to do when you are wrong. I assure you that you are a good guy if you say that you are wrong.
Nobody is going to be converted to another side at this conference. This is not a tournament in which someone will win the main prize. This is my excuse for not accepting anyone else’s argument, regardless of how valid it may be.
It is significant in an “interesting” way. I could possible squeeze an article or two out of it.

It’s been a long time since I’ve attended one of these conclaves, but I have no doubt that such things are still heard if you listen closely.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

“Indian Counting” – Een, teen, tether, fether, fip!

OK, caveat here: it’s may not be Native American counting, but that’s how it was presented to me by my math teacher (Mr. Sommerville, go ndéanai Dia trócaire air) in high school, around 1967. On the other hand, maybe it is.

The entire schema as he presented it was:

Een, teen, tether, fether, fip,
Satra, latra, co, tethery, dick,
Eendick, teendick, tetherdick, fetherdick, bump,
Eenbump, teenbump, tetherbump, fetherbump, didick!

Being testosterone-soaked boys, everyone laughed at hearing the word “dick” used as a number, and then life went on. I had heard it once, and remembered fragments of it forever.

Then came the Internet, where almost everything arcane has a tendency to show up if you wait long enough. I would search occasionally, and over time, bits and pieces appeared; now there is a full-blown Wikipedia article entitled “Yan tan tethera,” and the real story becomes quite complicated.

Over at Wovember Words, the matter is treated thusly (the whole page is worth a read):

The only reference we could find anywhere confirming connections between the counting words of Native Americans with those used in the North of England is in a musical written in 1957, called The Music Man. There is a scene in this play where the wife of the Mayor exclaims “I will now count to twenty in the Indian tongue! Een teen tuther featherfip!” Is this line in the play responsible for the idea that Native American peoples were using these old counting words with their Gaelic origins, or does it reflect that through the dark mechanisms of Imperialism the counting words were imposed onto Native American culture by the time the play was written?

Lincolnshire Shepherds counted:
Yan, tan, tethera, pethera, pinp,
Sethera, lethera, hovera, covera, di,
Yen-a-dik, tan-a-dick, tethera-dik, pethera-dik, bumfit,
Yan-a-bumfit, tan-a-bumfit, tuthera-bumfit, pethera-bumfit, figgit.

At the same time, around 1890, Native Americans were also using:
Een, teen, thuther, futher, fipps,
Suther, luther, uther, duther, dix,
Een-dix, teen-dix, tuther-dix, futher-dix, bumpit,
Anny-bumpit, tanny-bumpit, tuther-bumpit, futher-bumpit, giggit, Anny-gigit.

If you listen to the soundtrack of the movie version of “The Music Man” carefully, there’s a bit more:

Eulalie begins: Een teen tuther feather fip!
The chorus chants: Sakey, Lakey, Corey Ippy Gip (This may not be 100% accurate as these words do not appear in the screenplay)
Eulalie continues: Eendik Teendik Tetherdik Fethertik … (she is interrupted by a firecracker)

So we can see that it’s entirely possible that these counters, very similar to the Brythonic counting systems – too close to be coincidental – may have been transmitted very early by some oral channel to Native Americans, and that by folklore tradition a knowledge of these counters worked their way down cultural pathways to be included in the play and movie.

Language and its history are curious things, with enough puzzles and questions for lifetimes of study – even the whimsical bits.

The Old Wolf has spoken.