Nine Helpful Hints For Managing Translation Services

George Leposky

Once upon a time I edited a magazine that published language editions in English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Turkish. I don’t know all of those languages, but I could manage the translation process.

I located translators and gave them assignments, then compared their renditions to the original English text, word by word and phrase by phrase, in an effort to detect gross errors and omissions. It was an arduous task.

Because I studied French in college, the French translator bore the brunt of my scrutiny. Fortunately, he was a tolerant soul. Instead of translation lapses, most of the questions I raised reflected my tenuous grasp of French idiom.

A prime example was his translation of the tagline for a marketing campaign, created in English as “The Vacation Experience.” I received literal translations from all of the other translators, but the French translator gave me a convoluted circumlocution about people having enjoyable things happen to them while they are on vacation. I telephoned him to ask why.

Experience in French does not mean the same thing as experience in English,” he patiently explained. “In French it’s a monumental, life-changing event. If you translate ‘The Vacation Experience’ literally, French readers might think that it refers to someone being sexually initiated while on vacation.”

Regional Differences

Differences in regional idiom within a language also can be daunting. A translator writing in British English for an American audience, or vice versa, could create a bewildering document. For instance, many commuters use the tube (subway). A motorcar (automobile) has a bonnet (hood) and a boot (trunk) and runs on petrol (gasoline).

On one occasion I wrote to a colleague in England that an article he had submitted to me was “really quite good.” I meant it as a compliment.

“Only quite?” he replied.

That’s how I learned that Americans use “quite” to amplify whatever quality they’re describing, while the British use it to diminish – literally to damn something with faint praise. Translations into English must take into account such distinctions and nuances.

Likewise, significant differences exist between French in France and in Quebec, Portuguese in Portugal and in Brazil, and Spanish in Spain and in Latin America, where each individual nation has at least one distinctive vernacular.

In Latin American Spanish, the preferred term to describe a member of an organization or group is socio. Some might be inclined to use miembro, which primary meaning is the male genital organ. My colleagues in Mexico alerted me to this. About half of the Spanish translators with whom I worked weren’t aware of it until I told them.

Getting Translations Right

If your responsibilities include managing translation services, here are nine hints to help you ensure that the materials being translated meet your requirements for content, tone, and idiom for their reading audience:

1. Ask for credentials and references from any translation bureau or individual translator you are considering, and check them.

2. If possible, opt for a translation bureau that will assign your project to a qualified translator and have a supervisor proofread the translation before you receive it.

3. If you decide instead to work with an individual translator who doesn’t have a second pair of eyes available to do proofreading, have someone in your own organization who is fluent in the target language proofread the translation before you accept it.

4. If possible, secure the services of a translator who is a native speaker of the target language. Doing this gives you a better chance of capturing the nuances of the target idiom.

5. Don’t insist that you must work with a translator in your own local area. Geographic proximity may give you comfort, but it’s irrelevant thanks to today’s computers and telecommunications technology. Especially if you’re translating into a language that doesn’t have a broad worldwide presence, such as Czech, Malay, or Lithuanian, using a translator physically located in the target-language country or region may be advisable. A Web search should help you locate suitable translators.

6. Discuss with the translator any scientific or technical terminology or industry jargon for which specific words and phrases exist. Otherwise, you may get a literal translation of those terms that would not be appropriate to the purpose of the translation.

7. When securing translations into languages with non-English characters and/or orthographic marks (accents, tildes, umlauts, etc.), determine in advance that you and the translator have compatible file formats and that your e-mail facility and computer system can accept, display, print, and output the symbols that the translator will include in the text. If not, arrange an alternate pathway for the material to move from the translator’s computer to its final destination (a printed piece, a Web site, or whatever).

8. In a printed document where length may be a consideration, remember that many languages require more room than English does. If you’re printing a text in English and Spanish side by side, expect the Spanish text to run about 30 percent longer than the English version. Anticipate that you’ll need to fill in the difference with graphic elements such as photos, charts, or pull quotes unless you have a loose layout where the additional white space won’t seem incongruous.

9. Give the translator enough time to do a good job. Tight deadlines invite errors.

George Leposky is editor of Ampersand Communications, a news-features syndicate based in Miami, Florida.

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