Log in

No account? Create an account

Look Back | Look Forward

Musings on the Translation Industry

A plaint from a translator friend of mine about a small (about 10,000) word job upon which he was required to spend an inordinate amount of terminological research got my brain chugging early this morning. Since I was not sleeping anyway, I thought I'd put down a thought or two, speaking as one who has been both inside and outside the translation industry, both directly and indirectly.

It used to be that translators basically had a two-tier pricing strategy. X cents per word, or page, or cartella (1500 keystrokes), or some such measurement, if working for a direct client, and a percentage of that if working for an agency (naturally agencies wanted their cut for managing the process.) The base rate would fluctuate a bit depending on the complexity and/or technical nature of the project. If you were reviewing or proofreading the work of another person, the pay was commensurately less.

I can fairly say that downward pressure on prices caused by both outsourcing to third-world countries, translation automation tools and translation agency greed have pretty much boinked translators in the butt. I stepped back from freelance translating when agencies started offering me fractions of pennies for various repetition percentages.

You see, there are tools out there that will essentially run text through a grinder and do most of the work of looking up words for you. Huge translation memories (and that's how Google Translate works, by the way - matching phrases against huge corpora of previously-translated text and determining the most likely match) will give you exact matches or 90% matches or whatnot, each highlighted in various colors, and all the translator has to do is "clean up" the output. Since it's less work, say the agencies, we'll pay you less.

But there's a rub.

There's an old homily, much-repeated, with various historical personae as the protagonist, about a navy shipyard which was having some kind of difficulty. The stumped brass finally asked an old, retired 30-year chief if he could help identify the problem area. The man walked up to a section of machinery and made a small X in chalk on one of the boilers. The brass were pleased and told him to send an invoice.

The bill arrived, for $10,000. Leadership squawked, and asked why so much money. The answer was that the chalk mark was $1, and the remainder was for knowing where to put it.

I don't care how much "help" SDL Trados - or any similar tool - offers while I do the work - I still have to read, think about and verify the accuracy of each word I translate into a polished sentence. It may be strange to hear from one who worked a large part of his life helping to develop just such tools, but by the tufted ears of Mogg's maiden aunt, translation is an art, not a mechanical process. My prices per word are fixed - so much per translated word for general jobs, so much for technical jobs, and an acceptable percentage less for agencies. And I refuse to compromise - so I don't work in that industry any longer, unless I happen to find the odd job for a direct client who doesn't mind paying me fair rates for what I do.

Naturally, there is a world of professional translators out there who by dint of patience, changing with the times, finding niche markets, adapting to the tools, and vigorous self-promotion manage to get around these challenges and make a living. My hat is off to them - I count many of them among my friends. Some will say it's simply a matter of unavoidable evolution, but I say that greed has the industry, and that translators are paying the price.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

Support Wind Power



Sep. 7th, 2010 01:11 pm (UTC)
That makes me feel better about not being a pro translator, but I do fear that international communication will suffer as a result of too much trust in machinery.

Guillermo del Toro ordered a complete overhaul of the English subtitles of Pan's Labyrinth. Guess he understands that it's not a mechanical process.
Sep. 7th, 2010 02:13 pm (UTC)
Guillermo del Toro ordered a complete overhaul of the English subtitles of Pan's Labyrinth. Guess he understands that it's not a mechanical process.

Another words I saw it with bad subtitles and I should see it again when they are fixed?
Sep. 7th, 2010 04:24 pm (UTC)
Google translation is neat, but you have to be wary. It once happened to me that the meaning of a sentence was inverted. Oops.
Sep. 7th, 2010 05:58 pm (UTC)
Wary indeed. Sometimes the translations are downright wrong. If I'm going into a language I don't speak, I always reverse-translate it, and then run the translation itself through basic Google to see if there are any hits for that phrase.
Sep. 7th, 2010 04:32 pm (UTC)
My postillion has been struck by lightning and my codpiece is full of eels
Sep. 7th, 2010 05:58 pm (UTC)
With a melon?


The Old Wolf

Latest Month

March 2018


Powered by LiveJournal.com